I took my first yoga class in college and became a teacher in my late 30s. I was drawn to it, because it reduced my stress, felt amazing, and allowed me to create novel shapes that were so similar to what I’d done in gymnastics as a kid with an added bonus of mindful awareness.
Then a year into teaching, I started having pain from my right ear, down my arm, all the way into my fingertips. I was informed by my physical therapist that I had multidirectional instability (aka “pitcher’s shoulder) in not one but both shoulders—and I’d never played baseball. The MRI revealed a frayed supraspinatus tendon in my right shoulder.
I discovered much of what I was doing in yoga was contributing to my injuries. It seemed that all of the Up Dog, Down Dog, Chaturanga flows layered on top of years of tumbling, cheerleading, and gymnastics had finally caught up with me. This isn’t to say that yoga is bad. However, it made me realize that as a form of movement, it had some blind spots. Since then, I’ve learned to fill in some of these gaps by incorporating strength- and stability-based corrective exercises into my yoga practice and classes, as well as cross-training at the gym and Pilates studio.
As human movement research advances, I think it’s important that yoga applies this modern science to make the practice work for modern bodies and doesn’t get stuck in its “box-asana.”
Yoga is meant to be healing. Here are three ways that you can balance out your asana practice and make it more sustainable, so you aren’t sidelined by pain and injury like I was.
1. Yoga could start incorporating more upper body–pulling movements.
Nutrition 101 teaches you that if you only eat one kind of food, you’ll get sick. Kale is really good for you, but if you only eat kale, you’ll die. The same goes for movement.
As adults, most of our daily tasks involve pushing motions (think strollers, shopping carts, lawn mowers). The same is true in modern postural yoga asana. For example, you are often pushing the ground away in many poses like Plank, Downward-Facing Dog and Crow. However, there are few opportunities to pull against load or your own body weight, unless you’re pulling yourself deeper into a stretch, which feels nice, but won’t build functional strength.
When you only practice pushing movements with the upper body, then you end up strong in one direction and conversely weak in the other. As a result, this kind of overuse can lead to muscular imbalance, tension, and pain. It can also increase your risk of injury, since you’re most likely to get injured in the ranges of motions where you’re weakest.
You can add more pulling motions to your movement diet by cross-training with weights or equipment Pilates. Both modalities incorporate pulling exercises like rows using external resistance. If going to the gym isn’t your cup of tea or you don’t have access to Pilates equipment, you can still include dynamic pulling movements into your yoga practice or classes using a yoga blanket. There are several ways to do this, but Dandasana Slides are a great example.
Watch the video: Dandasana Slides
2. Yoga could start including more hip strength and stability work to balance out all the hip opening.
As Mark Singleton laid out in his book Yoga Body: The Origins of Modern Posture Practice, modern postural yoga was heavily influenced by gymnastics and wrestling and designed to be performed by young Indian boys to grab the attention of an audience that might not be interested in yoga. (It was essentially a marketing strategy.) As a result, most yoga poses emphasize hip opening, not strength or stability, to achieve the big, crowd-pleasing shapes.
Most of the people taking yoga classes today are stiff men who sit at desks all day and women who have a lot of natural flexibility. While it’s not bad to open your hips, these populations are not always best served by extensive hip opening, at least in the beginning. A wiser approach would be to build hip stability first for control of your range of motion as you increase mobility.
Passive range of motion is awesome if you want to be an Instagram star, but it’s not so helpful if you want to be able to do functional, daily tasks. When you have a lot of flexibility without the control to back it up, you’re more likely to get injured and experience pain, such as sacroiliac (SI) or pelvic floor dysfunction. Your muscles simply aren’t strong enough to maintain the integrity of your joints during movement.
Functional range of motion is important in hip adductors, flexors, extensors (hamstrings), abductors, and internal and external rotators. But the adductors, or inner thighs, are a particularly common weak link in the hip joint. In yoga, you often stretch the inner thighs in poses like Upavistha Konasana, Samakonasana, and Baddha Konasana, but have few opportunities to strengthen them.
Sliding Side Splits are a wonderful way to strengthen your inner thighs. You could do a version of this using the Pilates reformer or the adductor machine at the gym. At home or in a yoga studio, you can use a blanket.
Watch the video: Sliding Side Splits
Finally, it’s also worth noting that oftentimes when something feels tight or stiff, it’s actually weak. If you’ve been stretching your hips for the last decade and they still feel tight, that could be a sign that you could benefit from strengthening them. You might even find that the sensations of stiffness and tightness go away, when your muscles are strong enough to support your joints.
3. Yoga could start focusing on strength at end range of motion to reduce the risk of injury from passive stretching.
It’s a little-known fact that injuries often occur at end range of motion. This is why you’ll hear horror stories about someone tearing their hamstring in a yoga class. It’s so common that it actually has a name—yoga butt.
In yoga, you repetitively move through end ranges of motion during vinyasas or seek it in static poses such as King Pigeon, Wheel, and Hanumanasana. As mentioned above, without the strength to control your ranges of motion, you compromise the structural integrity of your joints.
While it’s not bad to practice asana in end range of motion, if you intend to do it, it’s smart to be strong in those ranges. An example of this is Supta Padangusthasana B. When you practice this pose with a strap, you are exploring your passive end range of motion. When you remove the strap and perform the same action, you’ll discover your active range of motion.
The difference between your passive range of motion and your active range of motion can show you the importance of finding strength and control in ranges of motion that you can actually use. Those last couple inches, where you’re most passive, demonstrate the range where you have the least amount of muscular support or control and are most likely to get injured.
If yoga asana is your primary form of movement, this is another example of where it can be beneficial to add in some strength training like apparatus-based Pilates, weight lifting, or TRX. When you’re lifting a weight or using external resistance, you are limited by your strength capacity, because you can only go as far as you can move the weight. In yoga, it’s easier to go beyond a range of motion that you can control, because gravity is often helping you move into a deeper range.
I share all of this not to demonize yoga. I love yoga for staying centered and grounded. However, integrating some of the concepts from other forms of movement into yoga can help practitioners get all the benefits of asana in a more sustainable way.
About Our Expert
Trina Altman, B.S., E-RYT 500, YACEP, PMA®-CPT, STOTT PILATES® certified instructor, is the creator of Yoga Deconstructed® and Pilates Deconstructed®, which both take an interdisciplinary approach to foster an embodied understanding of yoga and Pilates and their relationship to modern movement science. She leads teacher trainings in Yoga Tune Up® and the Roll Model® Method locally and internationally. While at Brown University, Trina took a Kripalu yoga class which ignited her passion for the practice. Emphasizing the importance of inner focus, she teaches anatomy for yoga teacher trainings across the country. She has presented at Kripalu, PURE YOGA® NYC, Yogaworks, Cal-a-Vie Spa, SYTAR, the Yoga Alliance Leadership Conference, ECA, UCLA and multiple yoga conferences. Her teaching fosters body cognition and self-discovery, firmly grounded in anatomical awareness. Trina works out of Los Angeles at Equinox and The Moving Joint. You can find her online classes and courses at www.trinaaltman.com