Monday, April 6, 2009

Form Follows Function

The phrase Form Follows Function is often considered the rallying cry of modernism, and over the past century, has been pivotal in shaping our man-made world. The utensils we use, the buildings we inhabit, and the cars we drive are often based on this design paradigm.

This design paradigm isn’t entirely a man-made phenomenon. When we study the natural world, we’re continually reminded that form follows function. While the bright colors of a particular bird or the puzzling bumps found on the femur may appear to be randomly selected, deeper study often reveals how these traits are integrally related to the whole. Generally the question is not if a particular trait has function, but in determining how many functions are served by that trait.

As a long-time student of anatomy and physiology, I’m continually amazed at the level of genius contained within our physical form. What may at first appear accidental or random is often found to contain a remarkable depth of function. Yoga has served as my laboratory for these studies, and consistently yields a deeper level of appreciation for the intelligence contained within the tissues.

The ancient Yogis were exceedingly observant, and found that yoga-asana is circular in nature. By placing the body in a specific position, there are observable changes internally. When internal shifts happen, this alters the outer alignment. It’s a wondrous inner dance that we learn through a dedicated practice of yoga. By learning this dance, we tap into a reservoir of health and vitality that propels us joyously through our days. This wisdom has survived for thousands of years, though I sometimes wonder if it will survive our current generation? While the ancient Yogis found that form follows function, modern Yogis have relentlessly pursued the path of function following form.

Over the past 30 years or so, yoga practitioners have become increasingly interested in the form of the postures. The precise location of muscles, joints and bones has become the locus of the practice, while discussions of the inner functioning has been strangely absent.

In the realm of the physical, the power of yoga postures is about toning and balancing the organ systems. The benefits in the muscles, bones and joints are desirable, though secondary. Rather than fussing over the minutiae of alignment, the advanced yoga student may be better served learning their organ systems. Is a given posture toning the liver, or is it straining the kidneys? Is a particular pranayama technique cooling to the lungs, or drying them out? While this is beyond the reach of a beginning student, it’s well within the reach of an advanced student. Is your teacher showing you this?

In yoga, form follows function in the realm of body, mind and spirit. To impose the postures on the body and expect a given result is often a disappointing path. To move the body into the postures, then adjust the alignment on the basis of inner observation - this is leading the practitioner closer to the heart of Yoga.

It is the pervading law of all things organic and inorganic,
Of all things physical and metaphysical,
Of all things human and all things super-human,
Of all true manifestations of the head,
Of the heart, of the soul,
That the life is recognizable in its expression,
That form ever follows function. This is the law.
-Louis Sullivan, The Tall Office Building Artistically Considered, 1896

Best Wishes on your ongoing practice, and may spring bring bird songs and blooming flowers to your locale!


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