Pop Yoga: When joints pop
by Russell Case
Sally and I went to Tokyo to celebrate our anniversary. We knew Ken Harukama and he’d very generously asked us to teach at his shala with him. It was a pretty exciting gig. We walked, in handed him Taiwanese Oolong tea, and paid our respects. (His father is from Taiwan) He announced us to the class as his peers. The students (fifty of them) all clapped and we bowed. Then we proceeded to torture them.
We could feel how the harder we pushed the more they appreciated us. That’s a dangerous place to practice from. You can get hurt pretty quickly. We had to make sure not to get caught up in it. Though one student I did tick-tocks with maybe nine or ten times. He was totally crushed with exhaustion. I finished and he got on his knees and prayed “Will you be here next week?!?” I assured him we wouldn’t.
That must be Japanese style. I was watching a video of Sumo practice on Youtube.
One guy was trying to do the splits. The assistant teacher was pushing him down. He bobbed a few times and then came back up. The head teacher came over and hit him with his bamboo pole. He was supposed to lie his chest down and then the other students would sit on his back. He wasn’t having it. More students got involved. All his limbs were held down. The assistant started slapping his head repeatedly. There is an audible crack in the video. I figure it must be his femur head ‘cavitating’. That’s actually helpful, as I’ll explain in a minute.
My first year in Mysore, India Sri K. Pattabhi Jois was still very active. He still brought my hands to my ankles in Kapotasana, and one day he stood on me in Baddha Konasana. He slapped my head and yelled at me “Relax!” My right hip popped enthusiastically and my legs let go. Guruji giggled. From that moment on my hips relaxed more and more every day. Soon I was pulling my feet up into my chest in Kandapidasana.
This sort of thing can go badly too. B.K.S Iyengar talks about doing a demo for his teacher in the book “First there is a Mountain” by Elizabeth Kadetsky. Krishnamacharya had invited Paramahamsa Yogananda to visit. Krishnaji told Iyengar to do the splits for him. He wasn’t really doing it well at this point and when he went down his hamstring split from his pelvis and the femur dislocated. There is was a huge cracking sound. Krishnamacharya said to do the other side, “you do.”
I did the same thing in Korea ten years ago. It took two years before I could sit in a car and six before I could practice without pain. It still hurts if I demo cold. It’s important to listen to these sounds in your body. You must distinguish between good and bad sound.
What is that sound that we crave? I asked an osteopathic chiropractor in Brighton, England and he informed me of what it was. When joints pop the golgi reflex in the nerve ball sends a message to the surrounding muscle tissue. The muscle ball is rebooted like a computer. And often when a muscle is in spasm this will start to release congested tissue.
Well... what about the joint? We understand what the sound does, but what is it itself? Katherine Neer explains:
‘Joints are the meeting points of two separate bones, held together and in place by connective tissues and ligaments. All of the joints in our bodies are surrounded by synovial fluid, a thick, clear liquid. When joints pop, you're causing the bones of the joint to pull apart. As they do, the connective tissue capsule that surrounds the joint is stretched. By stretching this capsule, you increase its volume.
With an increase in volume comes a decrease in pressure. So as the pressure of the synovial fluid drops, gases dissolved in the fluid become less soluble, forming bubbles through a process called cavitation. When the joint is stretched far enough, the pressure in the capsule drops so low that these bubbles burst, producing the pop that we associate with knuckle cracking.’
Cavitation is used here as a word because scientists dislike the word bubbles. They prefer cavity. An empty space is created like a cave. The cave is created by vacuum. Inside the cave are gases. Gas is a collection of elements that when arriving to the melting point become lighter than air. If frozen, any gas can become a solid form. So it is heat we are talking about here. The little cave bursts with energy.
And then it rests again. The sound continues. The cilia fibres wave in your ears with a pattern that your brain understands immediately. It is a pop. And what is that? What is sound?
Sound itself is energy. It is a vibration of air molecules. Molecules themselves are tightly bound packets of energy. So sound is an energy transfer. Judeo Christian mythology claims that sound creates form. God says let light be created and it is the sound of God’s word that creates light. Often in religious and philosophical inquiry we see parallels to science. Perhaps if we take all religious writing and substitute the word God with “we don’t know yet” or “energy” then we have a very close parallel indeed.
Sound is our access to consciousness. Our teacher will often start a yoga class with Aum. In Sanskrit Aum is the generative vowel that creates the universe. (Aum is the origin of the word amen) So too in our yoga practice Aum is the key to awakening our consciousness. I mean that in a very practical sense. Be conscious of your body! Listen to the little cavities in your inner workings.
Reference: Neer, Katherine. "What makes your knuckles pop?." 03 August 2000. HowStuffWorks.com.
Russell Case learned Ashtanga Yoga from Suddha Wiexler while attending the School of the Art Institute of Chicago in 1993. While finishing his graduate degree in painting in NY he met Guy Donahaye. Due to the idiosyncrasies of that relationship he married an English woman and was there after forced to work in Asia as an economic migrant. He continues to write on the Jewish history of yoga today in Taipei, Taiwan.