Before you close this tab, this isn’t a post about babies or specifically about childbirth. Contractions get a bad rep. We view them as painful, something to be dreaded, and if you’ve ever been in labour, seen someone in labour, or frankly even thought about the process of getting a baby out of your body, you probably cringe at the word “contractions”.
One of my teachers, the wonderful Naomi Absalom, talked to a mentorship group I was part of earlier this year about contraction before expansion, especially in the context of sometimes there being a shedding, a losing before we gain. In the context of a room full of yoga teachers, we talked about being authentic in our teaching, and that not everyone will be drawn to you - there would be contraction, before expansion, you might lose students before you find your tribe, and that process is important and necessary.
It has had me thinking for months, and hugely influences my teaching and yoga practice, as well as my outlook.
Aren’t we always in both states? Contracting and expanding at once? Just as anatomically, as one muscle lengthens (the expansion), another is contracting, so we are in life in greater or lesser degrees of each. When we go through pain, there’s an emotional as well as physical contraction, while we are simultaneously learning from the experience. That is growth, expansion. In anatomical terms, the muscle that contracts to allow another to expand is called the Antagonist muscle (think biceps contracting and bulging as you bend the elbow, while the triceps muscle underneath lengthens and expands) - perhaps there’s a clue in the name.
a person who actively opposes or is hostile to someone or something; an adversary.
a substance which interferes with or inhibits the physiological action of another.
a muscle whose action counteracts that of another specified muscle. (glad the dictionary definition agreed with me!)
Thinking about the word “Antagonist” in relation to contraction and expansion, led me to thinking that situations, thoughts, people, even yoga postures, that bring discomfort, that itch, are instigators of the contraction, the drawing in and gathering of force, to make us expand somewhere else - whether physically, emotionally, mentally or spiritually.
When we fear, resist or fight contraction, we create tension, we inhibit our potential for expansion, for growth. We can’t see beyond the contraction to what lies after it.
I am not advocating enduring or seeking out pain. Definitely not. There is a difference between the discomfort that comes with transformation, versus sharp shooting pain that is destructive. In discomfort we can make compromises, adjustments, steer our way through a stormy period. Aggressive pain that destroys a part of us is different. When I teach, I often say that sharp shooting pain in yoga poses, jobs or relationships mean it’s time to get out. Discomfort, we can breathe through.
Even the pain of labour is one we can recognise as not destructive pain. The pain of running a marathon. The focus of completing a huge project. Muscles contracting, the mind and spirit drawing up every vestige of courage and determination and strength to get through the experience. The greatest contractions in our lives lead to the greatest possibilities - just like a labour to produce life. Something transformative. The more we resist, the longer we draw out the discomfort until we have no choice but to surrender. We need to surrender and breathe through those moments, recognising them as a process is drawing forth what we need, that will ultimately result in something that will expand us in a myriad of ways.
And perhaps there is a point where we no longer have the pain or discomfort to come to growth? I don’t know. As a flower blossoms, there may not be a physical contraction to instigate the unfurling of petals (biologists, help me out?!), or the bearing of fruit on a tree, but there is an energetic contraction, a drawing in of all that is needed for survival, for growth. There is an impetus for life, for living, not existing, and this is where I can no longer see a contraction as something negative.
Contraction and expansion.
We need to breathe into the former. Draw in strength, energy, and then exhale to allow expansion. Let go of what has gone before, while appreciating that it has made us stronger. Ever a part of us.