by Louise Goldberg
Many individuals are drawn to yoga because of their natural flexibility. Encouraged to stretch to their limits and beyond, they enjoy the sense of freedom they experience in postures. The urge to push through every pose and overcome the body’s efforts at resistance can be intoxicating.
Continuing in this type of intense stretching practice, however, sometimes has consequences. Many students begin to complain about joint distress—sometimes with a nagging pain in the lower back or intermittent stiffness in their neck, hips or knees.
It is often the case that practitioners do those forms of exercise they most enjoy while omitting those that they most need. A well-trained yoga teacher will guide her/his students to take responsibility for their own bodies. This means creating a balanced practice that includes strengthening components and not overdoing stretching.
When the limbs are stretched, the body responds with resistance—a feeling most yoga students recognize. This serves a purpose. It’s the body’s mechanism to protect the joints from becoming unstable and the muscles from injury. This is the “stretch reflex” as explained by yoga anatomist Mel Robin in his Handbook for Yogasana Teachers (2009). With deep stretching, the muscle (spindle) fibers that attach to the tendons within the muscle send a warning to the brain. This message registers as discomfort or resistance. If the movement is forceful, the muscles will contract even more rather than stretch—the opposite of what one hopes to accomplish. That’s why bouncing or pushing through a painful stretch may result in injury.
If, however, the practice is gentle and mindful—with slow, moderate stretching—the results differ. This allows the (Golgi) organ within the tendon to have time to “sense” the stretch and release the muscle fibers, resetting the tension in the stretch reflex, according to Robin. When someone raises the thermostat on the A/C unit to a warmer temperature, it takes longer before the unit kicks on to cool the room. In a similar way, the more the muscle relaxes into the stretch, the more the resistance in the joint decreases, and the less likely pain or injury will occur.
In addition to learning how to stretch safely, it’s also important to understand the anatomy of movement within the body. Simply put, bones support the weight of the body, joints provide flexibility within the skeleton and muscles pull on bones to enable movement.
Orthopedic surgeon and yoga therapist Ray Long describes the factors influencing the mobility and stability of joints in Yoga Therapy and Integrative Medicine (2014). These include the shape of the bone, the stability of the soft tissue surrounding the joint and the stability of the muscles that facilitate the movement of the joint.
Some joints, such as hips, are highly mobile “ball and socket” type. The head of the long thigh bone (femur) fits into the indentation (acetabulum) within the three bones that form the hip. This joint has a much greater range of motion than the knee, for example, which is a hinge joint. Its movement is more like a door which can open and close but lacks the circular motion afforded the hip. Understanding the type of motion that a joint is capable of helps practitioners use them in the most beneficial ways.
The soft tissues include the ligaments that connect bones, the capsule of the joint and its lining. Ligaments are stabilizers and do not have the same elasticity as muscles. That’s why it’s essential to recognize the natural limitations that the shape of the joints sets for joint motion and never force joints into painful positions.
The muscles that attach at the joint pull on the bones making movement (articulation) possible. At every joint, there are muscles that contract (agonists) to move the bones and muscles that resist that movement (antagonists) to protect the joint. The reason that this is important is because of the tendency to focus on the stretch while working a joint in yoga. The stretching muscle is the place of resistance. Remember, forcing a stretch puts the joints and muscles at risk, so it’s imperative to heed the resistance as one would a yellow light in traffic: Proceed with caution!
Now that it’s clear why not to force the stretch, how to safely deepen the pose? This is where the muscles that contract (agonists) become one’s allies. To stretch the hamstrings while lying on the back, for example, it’s tempting to force the torso closer to the thighs or pull the thigh in the direction of the head. This type of motion activates resistance to inhibit the motion and puts the knee joint and hamstrings at risk of injury. To perform this stretch safely, instead enlist the aid of the quadriceps in the front of the thighs. By consciously contracting these muscles—drawing them back toward the femur bone and up toward the hip—stability is created to protect the knee joint. While tightening the muscles in front of the thigh, maintain awareness of the hamstrings and invite them to lengthen. Using steady, rhythmic breathing, allow, rather than force, these muscles to slowly and comfortably release.
If the hamstring is really tight, it may help to fluctuate between small moves that bend and then straighten the knee throughout this hold. By alternating effort and relaxation of the muscle that is being stretched, the fibers have time to adjust to the lengthening process and gain a safe and lasting stretch without putting the joint at risk.
To summarize, here are tools for protecting joints in yoga:
• Never force movement.
• Become educated about how the joints are meant to move.
• Use the muscles whose job it is to pull the bone while simultaneously allowing the opposing muscle to ease into the stretch.
• Develop a practice that includes a balance of strengthening and stretching in all parts of the body.
• Attend to all warning signs to avoid injury.
• Honor and respect the body. Hopefully, it will last a long, long time!
Louise Goldberg, MA, C-IAYT, RYT500 is the owner/director of the Yoga Center of Deerfield Beach and the anatomy instructor for the 200-Hour Yoga Teacher Training. She is the author of Classroom Yoga Breaks and Yoga Therapy for Children with Autism and Special Needs. The center is located at 827 SE 9th St., Deerfield Beach. For more information, call 954-427-2353, email [email protected] and/or visit YogaCenterDB.com.