Why I Love…and Hate Yoga, Part 2

Keeping Yoga Safe

Image: sakhorn38 / FreeDigitalPhotos.net

Over the past couple weeks I’ve received a few responses and inquiries as to what aspects of yoga I dislike – it seems that more people have gotten hurt performing yoga than I thought. I hope this post sheds some light on the dangers of improperly performed yoga so you can take steps to minimize your injury risk while still enjoying a practice that you love. Take a breath…this is a long post.

What Looks Right is not Always Right

When properly performed, yoga can be great for promoting body awareness. But the problem is, whom or what are we listening to when in class? All too often we look at the people to the right, to the left and in front of us (the instructor) as our sole sources of guidance rather than listening to our own body. Many times instructors give great cues such as “feel a lengthening, stretching sensation through the chest/spine”, but instead we look at what they are doing (curving up into a full upward dog) rather than what they are saying. So we contort ourselves to look like them, all the while forgetting what we are supposed to be feeling. And as a result we often crunch our lower backs in a vain attempt to lengthen through the chest or spine. The key to doing things right is making sure you feel them in the places you are supposed to feel them!

The two most common issues of improper movement are lack of mobility and lack of stability.

Lacking Mobility – Many of us are tight from sitting and typing at a computer all day and then come to a yoga class to “stretch out”. Then we see that really flexible, hypermobile (to be discussed) person next to you doing all sorts of unstable crazy movements and think, “I should do that too!” See where I’m headed with this?

The issue for tight individuals (including myself) is that we do not necessarily have the mobility yet to get ourselves into these poses and positions. In other words, our muscles and connective tissue are pretty tight so making ourselves look “flexible” requires an extraordinary amount of effort…usually from muscles and joints that were not designed to move us in that particular way. And when the wrong muscles and joints do the work, you can bet that discomfort and pain will follow in due time.

Well respected yoga instructor Leslie Kaminoff depicts the situation well when discussing the spine: “Spinal extension is not necessarily the same thing as bending backward and spinal flexion is not necessarily the same thing as bending forward.” In other words, our chronic postures and positions can make it harder for us to move properly in space using the right muscles and joints, so we must make sure we only move until we get the sensation we are supposed to feel in a particular pose rather than pushing ourselves to look like the person next to us.

A great example is one of the most basic poses: Volcano Pose (standing back bend). Many people will start here and bend backward to “open up” the front of their body. The problem is most people are very tight in their chest and hips due to sitting all day, so they end up going way too far back and rather than feeling the stretch in their chest, abdomen and hips, they get a big ‘ol crunch in their lower back. This situation happens in many other poses as well such as cobra and upward dog.

Another example is that many people will use their lower back muscles when bridging rather than engaging their glutes and abdominals. Most of us put enough strain on our lower back throughout the day that we don’t need to add more during yoga practice.

Lacking Stability – Why is it that so many of the people that take yoga are really flexible? Or at least seem that way. Probably because we like to do what we are good at. But what if all of that “flexibility” comes at a price: our ligaments and tendons. Those who have hypermobility (aka double jointed-ness) at particular joints can probably move and contort their bodies into all sorts of positions that can make a veteran yogi jealous. But should they be in those positions?

The answer lies with one word: stability. Stabilizing means being able to move and hold a yoga pose due to engaging your muscles to create support, rather than just hanging in our tendons or ligaments. Hypermobility means that the ligaments and tendons are more pliable, so they can be forced further, even if they don’t really want to be there. So if you are constantly using your mobility (flexibility) to get into positions that you can’t stabilize, odds are it’s only a matter of time before you start feeling discomfort or pain in those joints.

Or consider if you are hypermobile in one joint (i.e. the shoulder) but tight in another (the upper back/thoracic spine). Odds are you are going to make up for tightness in one area by moving excessively through the other. See the discussion on lacking mobility above.

So what to do? Focus on feeling what muscles should be engaged to move and stabilize you as you move into and hold a pose. For example, when doing any sort of arm bind, make sure the shoulders are firmly down in their sockets by engaging the muscles underneath the armpits. If engaging those muscles means you can no longer perform the bind, then you may not have the stability yet to go there safely. For trunk movements (i.e. cobra, up-dog, etc.) make sure the abdominals stay engaged and for lower body movements, the glutes are usually a good idea.

So forget what looks right…do what FEELS right.

A great tip: Ask yourself three questions in any pose:

  • 1. Do I feel the movement/relaxation where I am supposed to feel it?
  • 2. Do I feel discomfort anywhere else?
  • 3. Can I breathe normally?

The answers should be Yes, No, Yes. If you don’t answer the questions this way, adjust yourself until you do. Usually it means easing up on the intensity of the pose so you stop forcing the wrong muscle to work.

Yoga is not a “Workout”

I’m not a big fan of the recent wave of using yoga as an intense, sweat-inducing workout. Yoga was designed thousands of years ago to allow practitioners to get better in touch with their emotions (meditation) and controlling movement in their body…not how many calories they burned in a session. If you want to raise your heart rate and rock your body, do some cardio intervals or lift some weights.

I consider the new fad of “Power” yoga to be a bit of an oxymoron. Don’t get me wrong, advanced yogis are amazingly powerful and balanced…you need it when suspending your entire body on your forearms! But they didn’t get there by doing sun salutation or another Vinyasa flow as fast and intensely as possible. If they did, they probably would have injured their lower backs long before mastering their practice.

Another style of yoga that I must discuss in this section is Bikram (aka hot yoga). In my opinion, Bikram yoga is not ideal for the vast majority of the American population. The purported benefits of Bikram yoga exist, but the complications of straining our muscles or bodies in a 110 degree room for 60 to 90 minutes creates more risk than reward.

Bikram yoga practitioners often cite three aspects of why they feel that heat helps them practice better (though I am sure I’m missing a few):

  • 1. The warmth will help the muscles warm up quicker and move better
  • 2. Sweat helps remove toxins from the body
  • 3. The heat helps them “deepen” their practice

Here’s my response:

  • 1. A well-structured gradual yoga progression can be just as effective at warming up the body. And once the muscles are “warm”, they do not need to be warmer. Our internal body temperature is a balmy 98.6 degrees and muscles don’t get much hotter when exercising.
  • 2. Sweat is not the only way to remove toxins from the body. The whole point of blood flow is to transport nutrients and remove waste. And how do we promote blood flow to an area? We move it. You don’t need to be in a sauna to move your muscles.
  • 3. Sweating profusely can lead to an increased risk of dehydration. And a few times I’ve heard that Bikram instructors do not want people to drink water because it lets them practice better or get a better connection with the sutras. That’s positively insane. I do not find being dehydrated to the point of passing out or deliriousness to be a way to deepen your practice…it’s a way to lose focus and increase risk of injury.

Take yoga to build body awareness, mobility, stability and balance. Don’t take it to get your “sweat on”.

Over-Zealous, Under-Educated Instructors

There are many fantastic yoga instructors out there and this section is not designed for you. But unless you intricately understand how the human body works (muscles, joints, connective tissue, organs, etc.) and how each of your poses impacts people with different medical and orthopedic conditions and restrictions along with ways to regress and correct them, then you may want to consider getting your “learning on”. Face it, we are living in a society where being injured or having a constant ache/pain is the NORM, not the exception. We need to step up our game as practitioners to meet the increased needs of our clientele.

If I could provide three pieces of advice to yoga teachers that will serve you well no matter how much you know:

  • 1. First do no harm: If someone tells you a pose hurts, back them out of it until it no longer hurts or learn modifications and regressions to get them a similar effect without pain.
  • 2. Never place force onto a person’s body: I have heard too many stories of yoga teachers that SEVERELY injured students because they pushed down on them when they were in a pose. Never, ever, ever place force on someone’s body. You can touch them, but the touch should be designed to bring awareness to a part of the body, not added strain. A great example, if someone is sagging in plank pose, place your hand in the small of their lower back and ask them to engage their abdominals to push their back into your hand. You gave them something to focus on, but you did not put pressure ON them.
  • 3. Don’t stop learning: The most frustrating thing I hear when someone asks a yoga teacher why they chose a particular pose or why a particular pose hurts, they say, “I don’t know…it’s just what I learned from my teacher.” I’m sorry, I think that’s a bullcrap response. When someone asks you a question and you don’t know the answer say, “That’s a great question, and I’ll find out for you.” Get the answer, learn it, and store it away in the memory bank. I’m sure someone else will have the same issue down the road. The more you know, the better you will be.

This is why I have greatly enjoyed teaching aspiring yoga practitioners. I want them to be able to answer the question, “Why?” Both for their students and for themselves.

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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