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A bird’s bone doesn’t fly!

Nor does an airplane’s parts. The function “emerges” when all the systems are put together in a certain way

May 09, 2019 05:55 pm | Updated 05:55 pm IST

The sum is greater than the parts

Here’s a famous Greek legend you may have read.

There once lived a great craftsman named Daedalus. He was imprisoned by Minos, King of Crete, in the labyrinth Daedalus himself built. (As with most interesting legends, there’s a backstory to this involving the minotaur, Ariadne and Theseus.) Daedalus ingenuity was equal to the task of overcoming the walls of the labyrinth. What did he do? He designed wings to fly up and out of the maze!

He made two pairs of great wings, one for himself, and the other for his son, Icarus, who was imprisoned along with him. The day of escape arrived, and behold, Icarus took flight with his wings. But Icarus, overcome by hubris and the thrill of flight, did not heed his father’s advice: “Don’t fly too close to the sun!”

The wings made of feathers were held to his arms by wax. The wax melted as he neared the heat of sun. The feathers fell away, and Icarus met a sad fate, plummeting to the sea.

Humans have always wanted to fly like birds. But we all know that we cannot fly just by attaching wings to our arms. Flying is what we call an “emergent” function. Birds don’t fly just because they have wings attached to their torso instead of arms. Birds are adapted from the cellular level to enable flight.

For example, birds have hollow bones to reduce their overall weight. That’s because they have genes that grow their bones in such a shape; it starts from the molecular level. But of course, the cells of a bird, if you place them under a microscope, don’t fly away!

The function of flight ‘emerges’ when all the body systems of a bird, from its genes and cells to its whole body are put together in a certain way.

This applies to mechanical systems too. A plane does not fly in pieces — if the components of a plane are disassembled and laid out on the floor of the hangar, they don’t individually fly. It is essential that the components be assembled and interact in specific ways for the function of “flying” to emerge.

Like that, many of our body and mind functions are complex and “emerge” only when other components and functions are put together in a certain way. The sum is greater than the parts. This is one reason why doing many simple things for your body or mind can create a synergistic effect — because well-being “emerges” from all these functions coming together. It isn’t any one factor or a trick that brings well-being.

Many centuries ago, sage Patanjali took this wise view when laying out the framework of yoga. Traditional yoga has many limbs, all of which must come together in practice.

Starting from ethics and boundaries, known as the yamas, the limbs of yoga span the body and mind. Asana is about bringing steadiness and comfort to the body. Pranayama leads us to better breathing and stress reduction. Pratyahara leads us to healthful lifestyle by managing our senses. Mindfulness and meditation help balance our thoughts and emotions. Overall, the limbs of yoga reflect a deep understanding that well-being emerges from synergy, and stillness or inner peace is built on a foundation of well-being.

It is essential to take a holistic approach to well-being. That is the scientific way, and it is also the ancient way of yoga.

The writers are yoga practitioners and authors of several books

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