Why yoga isn’t ‘stretching’

This one has been percolating away in my mind for a while and it’s a response to two issues:

– doctors and fitness professionals recommending yoga as a cure-all for flexibility and rehab issues

– yoga being perceived as a purely physical discipline, as a workout, or as a stretching protocol.

Let’s get started by reminding ourselves of what yoga really is as a practice.

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(Me in mermaid pose. Yoga, or just a good old stretch?)

What is ‘yoga’?

Yoga in its modern form has become entrenched in the popular psyche as a pretzel-making form of stretching and contortion, maybe with some chanting thrown in for good measure.

It’s actually better understood as a belief system or philosophy composed of Eight Limbs (drawn from Patanjali’s Sutras, a classic and much argued over yoga text), that include codes of personal conduct and rules for behaviours towards others, meditation, withdrawal of the senses, and the physical practice, or asana, which is intended to prepare the body and mind for the demands of seated meditation and is only one of those eight components.

You can practise yoga without performing a single physical pose if you meditate regularly, develop spiritual discipline and are mindful and compassionate in your dealings with others and yourself. I suspect this isn’t what the average GP has in mind when they recommend a patient with low back pain to ‘try yoga’.

Why is the misunderstanding of yoga problematic?

I’m not a massive yoga purist and accept that many hybrid and gimmicky forms of physical yoga practices exist that bear little relation to what I think of as yoga. It may well lead people to explore yoga in more depth later on, which is great and, if it doesn’t, c’est la vie. However, not understanding what yoga is can be potentially a problem.

Turning up to a group yoga class could be a surprise in several ways. Depending on the class, you may find you don’t move much at all but will be expected to sit, chant, breathe and meditate. At the other end of the spectrum, you may find yourself well out of your depth and at risk of injury in a class too advanced for your needs: there is a world of difference between a slow, supported yin session and the rigours of the Ashtanga primary series.

Yoga teachers are not, by definition, experts in stretching

Please don’t labour under the illusion that a yoga teacher automatically knows what stretching is. Every training course is different and some place a much greater emphasis on spiritual teachings than physical practice. Yoga teachers are taught to teach yoga: alignment, basic biomechanics, joint actions, contraindications and modifications for injuries or pregnancy. They are not mobility and stretching specialists.

I have co-taught a yoga anatomy workshop to teachers who did not know what I meant by basic terms such as flexion and extension in the spine, and have clients in my own classes who have been physically and painfully pushed into poses by other teachers of which their body was not capable. Do not assume training in advanced anatomy and physiology in a yoga teacher.

Do your research before booking 

If someone with low back pain or tight hamstrings is recommended to try yoga by their doctor or PT, they need to do some research. I would argue that they should really book a 1:1 with an experienced yoga teacher who knows about biomechanics, the science of stretching (stretch reflexes, positional isometrics, myofascial release) and have a session tailored to their needs.

It may actually be preferable that they see a physiotherapist or a personal trainer with a specialism in mobility work and movement assessment. Do your homework and choose someone who is least likely to cause further injury, not an over enthusiastic teacher who thinks yoga can cure all ills. Yoga teaching, compared with personal training and physiotherapy, is a frighteningly unregulated industry, so do your homework and check your teacher’s training background and insurance. They should not be offended by you asking.

Doctors and fitpros, please take the time to learn the difference between yoga styles, as well as the difference between the very broad church that is yoga and the purely physical training involved in Pilates, for example, which might be a much better option for a client with poor core stability. Have specific teachers to whom you can refer clients or patients, whose credentials you can trust, rather than making a blanket recommendation to ‘try yoga’. They may come back to you in worse condition than you found them.

 

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Why yoga shouldn’t be your only form of fitness

I’ve been in love with yoga since 1987 when I picked up a copy of Teach Yourself Yoga from the Uxbridge branch of WH Smith aged only 16, and starting contorting myself on my bedroom floor while being grossed out by the dhauti cleansing practices involving swallowing lengths of cotton.

Yoga has certainly increased dramatically in popularity in the UK and US since the 80s and I ended up training to be a yoga teacher myself at the age of 42, after deciding to focus on a kinder and more compassionate form of movement after years of bruising martial arts. Guiding my clients through group and individual practices and seeing them grow in confidence remains one of the most enjoyable and rewarding aspects of my work.

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Is yoga really about fitness?

The older I get, the more I view my practice as a form of mental relaxation and focus and less of a physical discipline. Yes, I use it to stretch and maintain the body of which I demand a great deal each day, as well to devise ideas for teaching my classes, but I mainly see it as a quiet place to go and switch off, rather than as a way to bust some bendy moves.

Like most people, I came to it initially for the physicality and to achieve some of the more impressive poses, but it has become a much more spiritual practice for me over time, which is what many yogis will argue what yoga is in essence: something driven by mental discipline and not by physical accomplishment. It does grate on me personally to see yoga advertised as giving you a tight tush or as a form of calorie-burning exercise. That’s definitely not in Patanjali’s Sutras as a benefit of regular practice and there many ways to lift your butt without calling it ‘yoga’.

The way in which you choose to practise is up to you, of course but, if you use yoga as your primary form of fitness or just to improve flexibility, this post invites you to rethink your approach.

There are three aspects of complete fitness

To have a fit body means having a healthy heart and good cardiovascular capacity, muscular strength and power, and flexibility.  Most people neglect one or two of these in the pursuit of their favourite sport. For example, runners will often underestimate the benefits of strength training for their stability, while those who focus on lifting can neglect their cardio. The majority of my clients confess to forgetting to add stretching to their weekly programmes to develop or maintain flexibility.

To be fair, how you train needs to be appropriate to your goals, so we need to work out programmes proportionate to those. A runner will always need to focus primarily on running with shorter weight training and stretching sessions, and a lifter isn’t training to race. However, they will benefit from doing metabolic sessions occasionally by  not resting between sets and getting their heart rate up.

Which aspects of fitness can yoga support? 

Yoga will help to develop and maintain flexibility and, depending on the style being practised and level of effort applied, can absolutely improve strength through all those vinyasas, chaturangas and warrior poses. However, where yoga can’t help if you are trying to build complete fitness is with cardio. Yoga practices have been measured and shown not to push the heart rate into the zones which increase cardiovascular capacity. You may feel a little out of breath during all those jump backs and transitions, but it’s nothing compared to the cardio workout you would get from running even at a conversational pace for the same amount of time. To gain any additional cardiovascular fitness through yoga means you would have to been relatively unfit to start with.

While yoga can increase flexibility and strength, it will not give you cardiovascular fitness, which contributes to your overall health in important ways, including decreasing the risk of coronary heart disease and stroke, as well as the risk of developing type 2 diabetes. So get running, on your bike, into the pool or find any other kind of activity you enjoy to really get your heart rate up. Yoga, I’m afraid, isn’t enough on its own.

Does yoga burn calories?

If you’re looking to burn calories, choose a different form of movement. Yoga burns surprisingly few calories even during a fairly vigorous practice and, even if you’re sweating your way through hot yoga, any immediate weight lost is water, which will be regained throughout the day as you eat and drink.

As a fitness professional with a lean muscle mass of 38% and weighing about 56.5 kg, I still only burn about one calorie per minute practising yoga, and just a little more in a very dynamic practice. That’s about 35-40 calories during a moderate 30 minute session and 50-60 for a tougher practice of the same duration. A 35-40 minute run sees me burning around 350 calories by contrast.

That’s not to say that yoga is not a worthwhile form of physical activity but you need to be realistic about what you can achieve.

IMG_4508What does yoga actually do for you?

There are however many excellent reasons to practise yoga!

increased range of motion and flexibility. Practised regularly, yoga can help to undo some of the damage done if you have a sedentary job and to complement and balance out repetitive movement patterns in sport. It will not, however, permanently lengthen your muscles. They will retract to their original size and shape post-practice but, over time, you will be training your nervous system to relax your muscles more readily. Note that most athletes require a degree of tension through the muscles for propulsive and explosive power. For example, super-flexible hamstrings are not a runner’s friend. Keep everything in balance.

increased core stability and overall strength. Working with your body weight and challenging your balance can strengthen the muscles around the lumbo-pelvic hip complex, abdominals and spine. You also get some upper body work if you regularly practise chaturanga. However, you need to complement all the pushing work in yoga with pulling movements, so get on the rowing machine, perform bent over rows or use a TRX system for pull ups.

greater focus and mental well-being. Yoga’s attention to the breath and its meditation practices, as well as broader mindfulness-based work, are being recognised as beneficial for mental health, in terms of helping to manage anxiety and pain. Learning to control the breath and relax is also hugely beneficial to many sports when training at lactate threshold or when working anaerobically. It has helped me enormously since I started learning to swim in February and with the cardiovascular demands of boxing.

Next steps 

If you decide to attend yoga classes to increase your flexibility, then be prepared to learn to meditate and do breath work, too. It all comes as part of a more spiritual practice. If that doesn’t appeal, then you don’t have to practise yoga at all to improve your range of movement. Pilates could also work for you and there has been a recent increase in the number of mobility classes available in gyms.

You can look on YouTube for videos helping with stretching and mobility, as well as lots of free yoga content. I would also highly recommend a 1:1 with a qualified teacher to look at some of the basic postures to bs sure that you don’t reinforce any movement imbalances and actually create a problem.

Yoga is often touted as a miracle cure for a wide range of movement problems as well as mental and physical ailments.  But like any discipline, it has its limits and should be seen as appropriate in some scenarios and maybe even irrelevant in others. What it can’t be is a complete movement and fitness system. It never evolved to be such a thing, no matter what modernmarketing may tell you, but its benefits can be significant and potentially life-enhancing, if you are willing to embrace it as more than some fancy moves.

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Why you need a balanced exercise plan

I’m doing some corporate talks about getting started with fitness next month and one of the most important elements to consider when beginning a new training regime is finding balance across your activities. Most of us tend to just focus on one primary form of training and forget to build ourselves up in other areas, so it’s important to look at what your body needs beyond what you enjoy doing most.

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(With my client Linda in the studio at Sweaty Betty Bristol.)

The three pillars of fitness are: cardiovascular health, muscular strength, and flexibility and balance. Without addressing all three areas, you are potentially setting yourself up for mechanical imbalances that could lead to weaknesses that will impede your progress long term and maybe even cause injury.

For example, if you are a keen runner you may be very focused on putting in the miles, especially if you are training for a distance race. However, lack of overall muscle strength and specifically a lack of stability through the trunk can create an uneven distribution of force through your joints every time your foot strikes the ground. If you are running off road, you may be less able to deal with uneven terrain and correct your balance to avoid falls.

Runners often avoid strength training because they fear  getting too heavy, but there’s no need to worry. Even some simple bodyweight exercises can help build stability without creating bulk. Developing strength and stiffness through the core (the area between your diaphragm and pelvis, including your back muscles) will add stability while running, especially through the lumbar spine and help avoid lower back pain, while strengthening the leg muscles builds greater stability through the hips, knees and ankles. These are all joints ripe for potential damage when you are performing a repetitive movement with a heavy load. You need strong joints and muscles working through the appropriate range of movement to decelerate with care and distribute the force meeting you upwards from the ground with every foot strike.

Stretching also needs to be part of an athlete’s training repertoire. My client Linda has been a runner for many years but coming to my HIIT classes and performing different movements like squats and lunges has shown very clearly how muscle imbalances have been created over time. Her left piriformis (under the gluteals) became overactive, tight and sore. An overactive muscle can cause painful spasms as well as little ‘knots’ or trigger points that need releasing through a static stretching programme & some myofascial tissue release using a foam roller or massage. Partner stretching with me has given Linda a great deal of relief.

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(Linda performing banded squats above to help strengthen her gluteals and correct the knee valgus you can see below on her right side.)

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Linda’s focus on running also created a weakness in her gluteus medius on the right side, leading to weak abductors (the muscles that move the leg laterally away from the midline) and her right knee developed a tendency to knock in (valgus) while squatting. The quadriceps often take over when we run and weaker gluteal muscles can be a common problem as a result. A programme of activating and strengthening these underactive muscles now sees Linda performing squats with much improved alignment, strength and range of motion. She has been a clear example of how strength training helps to even out muscle imbalances, while  stretching to relax overactive muscles has taken her out of pain and enabled her to perform a range of exercises safely and with better form.

 

So, if you want to train in a balanced way and avoid imbalances that can lead to injury, think about your week. Plan in the exercise you prioritise, maybe three runs. Then add a short stretching routine after each run, and two strength training sessions of 20-30 minutes. A programme of bodyweight exercise can be performed at home and doesn’t need the gym.

(Linda is 55 but can now perform some advanced bodyweight exercises and has developed a strong core which will help her running form.)

Now, if you’re a yoga bunny and think that your practice is giving you everything you need, then think again. As both a yoga teacher and fitness instructor, I can tell you that while you may have great strength and flexibility, even the most vigorous yoga practice will not increase your heart rate to the level it needs to achieve to really improve cardiovascular fitness. One or two HIIT sessions a week, or spin classes – whatever you can do – will help build all round health.

Because I’m seeing increasing numbers of clients with imbalances and injuries, I started studying a few months ago for a specialisation in corrective exercise with the National Academy of Sports Medicine (NASM). What I have learned so far has already enabled me to help personal training clients like Linda and has also started to change the way I teach yoga, looking at different ways in which to modify poses to suit people’s anatomy rather than getting them to conform to traditional alignment that may not be possible due to physical limitations. I’m incredibly grateful that I decided to study this programme and work more effectively and safely with my clients.

While my current clients are already benefiting from my increased knowledge base, I will be offering individual corrective exercise 1:1s when I qualify as a specialist service. In the meantime, please exercise safely and try to balance out your range of movement and activity.

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