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In my very first post to this blog, I intimated that depending on which portion of your training cycle you’re in, yoga might serve to confer strength, flexibility, focus, or all of these. The trick is to choose practices that support the work you’re doing in training, and not to pile on more stress to a body that’s already overloaded. It sounds great in theory, but in practice it takes a lot of trial and error.
Ayca, for example, wrote me from Turkey to ask about the best ways to mesh her rock climbing and yoga asana practice, which together are contributing to elbow problems. While I can’t speak to individual injuries (my doctorate is in English literature, not medicine!), as a coach I know a lot about the balance between work and rest. Overuse injuries like tendonitis are a sign that there’s too much stress on the tissues. We need stress to create change in the body—this is exercise physiology’s principle of overload. The key is to apply the right intensity, duration, and frequency of this stress and to give the body time to recover and adapt to the stress with super-compensation. (My book The Athlete’s Guide to Recovery explores the application of recovery tools, including yoga, in detail.) And it applies to yoga asana just as it does to sport training. Do too much, for too long, too often, without enough rest, and you’ll wind up with an injury.
Another cause of injury is imbalance between strength and flexibility in the body. When one group of muscles is stronger or more flexible than another, it can add stress to the weaker or tighter areas and cause injury. To prevent such injuries, a well-rounded yoga asana practice is useful; to cure them, you’ll need to work with your health care providers to analyze and address the cause of the issue.
Happily, Ayca took some time to rest those elbows and is now back on the mat. She’s taking care to avoid adding too much stress to the arms at one time, which might mean skipping some Chaturangas as she learns where the line is. Home practice is especially useful for discerning the right amount of stress to apply, free from the constraints and temptations of a group practice. She can also be careful to schedule one or two full rest days each week and keep an eye on the amount of stress she is putting on her upper body through climbing and time on the mat.
When you find yourself frazzled or in pain, reflect on the amount of stress you’ve been asking your body to absorb. A gentle or restorative practice may serve you better than sweating through a challenging vinyasa class. Conversely, don’t expect to see progress without adding judicious amounts of stress to your routine. By making wise choices, you can include yoga in support of your training, not just as another thing from which to recover.