Why I Love…and Hate Yoga, Part 1

Keeping Yoga Safe

Image: sakhorn38 / FreeDigitalPhotos.net

Inspired by the NY Times article, “How Yoga Can Wreck Your Body”, I took a moment and began to reflect on my experiences with yoga: as a class attendee, an exercise physiologist working with clients and as an anatomy and physiology instructor, training groups of soon-to-be yoga teachers in Jersey City.

My gut instinct is one of thankfulness that I have learned enough about the human body to have a basic understanding about what it can…and cannot do. I translate that knowledge into my own practice. However not everyone has this built in awareness and unfortunately most yoga instructors, even seasoned veterans, may lack the background in anatomy and physiology to understand the subtle compensations that people can make during yoga practice that can lead to joint and muscle problems down the road.

I will be breaking down this topic into two posts. The goal of this first discussion is to provide insights into why yoga can be beneficial for many people when performed correctly. In Part 2 I’ll be discussing some of the common reasons why people end up getting injured performing a practice that is designed to make us move better, not worse!

Yoga Can Develop Range of Motion and Flexibility

When performed properly, yoga is one of the best ways to develop range of motion and flexibility primarily due to the fact that most poses are designed to take you to the limits of your range of motion. Our body learns and improves by a principle called “progressive overload,” which states that the body improves by small, incremental challenges. So in the case of yoga, we challenge our body to engage certain muscles and move into poses which then take us to the end range of motion in other muscles. Holding those poses teaches the body that those muscles must gain range of motion for subsequent classes/practice. Performing progressive overload consistently is what leads to results.

Note that range of motion is not just stretching; you also develop range of motion through engaging muscles. Most muscles in the body come paired with another muscle, usually on the exact opposite side of the body. The key to good movement is the balance that exists between the strength and flexibility of each muscle pair. However, excessive sitting, staring at computer screens all day and poor exercise form can create chronic compensations that lead to imbalances and potentially injury.

Yoga can help us reclaim this balance by re-educating our tight muscles to become flexible while strengthening our weakened muscles. The key of course, is knowing which muscles tend to be tight and which tend to be weak. A perfect example is a common yoga pose and exercise: the bridge. Sitting all day can make our hip flexors tight and our glutes (a.k.a. our butt) weak. A bridge allows for the opposite movements: the glutes engage and the hip flexors must stretch.

Yoga Can Build Body Awareness and Balance

When performed at a steady, controlled pace yoga allows the student/attendee to become aware of their muscles, their movements and their breathing. Coming into a pose and holding it for a number of seconds (but not minutes), can allow someone to take stock of what muscles are engaged and how they are breathing. Good yoga instructors should be giving cues on proper alignment, what muscles should be active and ideally, which muscles should not be active. Listen to them and then listen to your body. Do you feel what they are describing? Or are you feeling uncomfortable somewhere that “doesn’t feel right”? If it doesn’t feel right, don’t do it. You may not have the flexibility to get into the pose (or the depth that you’ve moved) or you may not have the strength to stabilize the body in the pose.

The best way to know if you are actually stable in a pose is to check your face, neck and breathing. Your breathing should not be forced or strained nor should you be holding your breath. Your neck and face muscles should be toned, but relaxed…not on overdrive. If anything, make sure your chin is slightly tucked down and back. If you can’t relax your neck, face or breath, then you need to probably ease out of the pose a bit, modify the pose or skip it for now.

I’m on-board with sensible levels of barefoot balance training for most people that do not have significant foot issues. Many have flat feet due to functional (a.k.a. movement compensation) rather than structural (a.k.a. genetic bone deformities or long term dysfunction) problems. Most of this comes from wearing shoes all day which deprive our feet from its natural interaction with the ground. Since yoga is typically performed barefoot, it provides a low-impact, safer introduction to teaching the foot to stabilize the body compared to other popular, high-impact barefoot training modalities like running or jumping. Remember it’s progressive, not extreme, overload.

Yoga has Benefits beyond Flexibility: Stress Management

Physical activity has been shown to have stress-reducing effects. While most yoga classes are not the same as sessions of cardio intervals or strength training, there is significant engagement of muscles over an extended period of time, usually about an hour. In addition, there are periods of higher intensity during the session, such as a sustained pose that can increase muscular engagement and cardiovascular demand. So for many, yoga may fall under the category of “moderate” activity, which can reduce stress levels.

Beyond movement, spending an hour focusing on breathing, movement and posture can take our mind off of the 10,000 stressors and worries that we are dealing with for the other 23 hours of the day. From a purely substitution perspective, giving your stress-system an hour “off” can slowly help turn the tide from being constantly stressed to being…well, moderately stressed. And any reduction in stress levels is good, because stress can impact everything from our social interactions (how well do you get along with others when you’re stressed?) to our eating habits (ever hear of stress eating?).

If this article has sold you on yoga, then great! But be careful, start slowly, be mindful, don’t push it too hard too fast, and if it hurts, stop. Remember progressive overload. If you are interested but want to wait until my next article which discusses why I hate yoga, then you’re probably not alone.

Don’t you just hate cliffhangers? 🙂

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