Mobility, Stability, & Flexibility: Clarifying Our Concepts in Yoga

I'm more than excited about my newest article in Yoga International that just published this morning! We tend to use the words mobility, stability, and flexibility all the time in yoga, but what do these terms actually mean?

The information I write about in this piece changed my whole perspective on yoga and movement, and I think these concepts have the power to change our yoga community’s entire approach to asana if this message spreads. There is so much value in getting clear on our terms & definitions!

I’m very thankful for the positive feedback I’ve received so far on this piece - I hope you enjoy it if you check it out!

Deconstructing Down Dog Shoulder Alignment

This is a consolidation of a 4-part series of posts that I recently ran on my social media channels (Instagram & Facebook). Social media is a great tool for sharing information because so many of us tune into these outlets regularly, but it's also a somewhat temporary medium because new posts continually arise and replace old posts, etc. So here I've decided to consolidate my 4-part series into a blog post, where it can live more permanently and be accessed easily in the future. (And please excuse the somewhat chatty "social media voice" I wrote this in, because I originally wrote it for that platform. :) ) I hope you enjoy!

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Part 1

In this series of posts we’ll be deconstructing down dog shoulder alignment with *critically-thinking minds* to learn more about the body and why we say what we say in yoga!

Before we can deconstruct down dog shoulder alignment, we need to first establish what the classic shoulder alignment instructions ARE, so we know what we’re going to be deconstructing, right?

Now the anatomy of the shoulder girdle is quite complex, but we're going to keep things pretty simple here because this is just IG/FB and not a full-on yoga anatomy training. (For that, consider one of my online workshops on my website!)

In my long-time experience in the yoga world, the most common alignment for the shoulders in down dog that I see taught is: shoulders *externally rotated* ("outer spiral") and shoulder blades *protracted* (broadened apart from each other). Is this what you've experienced too, or are you used to a different shoulder alignment in DD?

If you have time while you're commenting, can you also share WHY this alignment is believed to be important - what purpose does it serve?

Once we have our basic DD shoulder alignment established, we can start to look at it more closely and question it. (Because that's what we do as evidence-based yogis, right??) Tune into my next post in this series to continue this inquisitive discussion!

 
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Part 2

In part 1, we established that, with a few exceptions, DD is generally taught with the shoulders *externally rotated* ("outer spiral") and the shoulder blades *protracted* (broadened apart).

Now the next thing to establish is WHY. Why this particular alignment? What purpose does it serve?

The general reason given for this alignment is because it helps us to keep the tissues of our shoulders safer.

Specifically, this shoulder position is believed to help us avoid a condition called *shoulder impingement*. (Getting a lil anatomy geeky here - but this is good stuff to know!) In shoulder impingement, the rotator cuff tendons and/or other soft tissues of the shoulder are "pinched" between the head of the arm bone and the bony shelf right above (called the acromion process just FYI) as the arm moves overhead.

When we ER & protract as the arm lifts, we create more space in the shoulder joint - more room between the bones - to help avoid this pinching. Therefore this alignment helps protect us from impingement.

...OR SO THEY SAY!! Heheheh tune into Part 3 of this series to read more and to learn about why there might be reason to doubt this commonly-cited justification for this classic DD shoulder alignment.

(Sorry to be such a yoga rebel sometimes, but hey, the research leads where it leads, and it doesn’t always support our long-held beliefs, does it?)

 
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Part 3

In Parts 1 & 2 we established that we're commonly taught to externally rotate & protract our shoulders in DD because this is supposed to help us avoid a condition called *shoulder impingement*.

(Quick review: shoulder impingement happens when the rotator cuff tendons and other soft tissues are pinched between the bones of the shoulder joint as the arm moves overhead.)

Wellll inspired by my amazing yoga mentor Jules Mitchell who originally connected the dots for me about this topic, I looked at some scientific research and here's what I learned [DM me for the refs!]:

"Shoulder impingement syndrome" is actually highly questioned among experts today - it is suspected as not being a THING at all, and is even hypothesized to be a "clinical illusion". (An illusion!!)

The truth is that we ALL have impingement because no matter who you are, whenever you take your arm overhead, the tissues in your shoulder will always pinch at some point. It just happens and is actually normal - not pathological!

Here's a quote from one research article: "a synthesis of the current research findings suggests that no definitive relationship exists between scapular orientation and SIS (shoulder impingement syndrome)." Translation: the alignment of the shoulders is not (not! despite what we're taught!) related to impingement symptoms.

(There is *tons* more to discuss about all of this, but I have to keep this brief 'cuz this is IG/FB heheh.)

So if impingement isn't as much of a problem as we've been taught, then do we need to always be externally rotating our shoulders in DD to minimize it? DO WE?

Wellll I will leave you with that big thought to ponder for a bit... Stay tuned for Part 4, our final installment in this fresh perspective series!

 
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Part 4

In Parts 1-3, we learned that external rotation & protraction is generally taught in DD because it is believed to be safer, but then we used scientific research to question the idea that this one position is superior and the best.

While ER is just fine to do (absolutely!), we should ideally be able to position our shoulders in DD in ALL WAYS, as long as we have control there! The traditional alignment of ER + protraction is a good way, but it is *only one way*. The body benefits from variety and options, and the more ways we can create a shape, the better.

Is it OK to do DD with shoulder blades down? Yes! Elevated? Yes! Retracted? Yes! With shoulders internally rotated? Yes! As long as you have *control* over these ranges, and as long as you have no pain while you're there, it is fine to practice DD in this wide variety of ways. But position your shoulders intentionally and with control - no dumping or flopping. Know what I mean?

(This conversation is of course more complex than we can delve into in an IG/FB post, but injury-prevention is less about *alignment* and more about progressive loading of our tissues to make them stronger. More movement variability creates more resilient tissues! (And when there are high loads involved i.e. lifting heavy weights overhead 🏋️, alignment for safety becomes more important.)

A great guide for ourselves in DD is: what is our goal in doing the pose in the moment? Then we can base our alignment decisions on that. And if you don't know what your goal is (heheh sometimes we just don't!), then just do what your teacher says - but don't buy into fearmongering messages about it needing to be done that way and only that way to avoid injury.

Enjoy exploring alignment in down dog - your shoulders will thank you!

[Microblog] You Can't Move an Area Well if You Can't Sense That Area in the First Place

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There are sooo many areas in our body that we don't sense well. This might seem surprising - I mean, we live in our bodies all day every day, so don't we know them pretty well? It's true that we connect to some parts of our bodies well - the ones we tend to use a lot, in the ways that we use them the most.

But have you ever stood up, barefoot, and tried to lift just your *left big toe* straight up off the floor? How did that go? Did your other toes want to lift too? Did your face scrunch up as you tried to figure out how to lift just that one individual toe by itself?

Or try doing some wrist circles (make fists and roll your wrists around) and notice: are you actually moving your actual wrist joints, or are your forearms twisting around, giving the appearance of wrist movement? Same thing goes for every other joint in your body! Can you consciously isolate and move that area through a controlled full range of motion? (Probably no.) Or do other body parts want to jump in and help, meaning that the single area you're trying to isolate and control isn't actually moving well? (Probably yes!)

You can't move an area well if you can't sense that area in the first place. Therefore the real pre-requisite to improving our mobility is to improve our internal image of ourselves - also called *increasing the clarity of the body maps in our brain*.

And how do we do that? Well through muscle contraction and movement, of course! But ideally through smart, intentional movements designed for increasing body awareness - like the classes in my online yoga class library, for example ($8.99/month & you can cancel anytime!)

Once we can sense all of our parts well, we can move them well! 👏🏼

The Myth of Symmetry in Yoga

You know how we tend to assume that the body should look and feel the same on both sides - an ideal of symmetry? And that tadasana (mountain pose) is our neutral, symmetrical, optimal shape? Well, my newest article for Yoga InternationalThe Myth of Symmetry in Yoga, uses science to challenge these long-held assumptions that most of the yoga world holds dear.

"It's articles like this that help to keep asana teaching science-based and elevate our profession as yoga teachers." --From the comment section of the article!

Check it out here to update your perspective on the body, alignment, & yoga!

 
 

[Microblog] Stability Does Not Equal Rigidity

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You know "stability"? As in "core stability", "spinal stability", "shoulder stability", etc? Yes, stability is important, but sometimes we treat stability as though it means we should hold parts of our body rigid and never let them move.

But the technical definition of stability is how well a system can return to an orientation after a perturbation - or in other words, how much *control over movement* there is.

We have stability in our body when we're able to control the ranges of motion that our joints have. That way our body can *move* (not hold rigid all the time), but if there's an element of control there, then there is stability.

Sometimes people are told by doctors, physical therapists, or other health care practitioners that they have "instability" or are "unstable" and therefore shouldn't practice yoga. But if a yoga teacher makes stability a priority (the accurate definition of stability, that is - not the inaccurate one that tends to lead to rigidity and movement avoidance!), then that teacher's yoga class could be a great place for that person!

If you don't have yoga teachers who focus on stability in your area, consider trying out my online class library, which features classes from myself and other special guest teachers who all make stability a priority in our yoga teaching. Your body might liiiike!

[Microblog] Our Bodies Are Naturally Asymmetrical

I don't know how many images of lungs you've looked at, but have you ever noticed that our two lungs are not symmetrical? Check out this medically-accurate image that shows that the right lung has 3 lobes while the left one has 2, and the left one is also a bit smaller than the right to make room for the heart.

Even though we sometimes hold up balance and symmetry as an ideal that we should strive for in our bodies, as though being "imbalanced" is inherently problematic, the truth is that our bodies are not actually evenly-balanced left-to-right to begin with. We don't need to look or feel even on both sides of our body in order to be healthy, functional beings. Asymmetry is a natural part of who we are!

5 Things We Didn't Learn About the SI Joint in Yoga Teacher Training

Today I'd like to offer 5 insights about the SI joint (or sacroiliac joint) that we don't tend to learn about in yoga teacher training, but which definitely have implications for how we teach and practice yoga. Also included are multiple scientific references for each point. I invite you to read these points with an open mind and a willingness to possibly question your own biases (because I know I have had to question my own many times as I continue to study and learn about the body!)

 

 

Insight #1: The SI joint is a strong, resilient structure that is supported by thick layers of some of the strongest ligaments and muscles in the body. [Ref, Ref, Ref]


Although the SI joints are some of the strongest joints in the body, we often receive the impression from our yoga teacher trainings that they are actually quite fragile structures that are vulnerable to injury and instability from the slightest misalignments in yoga. For example, we are sometimes taught that if we hold our pelvis "square" when we twist in poses like twisting triangle (parivrtta trikonasana), we can "tweak" our SI joints by pulling them out of alignment, and we should therefore instead always be mindful to let our pelvis turn slightly in the direction we are twisting in these poses. Another example is that we are often instructed in backbends like bridge pose (setu bandha sarvangasana) and locust pose (shalabhasana) to relax our glutes (or to at least soften them somewhat) because if we contract them too hard, this could injure our SI joints.

One reason we tend to believe that our SI joints are vulnerable to damage in yoga is that we generally learn about SI joint anatomy by looking at a skeleton model or a drawing like this one here:

 
 

When we see the bones by themselves like this, we can certainly get the impression that the sacrum can "slide around" relative to the pelvis easily, resulting in an SI joint that can be pulled "out of place" or "strained" due to small misalignments in yoga poses.

However, what we rarely see after learning about the bony anatomy of the SI joint's structure is an image like this, which depicts all of the extremely resilient, tough ligaments that surround and support the SI joints from all sides, holding them firmly in place:

The ligaments that support the SI joint include the anterior sacroiliac ligament, interosseus sacroiliac ligament, sacrotuberous ligament, posterior sacroiliac ligament, and sacrospinous ligament.

The ligaments that support the SI joint include the anterior sacroiliac ligament, interosseus sacroiliac ligament, sacrotuberous ligament, posterior sacroiliac ligament, and sacrospinous ligament.

 

A rarely-cited fact is that the ligaments of the SI joint include some of the strongest ligaments in the human body! [Ref]

If after seeing an image of the SI joint's ligamentous support, we were then shown an image like this one below, which depicts all of the thick musculature and fascia on top of all of those ligaments on top of the SI joints (including the powerful gluteus maximus, the largest muscle in the human body), we might have reason to be more confident and less fearful about this naturally strong, sturdy area of our body:

 
 

 

While our SI joint can certainly be injured and we can absolutely experience pain there (more on this in #4), it would take much more force to injure a healthy SI joint than the relatively low loads involved in a yoga practice.

 

Insight # 2: The SI joints are inherently stable by design, not inherently vulnerable. [RefRef, Ref]

The SI joints serve to transfer the load of the upper body to the lower body, as well as to distribute forces moving up the body from below. Therefore, stability is built into their very design so that these forces can be transferred efficiently through the pelvis.

In fact, the SI joints are so inherently stable that there is only the tiniest amount of movement available at these joints. While some sources state that the amount of motion available at the SI joint is a barely-perceptible 2-4 millimeters, other sources actually state that there is in fact no movement available at these joints at all.

 

Insight #3: Even if the SI joints could "slip out of place" easily, we don't have a reliable way to assess this in someone's body. [Ref, RefRef, Ref, Ref]

SI joint movement is so minute and difficult to identify with either manual palpation or radiographic imaging that none of the tests traditionally done to assess the SI joint have been shown to be reliable. Without an accurate method for testing the position and movement of an SI joint, how can we definitively know that someone's SI joint is "out of place", "misaligned", or "unstable" in the first place?

 

Insight #4: SI joint pain is certainly a common experience among yogis and non-yogis alike, but SI joint pain does not necessarily mean that there is an SI joint injury. [Ref]

His left hand would actually be a bit lower if this were truly SI joint pain. (I couldn't find a photo that showed the right spot - they all seem to feature general low back pain instead!)

His left hand would actually be a bit lower if this were truly SI joint pain. (I couldn't find a photo that showed the right spot - they all seem to feature general low back pain instead!)

Thankfully, insights from modern pain science are beginning to become more widely known in the yoga world, but if this topic is new to you, consider taking a look at the introduction to pain science article that I wrote for Yoga International a couple of years ago. It turns out that despite what we have traditionally been taught, pain and tissue damage often do not correlate on a 1:1 basis - especially when pain is experienced in a more persistent or chronic way. Pain is actually a much more complex, multi-factorial phenomenon than simply "I have tissue damage and therefore that is what is creating my pain."

As an example, if someone has SI joint pain and they have experienced a recent blunt force trauma to their pelvis region (think from a car accident or a major fall of some sort), then their pain is very likely due to an actual SI joint injury. Once this injury has healed, this pain should subside. In fact, my husband and I suspect that his SI joint may have been injured many years ago in yoga by a strong adjustment he received. His yoga teacher forcefully pulled both of his legs behind his head in a pose called dwipada sirsasana and he felt a searing pain at his left SI joint in that moment. Thankfully the injury healed, but this type of forceful, deep adjustment seems like it was enough to cause injury to his SI joint (or at least a strong protective output of pain in the area).

But in contrast to those examples of short-term pain associated with acute injury, when someone's SI joint pain is more long-term or chronic in nature (chronic pain is sometimes defined as pain lasting longer than 3 months), it's less likely that this pain is connected to a specific injury or damage to the area, and more likely that the person's nervous system is instead sensitive around that spot. Nervous system sensitivity and an output of pain can be the result of many different factors aside from actual tissue damage. Other influences include emotions, past experiences, stress levels, beliefs - and particularly beliefs about one's body. In fact, the more that someone believes that their SI joints are fragile and vulnerable, the more likely their nervous system is to perceive threat in that area and to output pain there. And conversely, the more someone learns that their SI joints are strong, inherently stable structures well-supported by some of the most durable ligaments and muscles of the body, the less likely their nervous system will be to perceive threat and output pain in this area. [Ref, Ref]

 

Insight #5: Warnings about protecting the SI joint in yoga are often unnecessary.

As we have seen, the SI joints are held stable by a ligamentous and musculature support structure that is strong and resilient - and the joints themselves have only a tiny amount of movement available (if any) in the first place. With this in mind, whether or not we hold our pelvis square when we twist in yoga is probably not a likely mechanism for SI joint injury either way, given the relatively low loads involved in the pose. And whether or not we squeeze our glutes in backbends in yoga is also unlikely to be a mechanism for SI joint injury; in fact, contrary to the common cautions in yoga, contracting our glutes in backbends has actually been shown to have a positive stabilizing effect on the SI joints. [Ref, Ref]

Additionally, it's common these days to hear warnings about "overstretching" the ligaments of the SI joints in yoga poses, leading to SI joint instability and pain. (I myself used to offer such cautions too - the idea just seems to make sense!) We are learning, however, that this is not actually how ligaments respond to stretching. During a stretch, a ligament lengthens temporarily, but then it returns to its resting length afterward (sometimes after a short recovery period.) Despite popular warnings, passive stretching has not been shown to lengthen and destabilize ligaments and joints. I have personally changed my perspective on this issue due to insights from newer research and teachings from my yoga biomechanics mentor Jules Mitchell.

(For more reading on the fascinating topic of stretching, ligaments, and joint instability with lots of research references cited, I encourage you to read this recent blog post by Greg Lehman, a researcher and clinician whose work I have followed and admired for quite some time now. But fair warning: this post is long and is really territory for the more serious body geeks among us. You can always jump right to "Questionable Assertion #3", which specifically addresses these topics and might offer some new, interesting information for you to ponder.)

 

IN CONCLUSION...

In summary, SI joint pain is common among yogis and non-yogis alike and there are many factors that can contribute to it, including physical, psychological, and social ones. How we align our body in yoga is probably not a mechanism for SI joint injury, though (strong, forceful adjustments by yoga teachers excepted!) Rather than worrying too much about alignment for SI joint protection, a more effective means to injury-prevention is to simply strengthen and condition the muscles and connective tissue that support the SI joint, so that their capacity to handle load increases.

Thank you for reading these 5 points with an open mind, and I hope to see you on the mat virtually or in person in the near future!

[Microblog] There is No "Right Way" To Do A Yoga Pose

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When I think about yoga alignment, the approach I take these days is that there is no one "right" way to practice any yoga pose. The right way to align a yoga pose really depends on who is practicing the pose and what their individual goals are. Our goals can also change every time we practice a pose, and that's actually great. Otherwise we just practice the same thing the same way all the time and never provide new input into our tissues or our nervous system.

In this "hovering" variation of pigeon pose, my goal is to create *strength* in my hips in a pigeon-like joint arrangement. This is good stuff that will create tissue health and neurological control in my hips - something that nearly all of us can use more of. Consider changing up your pigeon pose regularly and all your other poses too - as long as they align with your specific goal in the moment, then that is "right" way for you to practice the pose.