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False Summits and Forward Bends

The view from one of Noonmark's false summits.

The view from one of Noonmark‘s false summits.

Some of our favorite mountains in the Adirondacks High Peaks region, like Baxter, Rooster Comb and Noonmark, tease us with false summits. They appear when we’ve been walking for what seems like forever, drawing us hopefully on with glimpses of blue sky through thinning trees. There’s relief, satisfaction and, often, a beautiful view, all ending abruptly when one of us notices the trail marker beckoning us back into the trees to continue up the trail.

I thought of false summits while leading a yoga class through a series of forward bends. We were working on moving to the edge of the stretch, lengthening our spines when we inhaled, releasing further forward with our exhales. The edge is uncomfortable and, like a false summit, makes you think you’ve gone as far as you can. Unless you give yourself time and muster up the fortitude to continue on, you’ll never know what the view looks like from the top.

For the false summits of our forward bends, we can thank musculotendinous sensory receptors called Golgi tendon organs (GTOs). Through their reflexive actions, the GTOs help to regulate muscle stiffness. Low-force, long-duration static stretching, felt in the hamstrings during Paschimottanasana, brings on a temporary increase in tension as the muscles lengthen, the first “edge” we discover. Don’t give up there because, after seven to 10 seconds of holding and breathing, your GTOs activate and the muscle tension temporarily releases. Another exhale and you’ll find yourself deeper into the bend.

The muscle quickly reestablishes its stretch threshold and a new edge is reached. You may work through a few before you reach your true edge, provided you can stay patient, focused and breathing smoothly throughout the process. After practicing consistently for a period of weeks or months, the muscles will lengthen more or less permanently, so you’ll be able to go further forward before reaching the first edge. As a result, the true summit of your yoga pose keeps getting further away.

The true summits of the Adirondack mountains keep getting further away, too. The Adirondack mountains are still growing, at a rate of about one millimeter per year. Some days, when it seems like we’ve been walking forever, I’m sure the mountain has gone through a recent growth spurt. Climbing these mountains requires patience, focus and lots of breath.

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Seeking Eagles

Photo of a Bald Eagle taken at the Toledo Zoo.

Photo of a Bald Eagle taken at the Toledo Zoo. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Taped to the wall behind the yoga studio’s reception desk is a snapshot of a bald eagle, captured by one of our yoga teacher training graduates. Bald eagles are native to the Adirondacks, although they had to be reintroduced in the 1980s after DDT use in the 1960s all but wiped them out. Now they are spotted throughout the Adirondack Park, but, unfortunately, never by me.

I enjoy practicing and teaching Garudasana, known in English as eagle pose. In deference to the presence of America’s bird, it seems fitting to wrap arms and legs into the look of a perched eagle at our Adirondack yoga studio. Exclusive to North America, the bald eagle could not have been the intended reference in the Sanskrit name. There are Indian spotted eagles and short-toed eagles, but it is generally agreed that the name honors Vishnu’s mount Garuda, a massive half-man, half-eagle known for devouring serpents.

Eagle Pose at Split Rock in New Russia, NY

Eagle Pose at Split Rock in New Russia, NY

Here in the Adirondack mountains, surrounded by so much of the natural world including the elusive, at least to me, bald eagle, I can’t help but bring the spirit of that beautiful bird into my practice of eagle pose, despite its Indian origins. As a shamanic totem, the eagle represents access to higher planes of consciousness. Borrowing the eagle’s strong wings and courage, you are free to fly to great spiritual heights.

Being birds, the eagle is associated with air, but they have sturdy legs to walk on the earth and hunt over water, and thus are grounded while seeking spirit and also carry the cleansing energy of water. This is very balanced energy, fitting the balance of eagle pose. Whether on my mat or on a rock, I embrace Adirondack bald eagle energy in Garudasana. Perhaps, after enough practice, I’ll finally get to see one.

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