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Keeping the Joints Happy

Historically, stress on the joints has been cautioned and even considered dangerous. Our author explains why modern-day exercise and medical professionals now think a healthy amount of joint stress is important.

By Paul Grilley

In our last article , I wrote about a popular misconception that joints should not be stressed during exercise. Of course we don't want to overstress our joints, but to not stress them through proper exercise leads to the opposite problem: joint degeneration. This concern with overstressing joints has led to the adoption of some good rules of thumb that, unfortunately, do not apply to all forms of yoga. Certain poses should be done with the specific intention of stressing the joints. The key, of course, is to perform the movements safely.

The mythology that joints should not be stressed is reflected in the history of other forms of exercise. One hundred years ago there was great concern that marathon runners and other strenuous athletic events would lead to "athlete's heart," a supposedly unnatural expansion of the heart muscle leading to illness. In the 1950s and 1960s, it was common for athletes to be cautioned against lifting weights—such practice might diminish their physical skills by making them "muscle-bound" and "slow." today, athletes from the high school to the professional level are coached and encouraged to train with weights.

Physical therapy has also reversed itself in recent years. A few decades ago, the advice given to any patient after surgery, pregnancy, or injury was to rest. But now the standard of practice after most orthopedic surgeries is "immediate mobilization," starting as soon as the patient is ready to stand. And it doesn't end after the patient wobbles out of the hospital; standard post-surgical protocol is a prescribed and often challenging program of physical therapy, or "PT," that can last weeks or months.

Why has orthopedic medicine reversed its position on rest versus joint mobilization? Because study after study has shown that immobilization has deleterious effects on the joints. Orthopedics has rediscovered the old platitude, "movement is life." Yogis need not imitate the methods of drastic physical therapies, but they should consider the principle behind these therapies. This principle is merely an extension of the Theory of Exercise or Theory of Sacrifice discussed in our last article. If joints are not stressed, they degenerate. If joints are overstressed, they deteriorate. A healthy range of motion strikes a balance between these two extremes.

Specific asanas in yoga directly address the range of motion of the joints. For example, tucking the pelvis to "protect the back" is common advice. By engaging the abdominal muscles, the lumbar spine is prevented from extending to its complete point of compression. This is a wise rule. It can prevent injury from overstraining in standing backbends and Warrior Poses. But it does not apply to all poses. Consider the Cobra Pose, one of whose functions is to extend the lumbar spine backwards. If this pose is done with the pelvis tucked to the extreme, no lumbar extension would occur, and the practitioner would lose this range of motion. But since the forces on the spine in Cobra Pose are dramatically less than in standing backbend, Cobra Pose presents a perfect opportunity to gently test how far the spine can move.

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