Becoming 'more flexible' is one of the more common interests for people entering a yoga program. Many studies from exercise science and yoga increasingly demonstrate the immense benefits of stretching including increased range of joint motion and tissue extensibility (aka 'increased flexibility'). One aspect that is rarely addressed in the development of flexibility is stretch tolerance. Let's discuss how yoga stretching offers benefits in improving stretch tolerance along with some mindful cautions.
Posts tagged ‘yoga injury’
We are very familiar with the general concept of yoga being about 'balance' and 'harmony' for the physical, mental, and energetic body. These relationships of balance cross their respective boundaries influencing each other. In terms of the physical body, it is essential that we respect the musculoskeletal relationship of balanced muscle tension.
Although I am a ‘morning person’, I must admit my body resists doing practices in the early hours of the day. Traditional yogis believe yoga should be practiced very early in the day for a variety of energetic, physical and mental benefits. Some of these benefits I can agree to especially with regards to tapping into the grounded brain waves from sleep and setting a harmonious energy for the day ahead. Aside from the energetic qualities, I have come across research that can give strong reasoning for why some people could readily benefit from doing yoga later in the day.
One of the benefits of many forward bending Yoga poses is expanding and stretching of the hamstring muscles. Therefore, it is ideal to take time in our Yoga classes to align the sit bones and leg bones so we can target the proper line of stretch of the hamstring muscles. With this alignment, we should understand the basic anatomy and mechanics of the various hamstring muscles.
Q: I recently injured my back doing Parivrtta Janu Sirsasana. Do you have any tips on how I can avoid this from happening again?
In Sarvangasana, Halasana, and other inverted Yoga poses that place the neck in forward flexion, the posterior neck muscles and the Nuchal Ligament can undergo substantial stretching. For those with tense neck muscles and rigid Nuchal ligament tissues, this deep stretching can lead to chronic or acute damage to these important, supportive tissues.
Hatha Yoga has an array of back bending or back arching Yoga exercises that deliver a wealth of health benefits when done correctly. Back bending Yoga poses can be intimidating to those who have low back pain or previous low back injuries. When performed with the right intention and alignment techniques, back bends can be safe, effective, and revitalizing. The common error of doing back bending Yoga exercises is the immediate emphasis of moving into the spine thinking that we need to increase the "flexibility of the vertebrae".
A variety of Hatha Yoga poses provide a wealth of strengthening and endurance conditioning. Many Standing Yoga Poses like Virabhadrasana (warrior pose) or lunging Yoga poses require proper knee alignment to allow for complete flow of energy and to maintain strength, safety, and stability in your Yoga class.
What is the purpose of Yoga poses? For me, the purpose of Yoga poses is to create a healthy flow of energy through the body to transit an aurora of vitality into the mind and soul. With new each practice, I establish an intention that every position develops with pure, balanced space in the spine and, from this, the core's energy is invited to move outwards into the limbs. This positive flow of energy transmits back through the nervous system to the mind in a healing manner rather than a stimulation of struggle and ego.
Forward bending Yoga poses provide great release and rejuvenation to the back lines of the body. When done correctly, they yield wonderful physical, mental, and emotion benefits. When done incorrectly or with ego, they can produce serious damage including herniated intervertebral discs. Like all Yoga poses, spinal integrity should be one's first priority and then, from this place, inviting this quality outwards into the limbs.
Asana can be defined as a physical Yoga posture or position that is designed to help master the body and enhance the body’s functions. Yoga poses are, in essence, Yoga exercises creating strength and endurance, improving circulation and energy flow, cleansing organs and other systems, and expanding muscles and joints. With all these benefits, we can not lose attention to the original purpose of the Yoga pose or Yoga exercise.
Yoga exercises evolved thousands of years ago from the need to create a healthy body, from which, one could move more readily towards a state of oneness and realization. A more open, vital physical body allowed one to acquire more comfort in seated meditations for extended periods of time. When the body is cluttered with stress, tension, and disease, this clouds the mind and one’s the ability to connect with the inner self. The physical freedom attained from the Yoga exercises increases one’s ability to sit with silence and joyful observation.
The practice of Hatha Yoga (Yoga exercises) can be easily moved into a state of Ego where one brings expectations and goals into the Yoga poses. Rather than connecting with the Inner Self, the practice of Yoga exercises moves one deeper into the physical reality of disillusion.
Western culture has easily turned Yoga exercises into another form of superficial workout routines and, rather than having a holistic connection, many people are moving to a place of obsession with the body and its’ achievements. Asana can be described as a physical state of the body such that the posture moves one into an existence of wholeness and steadiness allowing one to reflect inwards on the entire being.
This state of steadiness involves no goals, no future, and no analyzing – just observing the how the physical self receives vitality and openness while enabling the mind to explore clarity. One can appreciate that health and wellness are derived by holistic progression – applying effort to the body and encouraging it to adapt. Adaption, though, is an intention drawing energy from the future – wanting to have a certain level of flexibility or strength by a certain point of time. Does this have relevance in the immediate practice? Our bodies change from one day to the next. Are we not better served to practice based on the body’s needs in that moment – tending to blockages and resistance specific to the life pattern of recent cycles?
A sub-layer of our Hatha practice is finding that balance of progression while savouring the present – learning to tune out the Ego who is asking us push past the muscle receptors cry to ease off and ‘just breathe’. A beautiful way to retain holistic intentions within the practice is to continually breathe in awareness to the ultimate benefit of each pose – What is its’ purpose? What are the proper alignment forms? How does this serve the bigger picture in my physical and spiritual life? Is the approach and intention I am proceeding with this pose taking me closer or farther away from those benefits?
You start off your yoga flow with a wonderful period of calm centering followed by an invigorating series of breath work. Your yoga teacher guides you into a light series of cat poses and eases you into mountain pose. Then, your teacher sets your stance for a vinyasa flow. You feel ready, full of confidence and awareness. You breathe in, arms rise with grace. Then you exhale and fold mindfully into standing forward bend. You then inhale to extend the spine and prepare for your step back. Then, IT comes, the yoga pushup!
Chaturanga Dandasana is a highly delicate pose to perform. Without proper strength and alignment, chronic injuries can easily develop. The sense of struggle with inadequate form also generates a negative energy feedback causing your overall practice to be lacking in benefits.
So what causes Chaturanga Dandasana to be such a challenge? Here are 5 key reasons why yoga pushups feel so difficult and some of the common alignment issues:
1) Yoga Pushups are triceps muscle dominant
The hand position from downward facing dog to Chaturanga Dandasana is a narrow arm stance. Due to the close (shoulder width) position of the arms, the chest muscles (which are the largest and strongest anterior upper body muscle group) are not able to effectively engage and support this pose. Therefore, the muscle loading is shifted to the much smaller and often much weaker (particularly for women) triceps and front shoulder muscles.
2) Yoga pushups can cause shoulder girdle destabilization
If the triceps and front shoulder muscles do not have sufficient strength to perform the pose and the transition to the floor, the body instinctively tries to incorporate the chest muscles. One of the actions of chest muscle contraction is internal rotation of the upper arm (humerus) bone. In a proper yoga pushup descent, we want the elbows and upper arms to be flush to the ribs. However, when the chest muscles engage (to compensate for weak arms and shoulders), this internal rotation action from the chest muscles pulls the upper arms and elbows outwards. This often leads to the shoulder blades pulling forward (a ‘winging’ of the shoulder blades) and into a cascading destabilization; all of which can lead to injury in the musculature supporting the shoulder girdle.
3) Yoga pushups can cause wrist compression injuries
The same internal rotation of the upper arm by the chest muscles carries down to the forearm. As the elbows flow outwards from the ribs, this pulls outwards on the lower arm bone that transmits all the way into the wrist and hand. We often see an excessive ‘doming’ of the inner hands so much so that the index finger pads and thumb pads lift from the mat. This generates an imbalanced shift of weight to the outer wrist. With repeated improper wrist loading, chronic compression issues often surface.
4) Yoga pushups can promote spinal compression
As the shoulder girdle goes through destabilization, the musculature of the core is often neglected. This is presented as unwanted lordotic curvature of the spine as we hold Chaturanga Dandasana and even more so during the pushup descent. For some, the gravitational load of the organs during this lordotic position can cause spinal compression (hyperflexion). The other concern with this core collapse is the next yoga pose. Often Chaturanga Dandasana is followed by upward facing dog pose or cobra pose. Without proper core and bandha engagement, the earlier collapse of the lower spine is readily taken into these back arches.
5) Let’s not forget about your head and neck
Most people already suffer from chronic neck tension issues. When we lose shoulder stability in Chaturanga Dandasana and feel a flood of struggle, the immediate reaction is for the head to drop towards the floor. We watch the floor coming and instinctively want it to come faster. Our visual sense of the floor pulls our skull closer to the ground resulting in the loss of the neutral neck curvature. The neck, over repeated improper yoga pushups, develops body memory of this posture. When we are then in upright positions like basic sitting, the head chronically shifts forward. The neck musculature struggles to hold the head in this improper line with the spine and consequently develops more and more muscle tension.
So how do we modify yoga pushups to prevent these alignment issues?
1) Before setting up Chaturanga Dandasana and descending, set your hands wider (slightly broader than shoulder width). This will enable your chest muscles to engage without causing shoulder girdle destabilization.
2) Always visualize your shoulder blades hugging into and down the ribs, thus retaining the integrity of the stabilizer muscles.
3) Maintain a continuous reaching motion down the index fingers, keeping the index finger pads grounded.
4) Look slightly forward a few inches forward of your finger tips and visualize your fore-head floating away from the ground. Keep a neutral neck line to support the upper spine.
5) Contain your belly by maintaining mild abdominal contraction. Use your exhale to help promote contraction of the core musculature.
6) Place your knees on the floor. Reduce the load on the upper body by placing some of your lower body weight on the ground. This is ideal especially when you decide to try the traditional closed hand variation and developing strength in the triceps muscles.
Hatha Yoga explores various methods of expanding into the muscles and joints creating freedom and healing properties. As much as we enjoy creating flexibility from our Yoga poses, we need to understand the necessity of balancing this growing flexibility with strength and endurance.
There is a growing interest in restorative and passive-style Hatha Yoga classes like Yin Yoga. These Yoga practices incorporate a beautiful method of creating layers of physical, mental and emotional release. Yin Yoga is designed to move flexibility through the muscle tissues into the connective tissues.
When we practice deeper into connective tissue, the joints enjoy spaciousness and we experience a breaking down of imbalances and blockages. But, with this increased flexibility going directly into the joints, we can gradually encounter a loss of integrity and stability in those joints. With less stability surrounding these joints, we become more prone to acute and chronic injuries.
Coming back to the basic function of ligaments (tissues connecting bone to bone), their main purpose is to hold joints in place. Do we want to make ligaments, the primary support of our joints, flexible? Then we look at the function of muscles and tendons (tendons attach muscle to bone). We normally associate muscles with creating movement of the joints. Consider the thigh and hamstring muscles. These large muscles travel down the front and back of the thigh bone and then cross over the knee joint to attach at the lower leg bone. This crossing of muscle tissue over the joint acts as an additional support, thus aiding the ligaments in creating joint stability. Therefore, to what degree do we truly want our muscles to be flexible if excess flexibility reduces joint integrity?
All high level athletes that participate in sports requiring flexibility (ie gymnastics, figure skating) must balance their flexibility training with key strengthening programs to reduce incidences of injury. As we progress in our Hatha Yoga practice, we should apply equal amounts of strengthening with flexibility in order to contain the release and openness. The overall purpose of the Hatha Yoga practice is to improve the vitality and steadiness of the body with the deeper purpose to encourage and promote connection with the Inner Self and truths. If the body is only flexible and collapsing into its’ joints, the vitality and steadiness will soon collapse as well. Enjoy a balanced, variety of practices that explore strength along with expansion to facilitate overall integrity for the musculoskeletal system.
A variety of Hatha Yoga poses provide a wealth of strengthening and endurance conditioning. Many Standing Yoga Poses like Virabhadrasana (Warrior Pose) or lunging Yoga poses like Hanurasana require proper knee alignment to allow for complete flow of energy and to maintain strength, safety, and stability in your Yoga class.
Two main alignment issues should always be addressed when attempting Yoga poses that place the forward leg into a deep knee bend over the foot:
1) Hyper flexion of the Knee Joint
*Our muscle fibers contain microfilaments that crossover and generate contraction or shortening of the muscle. To help visual these microfilaments, think of Velcro! When you completely line up a section of Velcro, it is very strong in maintaining its’ grip. If you line up only half of the Velcro, it starts to lose its’ ability to hold together. Lining up only a small fraction of the two pieces of Velcro leaves the Velcro very weak. Our microfilaments act in a similar way. As a muscle is stretched longer and longer, the microfilament crossover becomes less and less, and they have reduced ability to contract or sustain the endurance when the muscle is loaded. This is quite evident for the knee joint. When going into Warrior poses, the knee is place over the heel and knee bends to about 95 degrees. The quadriceps (thigh) muscle is elongated while also contracting (this can be considered an eccentric contraction). The microfilaments are still at a sufficient crossover placement to allow one to hold the pose with ample endurance. When one bends the knee below 90 degrees (thigh bone is moving below the level of the knee), the microfilaments have very little crossover and the muscle begins to loose its’ ability to sustain the contraction.
Since the muscle cannot sustain the contraction sufficiently, stressing energies move down the thigh into the quadricep tendons and into the knee joint. The pose moves from control into struggle and negative feedback signals are transmitted back to the nervous system. A similar alignment error in lunging Yoga poses is to have the knee traveling far forward over the toes as the knee bends. From a side view, one can clearly see that the knee is over flexed (hyper flexed) well below the 90 degree point. Even though kneeling lunging poses do not have the same energetic loading as Warrior Poses, the quadricep muscle is still required to contract to maintain knee stability. With the knee traveling too far forward and hyper flexing, stressing energies also move into the quadricep tendons and knee structures. Therefore, always observe that the knee is placed directly over the knee in these Yoga poses and avoid placing the thigh/hips lower than the knee level in Virabhadrasana.
2) Lateral Tracking of the Knee
*Very common in Warrior Yoga poses is to see participants have the forward knee slightly or excessively falling inwards in relation to the forward heel. This places an imbalanced energy in the quadricep muscles and can send chronic or acute injury into the knee. We have 4 muscles making up the quadriceps – an interior line (Vastus Medialis), an exterior line (Vastus Lateralis), a superficial middle line (Rectus Fermorus), and a deep middle line (Vastus Intermedius). These muscles join together into one tendon that inserts into the top of the knee cap (Patella). This connective line continues from the bottom of the knee cap into the patellar ligament to the top of the leg bone (Tibial tuberosity).
Think of these muscles like 4 ropes pulling on the knee cap when contracting. If you pull harder on one rope than the others, the knee cap will be pulled more in that direction. This brings us to Warrior Pose. When the knee is slightly falling inwards, the outer quadricep line (Vastus Lateralis) acts more energetically than the inner line (Vastus Medialis). The biomechanical line of this imbalanced energy creates an outwards pulling motion on the knee cap. Some individuals can be prone to having the knee completely shift or dislocate outwards (Lateral or Patellar Tracking). To avoid this imbalance and type of injury to the knee, insure that the knee does not fall inwards or towards the big toe in Warrior Pose. When you look briefly down to check your alignment, a good guide for knee placement is that you are able to see the big toe and inner edge of the foot.
As you maintain the pose, accessory muscles help maintain this knee line: outer shine muscles (Peroneal muscles) help ground the outer edge of the forward foot and draw the shine bone (Tibia) outwards / outer hip muscles (Abductors and Lateral Rotators) help move the thigh bone outwards as well. The benefit of this knee placement is the quadricep muscles maintain balanced support and energy on the knee cap and knee joint, and the outwards motion of the thigh bone places a more effective stretch into the groin muscles (in particular for Warrior 2 and Side Angle Pose).
Knee placement and integrity is just a small portion of alignment aspects for Warrior Pose.
Observe and study the whole body as you attempt these poses and move into a place where the body feels light, balanced, and confident.
Many Yoga poses and flows involve large movements at the shoulder joint. Some of these movements have the potential to create shoulder impingement when improper technique and movement lines are applied. If this shoulder impingement continues over time, chronic injury can form leading to pain and disfunction.
What is Shoulder Impingment?
Shoulder impingement is caused when the arm is lifted above the line of the shoulder. The head of the arm bone (humerus) lifts and rotates into a portion of the shoulder blade (acromion on the scapula). Covering the head of the arm bone are the 4 rotator cuff muscles: the supraspinatus, the infraspinatus, the subscapularis, and the teres minor. Acting as cushioning against pressure and friction, there are bursa sacs that lie between the muscular capsule and the acromion.
When the arm is lifted high over the level of the shoulder, the head of the humerus presses into the acromion. This pressure and friction can develop into inflammation of the bursa (bursitis) or the tendons the muscles (tendonitis). This inflammation can worsen due to repeated impinging actions that can eventually lead to increased pain and limited movement.
Where can Shoulder Impingement Occur in a Yoga Practice?
Shoulder impingement can occur in variety of Yoga postures and flows. Here is list of common yoga postures that set the arm bone above the line of the shoulder and can generate damaging frictional forces in the shoulder joint if one is not mindful:
*Sun Salutations-the motion raising the arms outwards in Mountain pose prior to folding into Uttanasana often incorporates a large sweeping motion of the arms over the head that draws the humerus into the acromion.
*Extended Side Angle Pose (Parsvottanasana)
*Extended arms in Child’s Pose (Balasana)
*Half Moon Side Stretch Pose
*Gate Pose (Parighasana)
How Reduce the Incidence of Shoulder Impingement in Yoga Poses?
The first method in reducing the pressure caused by shoulder impingement is to eliminate arm transitions that move the arm bone through large sweeping motions. In Sun Salutations, consider keeping arms in the forward plane, instead of lifting arms out to the side, back, up and then over head. By lifting the arms forward instead, there is less pressure being created against the head of the humerus as the arm bone moves back and up. Overall, consider the path of movement when taking the arms into key yoga postures/transitions and avoid excessive circling motions that pull the arm fully back, around, and then overhead.
The greatest amount of pressure tends to occur where the arm is situated high above the shoulder line with the arm bone back in line with the neck and the arm bone rotated internally (medially) so the palm faces forward.
If the yoga posture requires the arm to be overhead and in line with the neck (like Extended Side Angle Pose), take extra note of the position of the hand. The hand should be turned inwards towards the body creating an external rotation of the arm bone. This external rotation has a tendency to draw the head of the humerus down from the acromion and scapular structures. This outwards rotation of the arm bone offers secondary benefits as it encourages the shoulder blades to draw down away from the ears, thus bringing more integrity to the shoulder girdle and freedom to the trapezius and neck regions.
If you are ever experiencing regular pain in the shoulders, consult a health care professional to have your condition properly diagnosed and treated. Continue to acknowledge that Yoga poses are a means to create expansion and vitality. With mindful alignment and awareness to joint positioning, you can maintain space and energy flow through the shoulders and readily avoid impinging movements.