Yoga and the Mereological Fallacy

5th May 2016 | 17 Comments
yoga and the mereological fallacy

Mereology: the study of the relationship of parts to the whole.

Stomachs don’t eat lunch, mouths don’t talk and eyes don’t see… We would never use this kind of language because we know it doesn’t really make sense. However it is not unusual in an anatomy class to be told that a bicep flexes the elbow. These parts play a role in the functions described but they can’t elicit these actions on their own. This kind of thinking falls prey to the ‘mereological fallacy’, yet it runs deep in our study of anatomy – and nowhere is it more evident than in yoga anatomy books; often beautifully illustrated books showing exactly which muscle does what action, on a perfectly clean skeleton. Just in case there is any doubt, the origin, insertion, innervation and function are usually described on the same page.

There is something really appealing about these books and a satisfying and logical simplicity about this structuralist way of thinking. A way of thinking that, with a bit of thought, can put together a fully working human being by describing the contraction of the various muscles acting over levers, pulleys and fulcrums to facilitate balanced movement over joints. It derives from the study of cadavers; a body is dissected and a muscle is found, with its beginning and end noted. On careful inspection, the path of the nerves running from the muscle can be traced through the spinal cord and up to the sensory motor cortex of the brain. An obvious conclusion can be drawn: when the motor neuron fires, a signal will travel down the nerve and cause the muscle to contract and carry out its function.

However, like many things in life, it turns out that things aren’t that simple. The body is not like a machine, an assembly of various parts put together to create a greater whole, and we must stop thinking of ourselves like that. We are organisms that evolved in complex ecosystems, with layers of interdependence built on other layers of interdependence. There are no units that act alone or have any sense of autonomy – there are only relationships.

Through evolutionary pressure we all share – as human beings – a bipedal stance, uniquely shaped spines, opposable thumbs and highly evolved brains. But how we move and act  will depend largely on our own unique history and on the environment we engage with on a daily basis. Whether we open fully to the world or shrink back from it will be dictated by the kind of world we have met, and the support, or lack of it, we feel we have had. These are responses of the organism as a whole, not of individual muscles – and these responses are laid down early in life. We might learn as children to hunch our shoulders, clench our buttocks or tighten our jaw in the face of difficult feelings, for instance. The muscles are simply at the end of a long chain of events that started way back in our personal history, so it is folly to blame a muscle when it tightens or exhibits pain. The muscle is the messenger not the progenitor.

If a child learned to brace her shoulders to help her survive the ritual humiliation she may have faced at primary school, it would be little wonder if she suffers neck and shoulder pain later in life if similar circumstances arise. Patterns of distress are always expressed through tightening and holding – the visible human responses of anxiety or fear.  This will influence the way in which we walk, bend, sit or move in any activity because these movements will have been learned and practised in the context of the individual life lived. These things cannot be changed at the local level – they have to be thought of holistically. We need to zoom out, not zoom in.

What we may reasonably ask when an intention is carried out is, is the movement being carried out efficiently? Is the body compliant to the current wishes of the person? If the whole body does not fully comply, if some part of us does not participate in an action, we can wonder why doesn’t it? We can speculate that some part of that person’s story necessitated a holding or stiffening for some reason… until it has become embodied to the point where it is no longer noticed, where the stiffness has become them. An example might be when someone reverses a car and strains their neck trying to see out of the back window because they have ‘forgotten’ how to turn the trunk and the neck has compensated by overworking. Again we cannot resolve this at the local level by stretching or forcing that ‘forgotten’ area to move – it won’t change the way we hold ourselves. Think about it: if changing structure at a local level could influence movement at a global level, all those yogis with very long hamstrings and hip flexors would walk with enormous stride… and they don’t. They don’t because walking, like all other movement, is a neurological program set at sub-cortical levels.

If a part of a person doesn’t move so well, if it doesn’t participate in global movements, it’s likely that the holding and tightening patterns of that individual have caused the area to be ‘forgotten’ by the nervous system – a process that Somatics author Thomas Hanna describes as ‘sensory motor amnesia’. Our job as yoga teachers is to restore that part of the movement pattern. We need to find asanas that ask that part of the body to participate in the action or actions that most appeal to it. It is important that the movements make sense to the individual as ‘whole movement patterns’ rather than targeted exercises for a muscle or a joint. A common example is in forward bending, when the lower spine remains flat and seems unable to participate in flexion. What might be helpful here is to do another asana or movement that speaks more directly to the lower back, putting the feet up the wall and using the legs to draw the pelvis off the floor, for instance. Here the lower back will be encouraged to round out as part of the movement.

So, if in your classes you find yourself doing asanas to stretch a hamstring, strengthen the ‘core’ or open the hips… think again and ask yourself, ‘Is this really helpful?’

17 thoughts on “Yoga and the Mereological Fallacy

  1. Psycho somatic paralysis? Or a healthy defensive reflex, a primal “no”, from the defensive subconscious. What a wonder that pranayama (breath control), vinyasa (indirect choreography) and abhyasa (high volume repitition) give us the simple tools to gradually separate the layers of reflex to understand what is truly involuntary and what is not. If the body refuses to allow a range of motion, it has a good reason! Or does it? That is the question.

  2. I’m not so sure teachers need to find asanas as solutions to movement constraint. We do need teachers who place dogma aside. So much of what creates a deer caught in the headlights is the language of authority, the musts, the tone. Especially when it comes to the insistence that there is a specific yoga philosophy that needs to be believed ~~for entrance to liberation. I know my body stiffens to be told what is true. How about the notion that a person must sit to meditate, or that meditation is a ‘must’. — Sometimes I feel that making sound helps people more than asana or sitting meditation. Making sound while walking in nature is fun and rewarding ‘practice’.

  3. Thank you for writing this eloquent piece. This topic is one that I have been examining both in my own life and with my students for the past couple of years. The idea of portioning of the body in terms of anatomy and the body/mind in our world today Is a fairly new concept (See Body of Knowledge by Robert Marrone), but has so permeated our world that it’s difficult to understand the world and our lived experience in any other way. That is not to say that the precise and scientific language of the body is unhelpful. It can certainly help us comprehend aspects of our experience, but your piece here is a lovely contribution to helping us find language and understanding to foster an awareness of the wholeness, complexity, and elegance of embodied experience.

  4. Thanks for stating the obvious. I doubt there is a yoga teacher or student anywhere who doesn’t understand that the body works as a whole organism. However, understanding the components of that organism helps me as a teacher.
    So, in my classes, I asked: “Is it really helpful to stretch a hamstring, strengthen the core, open the hips?”
    My answer was, “ABSOLUTELY. It is very helpful to do all of those things.” When I do those things, with an understanding of how the body works and with intelligence, I and my students get the benefits of the yoga. Predictably.
    You don’t really offer anything of value here.

    1. What is it that to think is helpful about stretching a hamstring, opening a hip or strengthening the ‘core’?

  5. Seriously? Stretching the hamstrings improves range of motion of the hips. Improved range of motion is important for joint physiology. Stretching the hamstrings also benefits the lumbar spine. Opening the hips improves range of motion of the hip joint. This helps circulation of nutrients within the joint. Well proven to help with arthritis. Strengthening the core is well proven to protect against low back pain.
    Your position seems to be that, for example, because someone tightened their gluteals when they were young there is no benefit is stretching them. I find that ludicrous. Do you realize that the mind and body are connected? Posture, which you can consciously alter and improve, also improves your mental state. Stretching is also well documented to reduce stress (by reducing cortisol).
    Most of us can figure out that certain mental states may also affect the body. Many of us, can figure out that working with the body affects the mental state.
    What I can’t figure out about a blog post like yours is:
    1) why people think it or you are “brilliant” and;
    2) what your solution is. What are you suggesting people do? That’s not a rhetorical question. What is your suggestion that would confer the proven benefits that I mentioned above?
    It’s fairly clear who you are taking potshots at with comments about books describing anatomy and yoga. Perhaps you’re envious of their success, who knows? Yet you offer no alternative and make blanket statements about the obvious. Do you even practice yoga? Seriously.

    1. I understand where you’re coming from Joe, and some years ago might have taken your stance. However I no longer see much value in that position. Partly because of a change in my own practice and partly because the evidence doesn’t support what you say. There is no serious research that suggests a correlation between lengthened hamstrings and a healthy lower back, stretching can either raise or lower cortisol levels depending on how hard you stretch, and what the body is doing as a whole. Stretching muscles or strengthening them has no effect on how the body is organised, how we sense ourselves, how we learn to lose tension on the other hand does. because the body is organised at a neurological level not a structural one.
      I wrote this article not because of envy but because I wanted to inform.. you say what I have said is obvious, if it is that obvious it should change perception and the way we practice and teach… not to treat the body in parts but to teach it as a whole.

  6. Would it be appropriate to cite Alexander Brown here, from whom some of this comes?

  7. The reality is that the body does function as a whole, whether you want it to or not. In fact, there are a number of serious peer reviewed articles showing that stretching the hamstrings does benefit the lower back. Can you find one that contradicts that? Please cite. You say nothing to refute the benefits of maintaining good range of motion. Many high level studies support the benefit of stretching on cortisol levels.

    You say, “I wrote this article not because of envy but because I wanted to inform.. you say what I have said is obvious, if it is that obvious it should change perception and the way we practice and teach… not to treat the body in parts but to teach it as a whole.”

    Those of us working with the body DO treat the body as a whole. We know that the body works as a whole. That is stating the obvious. The fact that some asanas stretch certain muscle groups does not change that. When you walk, for example, your body works as a “whole”. However, during various phases of the walk cycle, you stretch and contract different muscles. And that’s a good thing. When you eat, your stomach is definitely involved in the process, as are many other structures and processes.

    You say, “Stretching muscles or strengthening them has no effect on how the body is organised, how we sense ourselves, how we learn to lose tension on the other hand does. because the body is organised at a neurological level not a structural one.”

    Who ever suggested that stretching or strengthening muscles changes the way the body is organized? I would disagree whole heartedly on the affect of stretching on how we sense ourselves (how we feel). By saying that the body is organized on “neurological level and not a structural one” you contradict yourself (which is amusing). On the one hand you say we all function as a “whole”, then you proceed to break down the whole to one of many structures in the whole, namely, the nervous system.

    It’s interesting that you write such an article, which, after a fashion, creates something to criticize by saying, “You’re doing it wrong, here’s the right way”, yet you offer nothing concrete to support your way. Many of us learn to lose tension through the practice of yoga, including breathing and asana (which includes stretching and strengthening of muscles). Please explain, in concrete terms, how you recommend how we learn to “lose tension” based on your structural model of the body being organized based on the nervous system.

  8. Peter,

    I think what you’re attempting is better described here:

    Straw man argument: “A straw man is a common form of argument and is an informal fallacy based on giving the impression of refuting an opponent’s argument, while actually refuting an argument that was not advanced by that opponent.” Wikipedia

    You create a fallacy that doesn’t exist with your example of the eating and the stomach, try to overlay that onto stretching and strengthening by mischaracterizing stretching and strengthening.
    I understand folks need a gimmick these days, but this is rather pathetic.

    1. Joe, in recent times the evidence that structure has little impact on pain and discomfort has become compelling, if you look under the research tag on this website you can read two papers by Eyal Lederman, ‘the myth of core stability’ and ‘the fall of the biomechanical postural model’ that back up the view that structure isn’t the main thing we should be considering when people have pain or discomfort. If this is not enough try this.

      What I am taking issue with is the way yoga is taught in terms of parts of the body. You say this is a straw man argument. It isn’t; It’s all over the net, in books and teacher training courses. Teachers asking students to engage or not engage the glutes.. ‘core’ or any other muscle that takes their interest. Or to deepen a stretch in their hamstrings, latisimuss.. etc. This is unhelpful. Movement is created as intention in the cortex, and carried out sub cortically by the body. The sensory motor cortex organises movement intention as a whole, not as body fragments. (if you need more information here ‘the intelligent movement machine’ by Michael Graziano will help you out). No person or animal moves by invoking pieces of his or her body, so why teach that way? You’re right when you say all movement will effect the body, so it makes more sense to talk about whole movements when we teach because that’s what the body understands. When we turn, forward bend or backbend it is a whole movement and clarifying these intentions is more productive. Asana should of course include postures that take us through the full range of normal human movement, and that can easily be accomplished without a metaphorical dismembering of the body.

      In terms of losing tension we need to appeal to the sensory nervous system, to help students discriminate between relaxation, effort (necessary work) and tension (unnecessary work). Many people who are used to following exercise instructions get caught up in what they are supposed to be doing rather than what they are feeling. My interest is to reverse this and get people to become more interested in what they are feeling/sensing, this is a skill that comes easily off the mat.

      1. When I read Joe’s comments I am reminded of this quote from BKS Iyengar:
        “You must purge yourself before finding faults in others. When you see a mistake in somebody else, try to find if you are making the same mistake. This is the way to take judgment and to turn it into improvement.”
        Joe may have a point, but he comes across as mean spirited, disparaging and projecting negative motives like envy etc onto Pete. I enjoy reading these discussions but would encourage Joe to be more respectful in his dialogue. His approach does him no service.

  9. It’s difficult to get to the bottom of what specific recomendations are being made here (if any can be made given the laws around offering medical advice ). There are a few truisms, a bit of active movement therapy rhetoric and some confusing ideas about the concept of mereology vis-a-vis yoga by way of the human body.

    I think if you are going to talk about mereology in an online yoga blog the best angle might be to enter it somewhere around the Cartesian subject/object problem, or else reform this article so it reads more like an opinion piece/critique/review or just a footnote to Leslie Kaminoff’s “yoga Anatomy” which perhaps could be said to have gained undue acclaim from yoga teacher training providers due to their enthusiam to articulate yoga as a “rational” science rather than anything else.

    We can’t really do that here in the comments – but I have extracted some salient information from “Philosophical Foundations of Neuroscience” (

    Here is John Searle on pain and the role of the brain:

    Common sense tells us that our pains are located in physical space within our bodies, that for example, a pain in the foot is literally inside the area of the foot. But we now know that is false. The brain forms a body image and pains, like all bodily sensations, are part of the body image. The pain-in-the-foot is literally in the physical space of the brain. (Searle, J., The Rediscovery of the Mind, MIT Press, 1992: p. 63.)

    That’s one way some (mediocre) therapists think about yoga too I think.

    But we can object like this:
    …one does not have pains “in the brain.” Pains (other than headaches) are not “in the head.” If there is a locus of pain it is a distributed feature of the whole experience, the brain being only one physical part of it. For the experiencing subject, of course, “His pain is located where he sincerely suggests it is” (p.123) (phantom pains being in need of special explanation). This is not to deny that in the absence of a proper functioning brain, one would feel no pains. But that does not license the claim that pains “are felt either in or by the brain” (p.122). What hurts when one breaks one’s leg is typically one’s leg, not one’s head.

    This second standpoint I believe is what prompts (mediocre) yoga teacher training providers on the anatomical bandwagon – our fondness for precise explanations sometimes to the detriment of accurate descriptions.

    The broader point that yoga’s therapeutic direction is only a small part of the whole oevre of literature on yoga would be my first port of call if I were keen to introduce the concept of mereology into an online discussion of yoga.

    Better still, we could question the function of the sciences in yoga and ask ourselves is this what we are really meant to be doing?

    The Relativity of Right: Yoga and Meditating… for Health

  10. Yes yes yes ..
    I am floating once again back towards this global whole approach both in my personal and teaching practice, for me, the key observation is exactly that – observation. Instead of move here, open there, feel this, sense that, by coming from an overall place of totality I’m observing that students don’t necessarily feel the primary response in e.g. The hamstring – because for that person the key to beginning the releasing process could be in a fascial strain in the mid back. And as they inhabit their bodies more, without judgment or expectation, I see a yielding, a softening and a welcoming home of the Being into the body.

    It’s a gentle, inquisitive, curiosity based practice which I personally find so much more deeply delicious than the wham bam jump here stride there open this push more approach of some yoga schools that I myself have taught in the past.

    I also think being ready to visit these places takes huge courage as it brings up tides of emotion, resistance, blockages that go way deeper than muscle, tendon or ligament but into the deepest fascial layers of the body and into the electromagnetic and energetic bodies.

    True healing happens here, not just lengthening and strengthening.

    A-Ho Peter, I’m right with you!

  11. As someone who does not practice yoga or know that much about it, I find it interesting that lo find the comments grating.
    To argue with each other seems oppositional to my understanding as a [potential] student.
    I had no idea what “mereological” meant when I started reading. I do now. And to simply question the value of a teacher’s instruction seems helpful as a tool to get the most of the work.
    The personal attacks on the author, however, do not feel helpful.

  12. No prizes for guessing who is really practising yoga amongst your contributors here ! Subject matter apart it is difficult to take seriously a yoga practitioner whose language is persistently hostile..characterised by mistrust,defensiveness,cynicism, and feelings of anger that lead to aggressive behaviour.

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