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 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.

http://www.brainboxcoaching.co.uk