Top 5 Movement Science Insights For Yoga Teachers

These are 5 of the most eye-opening insights I have learned from anatomy, physiology, kinesiology, and pain science that have given me a much different perspective on the body than the one I learned through my yoga studies alone. I hope you find these ideas interesting and inspiring for your own yoga practice and teaching!

Each of these insights is simply my best offer at a summary and takeaway for yoga teachers who might not have the time or interest to study these issues thoroughly on their own. There are volumes more to be read about each of these points from primary and secondary sources, so feel free to investigate the links and references I've included below, or to do your own research on these topics to help you come to your own conclusions.

If you're interested in how one might embody these Top 5 insights in their yoga teaching, consider trying some classes in my online class library, which is a great resource of practices from myself and other wonderful science-minded yoga teachers I admire.

Please read the insights below with a willingness to question your own biases and an openness to incorporate critical thinking into your approach to yoga and movement. Without further ado, here are my Top 5 Movement Science Insights For Yoga Teachers!

 

 

MOVEMENT SCIENCE INSIGHT #1: STRETCHING & STRENGTHENING ARE NOT OPPOSITES

One of the core rules we tend to learn in our yoga teacher trainings is that after we've "worked" or “strengthened” a muscle or muscle group, we should then stretch the area to lengthen it back out and restore "balance". The reasoning behind this rule is usually that when a muscle "works" or "contracts", it is shortening. Therefore to avoid leaving your muscle in an excessively shortened state, you should balance it out by "lengthening" or "stretching" it after you've worked it.

This idea would make sense if muscles did only shorten when they contract. But shortening while contracting is actually only one part of the physiological equation - muscles work just as often as they lengthen too. Picture your hamstrings and the way they lengthen while they're working to control your swan dive into uttanasana (standing forward fold) in yoga. When a muscle works as it lengthens, this is called an "eccentric contraction", and we move this way all the time in our normal human movements. [Ref]

Because muscles can and do actually contract through all of their ranges (short, long, somewhere in between, etc.), it is clear that the physiological opposite of a muscle contraction is not a stretch. With this in mind, it might be time to re-think our classic "strengthen it, then stretch it" rule!

 

MOVEMENT SCIENCE INSIGHT #2: NO YOGA POSES ARE INHERENTLY "BAD" OR "GOOD"

Last year I wrote a blog post called Are Some Movements Inherently Bad? which basically suggested that no movements are inherently “bad”, and the only truly bad movement is one for which your individual body is not prepared or conditioned. But the inverse of this insight is also true. While no movement is inherently bad, no movement is inherently good, either. There is a trend in the yoga world toward teaching yoga poses and other movements like “corrective exercises” that are thought of as "better", more "functional", or "healthier" for the body. But the reality is that movements don't have inherent value (i.e. "better for you", "worse for you", etc.) outside of the specific context of who is practicing the movement and with what goal in mind.

We honor the complexity of the human body and its relationship to movement when we avoid valuing certain yoga poses and movements as inherently better, more functional, or worse than other yoga poses and movements. Context and individualized goals are the main determinants of what makes a movement “good”, “bad”, “functional”, or “dysfunctional”.

 

MOVEMENT SCIENCE INSIGHT #3: ALIGNMENT IS LESS ABOUT INJURY-PREVENTION AND MORE ABOUT LOAD-OPTIMIZATION

We generally learn in our yoga teacher trainings that alignment is important in yoga poses primarily because it prevents injuries. However, we’re now learning that the categories of alignment, injury, and pain are not as interrelated as we have previously been taught. Many people exhibit “poor alignment” and are pain-free, while many others exhibit “stellar” alignment and have chronic pain (and to make matters more confusing, pain and injury (i.e. tissue damage) are also not always correlated either.) [Link]

It turns out that the human body is more resilient and adaptable than previous models of alignment and pain have accounted for. Our body actually has a remarkable ability to adapt to become stronger in response to the loads it experiences (as long as those loads aren’t beyond the ability of our tissues to withstand.) [Link] Therefore if we habitually position ourselves in a way that is different from “ideal alignment”, it’s less likely that our body will sustain inevitable damage from the “misalignment” and more likely that our body will simply adapt to better handle the loads of this alignment. (This is assuming that the joints in question are asymptomatic and healthy, of course!)

Now in a high-load situation, such as squatting in the gym with a 300-pound barbell on one’s back, alignment is undeniably an important tool for minimizing risk of injury. [Link] Activities like this involve high forces that are more likely to be beyond the ability of our tissues to withstand, and so aligning our joints intelligently is definitely recommended.

But compared to heavy weightlifting scenarios, yoga is for the most part a low-load activity. Small variances in alignment under low load are not enough to cause inevitable injury and damage in most bodies. For example, if someone’s front knee drifts inward a few centimeters in warrior 2 (breaking the classic alignment rule of keeping the knee stacked directly over the ankle), the tissues of the knee will most likely respond to that load by adapting to become stronger at that angle. And if the shoulders drift slightly out of “joint-stacked” alignment over the wrists in plank pose, the shoulders, elbows, and wrists should be signaled to grow stronger and better able to handle load from this new angle.

In fact, exposing our body to variable loads like this is actually a great way to prevent injury because it helps condition our tissues to become stronger at all angles, rather than strong in only the classic “joint-stacked” position of traditional alignment rules. I would argue that increasing the ability of one's tissues to tolerate load by strengthening the body at all angles and ranges is a much more effective strategy for injury-prevention than "alignment" is.

These days I view alignment as a tool that helps my students direct the loads in their bodies where I intend for those loads to go, rather than as a necessary tool for injury-prevention.

 

MOVEMENT SCIENCE INSIGHT #4: WE USE TOO MUCH FEAR-BASED LANGUAGE AROUND ALIGNMENT IN YOGA

This insight piggybacks right onto insight #3. It’s very common in the yoga world to pepper our alignment instructions with cautionary language, such as “Align your front knee right over your ankle in Warrior 2 to protect your knee” or “Press your pubic bone into the floor in shalabhasana to keep your low back safe.”

As well-intentioned as they are, warnings like this can actually serve to instill a false sense of fragility in our students, which can counterintuitively result in their experiencing pain. We know now that pain is a creation of the nervous system in response to a perceived threat. And our beliefs about our body are actually one influence that can directly escalate or de-escalate our nervous system’s perception of threat and output of pain. [Ref], [Ref], [Ref] Therefore the more we trust in the robustness and resiliency of our body, the more we communicate a message of confidence to our nervous system, which is likely to result in lower threat levels and decreased pain. And conversely, the more we believe that our bodies are innately fragile and vulnerable to injury from low loads and small micro-“misalignments”, the more likely our beliefs are to contribute to increased threat levels and increased pain.

In warrior 2 pose, stating that keeping the knee directly above the ankle is important “to protect your knee” is a potentially nocebic suggestion to offer to our students. (A nocebo is a negative expectation of an otherwise harmless event or action that causes negative consequences like pain.) Likewise, stating that the pubic bone should stay grounded in shalabhasana “to keep your low back safe” suggests to our students that their spines are fragile structures that will experience damage if their pelvis is tilted a few millimeters in the “wrong” direction.

Instead of using cautionary, nocebic language about alignment in our yoga classes, consider talking about alignment in terms of what it helps us achieve in our poses. For example, in warrior 2 we could say “Keep your front knee lined up over your ankle to engage your lateral hip muscles” or “Press your pubic bone into the floor in shalabhasana to lengthen your low back and direct the backbend into your thoracic spine.” These types of cues utilize alignment more for load-optimization reasons and less for injury-prevention reasons. Instead of instilling a sense of fragility about their bodies, these types of cues encourage increased body awareness in our students, which can be confidence-building and empowering.

 

MOVEMENT SCIENCE INSIGHT #5: TWO COMMON YOGA CUES WE CAN STOP USING

We often teach yoga poses in a way that tells our students which specific muscles they should (or should not) be contracting in particular movements.

In certain contexts, suggesting which muscles a student should be using at any given time can be a useful type of guidance. But it's helpful to realize that as a general rule, our nervous system actually does a good job of automatically organizing and coordinating the movement of our body all on its own, without needing much conscious input from our thinking mind. In fact, consciously "micromanaging" which muscles our nervous system chooses to recruit can often interfere with our built-in, sophisticated motor control system in a way that results in less efficient movement. [Ref]

With this in mind, here are two cues that are very common in the yoga world today that we could all use to stop giving:

1) The glutes & bridge/wheel: there is no need to tell our students that they should "soften their glutes", "relax their glutes", or otherwise disempower the main muscles of hip extension that their bodies naturally recruit when they lift their hips up into bridge pose (setu bandha sarvangasana) and upward-facing bow pose (urdhva dhanurasana). [Ref]

2) Arms overhead & shoulder positioning: there is no need to cue our students to "pull your shoulders down your back" when their arms are overhead. When our arms lift up, our shoulder blades naturally rotate and lift along with the arm movement. [Ref] This is a normal, optimal movement that is often referred to as "scapulohumeral rhythm", and it is not helpful to interfere with this natural coordinated action by trying to consciously pull the shoulder blades down the back to prevent them from lifting.

 

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

Podcast Interview: Pain Science For Yoga/Movement Teachers

I was lucky enough to get to talk about pain science and what implications it has for us yoga/pilates/movement teachers on the wonderful Moving Well podcast! Nikki Naab-Levy and Janet Sunderland are the very smart and engaging hosts of this podcast, and I really enjoyed having the opportunity to talk with them about one of my favorite topics to geek out about. :)

I hope you enjoy the interview if you have the chance to listen to it!

[Microblog] Anatomy Geek Stretching Thought of the Day

ANATOMY GEEK THOUGHT OF THE DAY: We often think of a muscle contraction happening only when a muscle *shortens*. But muscles work just as often as they lengthen - picture your hamstrings and the way they lengthen while they work to control your swan dive into uttanasana (standing forward fold) in yoga. When a muscle works as it lengthens, this is called an *eccentric contraction*, and we move this way all the time in our normal human movements.

One of the core rules we tend to learn in our yoga teacher trainings is that after we've "worked" a muscle or muscle group, we should stretch that muscle group to "balance it out". But because muscles can and do actually contract through all of their ranges (short, long, somewhere in between, etc.), is it skillful to consider the opposite of a muscle contraction a *stretch*? Do these two "balance" each other out? If it turned out that they were not necessarily opposing actions, would this change the way you sequence your yoga classes at all?

Enjoy pondering this one, and feel free to let me know how it goes!

Jumping Back To Plank: What's the Big Deal?

All my life in the yoga world, I have heard the instruction that one should never jump back into plank pose. Instead of landing in plank, this core yoga rule goes, we should land directly in chaturanga dandasana - in other words, we should always jump into the bottom of a push-up and never jump into the top of a push-up. The reasons usually cited for this instruction are that jumping back into plank is injurious for any number of body parts including the wrists, shoulders, low back, knees, ankles, and big toes.

I used to believe and teach this yoga rule as well, but in more recent times I have changed my perspective on the issue. I don't think that there is anything inherently wrong with jumping back into plank pose, and I think the widespread prohibition of this movement mostly serves to create some unnecessary fear and worry about our yoga practice.

Here are my main reasons for this viewpoint - I hope you use them to examine your beliefs and then come to your own conclusion about the "never jump to plank" rule!
 

Reason #1: You can certainly injure yourself jumping into plank, but...

I definitely agree that it's possible to injure oneself while jumping into plank pose. If you lack the ability to engage through your core, press strongly through your arms, and land lightly, some areas of your body may experience a higher-than-optimal level of stress, which could lead to injury. But I fail to see how this is different from so many other movements in yoga that can also be injurious if one lacks proper technique and body awareness - yet we don't make blanket statements about the importance of "never" doing most of these other movements.

If we jump back to plank with no arms, will this protect our shoulders? :)

If we jump back to plank with no arms, will this protect our shoulders? :)

One yoga transition that stands out to me as especially risky for the body if one lacks the proper strength and control is, ironically, jumping straight into chaturanga. Even though chaturanga is traditionally considered the safer asana to jump into, this pose is actually much more challenging to execute skillfully than plank pose. Chaturanga involves much higher loads to the neck, shoulders, and spine than plank pose does, and these loads are significantly higher if we jump into the pose (especially if we slam down with a lot of velocity like many yogis do) instead of lower slowly into it. In fact, so many yoga students lack the foundational skills to practice chaturanga well that I created a whole online tutorial on how to approach this pose with integrity.

I would suggest that contrary to popular teachings, one is at greater risk of injury from performing a sloppy jump-back into chaturanga than they are from performing a sloppy jump-back into plank pose.

 

Reason #2: Jumping Into Plank Is Commonly Practiced In Other Movement Systems Without Concern Or Widespread Injury

The "burpee", a common warm-up exercise that includes a jump-back to plank.

The "burpee", a common warm-up exercise that includes a jump-back to plank.

If you ever visit a gym or other fitness setting, a common movement used for warming up that you'd likely see is something called a burpee. (Yes, I agree that this is an odd name for an exercise, but a fun trivia note is that the burpee is named after the person who founded it - a physiologist named Royal H. Burpee.)

To perform a burpee, one begins in a standing position, lowers down into a squat, jumps back into plank pose with straight arms, often performs one push-up, jumps forward again into a squat, and then jumps up and lands back in a standing position. A typical "set" of burpees is anywhere from 10-15 done in a row, and people typically perform at least 3 sets (and often many more) in one workout. In addition to this classic exercise, there are many variations, such as the one-leg burpee, in which one jumps back into a one-legged plank instead of a traditional plank, the side burpee, in which one jumps into a variation of side plank, and the one-arm burpee, in which the entire movement is performed with one arm lifted.

In addition, multiple research studies have been done by exercise scientists which include the burpee as a movement alongside other classic fitness exercises. (Examples here and here.)

The fact that the burpee, which involves jumping back into plank pose repetitively, is so prevalent in the fitness world and is also included in research studies suggests to me that it has not been found by fitness professionals or sports scientists to be particularly injurious for the body.

 

Reason #3: Jumping Into Plank Could Actually Have Some Benefits

To be honest, even though I don't believe that jumping into plank pose is inherently dangerous, I don't tend to teach this movement very often in my yoga classes. But I do believe that jumping into plank (and chaturanga for that matter) could have some benefits for the body that we often overlook when we focus on fear and worry about this transition instead.

There is a type of fitness training called plyometrics which utilizes jumping exercises to increase a person's power, or the speed at which they can use their strength during a task. Plyometrics are also known to enhance one's endurance and agility, and several studies have actually shown that they can increase bone density (examples here, here, and here).

There is some debate about whether a burpee (a.k.a. the fitness world's version of "jumping into plank") can technically be considered a plyometric exercise. But I believe there is enough crossover between the two to suggest that they would offer some similar benefits.

An example of a plyometric exercise.

An example of a plyometric exercise.

Additionally, we know that movement variability is important for neural learning, tissue health, and overall graceful aging, so the argument could be made that learning how to jump back skillfully into both plank and chaturanga - and not just one or the other - could be beneficial.

 

Reason #4: There Are No Inherently Bad Movements

You might recall a controversial blog post I wrote earlier this year called Are Some Movements Inherently Bad? (also re-published in Yoga International with a far more angry comment thread here.) In this post, I argued that instead of looking at a movement as inherently bad and damaging for the body, we should reverse our reasoning and instead look at an individual body and ask if it is adapted and prepared to handle the loads of that particular movement.

For example, a beginning yoga student with an office-working, sedentary lifestyle who has never borne weight on her arms might be prone to injury if she tries jumping into plank (and even more so if she tries jumping into chaturanga - yikes!) But because the biological reality of our bodies is that they adapt to become stronger to the loads they experience on a regular basis, most practiced yogis who have a good sense of body control and core stabilization should be able to jump lightly into plank pose without causing injury.

 

CONCLUSION

To be clear, I'm certainly not suggesting that all yoga teachers run out and start teaching everyone to jump into plank during every vinyasa. I'm simply questioning the reasoning behind the ubiquitous "never jump into plank" warning that nearly every yoga teacher learns in their yoga teacher training. Is this transition necessarily dangerous for everyone, and is jumping into chaturanga somehow innately safer? Where do these beliefs stem from? I believe that questioning our biases about these transitions can help us to become more critically-thinking yoga teachers who can serve our individual students better.

Three Alternatives to Pigeon Pose & A Brief Discussion About Stretching

I know I might be in the minority amongst yoga teachers, but even though yoga students tend to looove their pigeon pose, I have consciously chosen to forgo this pose in my classes for the past several years now. While I do teach variations of pigeon pose like reclined pigeon and standing pigeon chair, I don't generally teach the traditional version of this pose in which you lie in a passive, unsupported forward fold over the front leg.

 

WHY I SKIP PIGEON POSE - REASON #1

I have two main reasons for skipping pigeon pose in my classes. The first is that it doesn't offer much in the way of positive change for the tissues of the body. We generally tend to think of pigeon pose as a stretch designed to increase the flexibility of the hips. But we've actually learned quite a bit more from scientific research in recent years about how stretching works (although there is still a ton that we don't know!), and thanks to my brilliant mentor Jules Mitchell, much of this new information is making its way to the yoga community.

One of the biggest realizations that I've learned about stretching is that flexibility is a much more complex topic than we've generally learned from our yoga teacher trainings, workshops, books, and other studies. The prevailing approach to flexibility in most yoga classes (and in much of the health/fitness world in general) is that if someone lacks range of motion in a joint, the solution is to stretch the muscles and fascia that cross the joint to lengthen them out. Then we get longer tissues and voila! - we can stretch further in that direction. By this reasoning, the solution to the ubiquitous "tight hips" that many people claim to have is to simply stretch one's hips out in pigeon pose for a long time at the end of every yoga class - a practice that we yogis are quite familiar with!

But the assumption that in order to solve all inflexibility issues, tissues simply need to be stretched out does not take into account the many other likely factors that could be causing the inflexibility - factors that passive stretching does not actually address. It reminds me of pain science and how easy it is to attribute pain simply to structural factors like tissue damage, poor alignment, or dysfunctional movement patterns, when the bigger picture of pain is truly so much more complex than this. The brain's decision to output a pain experience is multifactorial and completely unique to each individual - and in the case of persistent pain, is actually rarely due to a single structural reason like tissue damage.

Similarly, if someone experiences what they would call "tight" hips ("tight" of course being a vague, subjective word with no single definition for all bodies), the possible reasons for this tightness are many and varied, from a restriction in the capsule of the joint itself (which would not be addressed by passive stretching) to issues in how the brain is coordinating muscle activity (more of a motor control/neuromotor issue that is also not solved by passive stretching). Therefore, when we as a yoga community assume that the solution to all inflexibility issues is to stretch our tissues out in poses like pigeon pose, we are missing a much larger picture of how flexibility, performance, and joint function works.

This image of pigeon pose that I found online makes me feel weird. :)

This image of pigeon pose that I found online makes me feel weird. :)

WHY I SKIP PIGEON POSE - REASON #2

With all of that said, this isn't the only reason that I choose to skip pigeon pose in my classes. Even though passive stretching is not the universal solution to inflexibility issues that we yogis tend to believe it is, it still has some nice benefits, and I certainly include some passive poses in my classes. But pigeon pose also happens to incorporate some precarious joint positioning for the front knee and hip with the added weight of the torso and upper body lying on top of them, which isn't necessarily beneficial for these joints. Although there are ways to modify the pose to support these joints in a healthy way, these options are rarely offered or taught in detail in most yoga classes. And even if they were, most yoga studios don't have enough props to support every student the way they would need to be set up for optimal loading of the front knee and hip.
 

THREE ALTERNATIVES TO PIGEON POSE

And so, without further ado, I present to you... three alternatives to pigeon pose! These are three excellent ways that a pose like pigeon pose can be practiced, but with the added benefit of positive change for the tissues of the hip and a more efficient path toward increased flexibility. You'll notice that all three examples incorporate some degree of muscle activation (versus assuming the poses passively). This is because research has suggested that strengthening muscles through their full range will result in more flexibility gains faster than passive stretching alone. This is likely because when we actively contract our muscles during a stretch, this signals our nervous system that this range of motion is safe, and our nervous system will therefore be more likely to allow more range of motion in the future. Additionally, when we contract our muscles during a stretch, we load our connective tissues via muscular force, which increases their load-bearing capacity (i.e. their strength) over time. Strong connective tissues equals strong, efficient movement, functional joints, and decreased risk of injuries in the future.

Consider offering these options as an alternative to traditional pigeon pose in your yoga classes, or if you find yourself in a yoga class in which pigeon pose is taught, consider trying one of these "pigeon-ish" poses instead. (Just for the record, I don't think pigeon is an absolutely terrible pose, and I would certainly not "judge" a yoga teacher for including it in their class - pigeon is extremely ubiquitous in our yoga community and it sometimes feels like our students almost expect it. But once you learn a bit more about current stretching science and the connection between strength and flexibility, you might be inspired to change up what you offer to reflect these new understandings.)

If you decide to experiment with these pigeon alternatives, notice how it feels to strengthen your hips instead of passively stretch them in this classic pose, and enjoy the benefits that these new movements offer to your body and mind! (Also be sure to check out the further reading resources listed below these videos...)

 
 
 

Further Reading & Exploration

Blog Post: Resistance Stretching with Charlie Reid & Jules Mitchell

Related Online Workshop by Jenni: Re-Imagining Hip Openers: A Yoga Anatomy Workshop

Related Online Class by Jenni: Hips-Focused Practice #2

Related Blog Post by Jenni: Stretching Is In Your Brain: A New Paradigm of Flexibility & Yoga

Yoga and the New Science of Pain

I'm so excited about my newest article in Yoga International that was just published today! The topic of my piece, Yoga and the New Science of Pain, has been an absolute game-changer for me over the past year-and-a-half or so in terms of how I think about the body, movement, pain, and of course, our amazing yoga practice. I'm honored to have the chance to help spread the word to our yoga community about how pain really works and why this realization is so meaningful for how we see and approach the body in general.

If you're not yet hip to the new paradigm of how pain works and why, this article is a great introduction to the foundational concepts of this exciting new perspective. And if you're already familiar with the new science of pain, it's always helpful to see someone else articulate in their own words this paradigm shift that you know so well.

I am extremely grateful to the many pioneers and early teachers of the new science of pain, several of whom I cited at the bottom of my article. They are major heroes of mine!

I hope you enjoy my introduction to this important, perspective-shifting topic. Don't hesitate to let me know if you have any questions or comments after reading my piece!

Common Movement Blind Spot #2: The Shoulder Blade & Spine Connection

In my first blog post in this series, I discussed the importance of motor control as an important aspect of movement to consider alongside the more commonly-emphasized categories of flexibility and strength. I also introduced the concept of movement blind spots - non-optimal habitual movement patterns that are directly related to motor control.

The potent tool that we can utilize to change these unconscious movement habits (and our new vocabulary word that we learned last time!) is neuroplasticity. Neuroplasticity is certainly a fancy-sounding term, but it simply means the process of forming new neural connections in the brain in response to novel stimulation; in other words, changing the brain! There are many ways we can encourage neuroplasticity, such as learning a new language or memorizing new information, but within the context of yoga, we use movement (and specifically new and novel movement) to re-wire how the brain perceives and moves the body. In my ideal world, all yoga teachers would understand the general concept of neuroplasticity and how it relates to what we do every day on the yoga mat.


COMMON MOVEMENT BLIND SPOT #2

If you missed the first post in this series, I encourage you to go back and read it before you delve further into this one. We want to make sure we’re clear on Common Movement Blind Spot #1 before we work with Blind Spot #2.

Today’s focus is the shoulder blade and spine movement blind spot. In this pattern, movement of the shoulder blades is unconsciously “glommed together” with movement of the spine. These are technically two separate parts of our body and we should ideally have the motor control to move each of them individually, but in most of us they tend to move them together like one big, undifferentiated body part without our realizing it.

Important note: there is nothing wrong with moving your shoulder blades and spine together at the same time, of course. What is non-optimal and worth working on, though, is the unconscious habit of always moving both of these spots together when we really mean to move them individually. If we lack the body awareness to differentiate between these two areas, we’ll be denied the benefits of movement options and variability that come with increased proprioception and motor control quality.

In this video, I fully address how to recognize and change this shoulder blade/spine movement blind spot. We cover a quick bit of anatomy followed by two potent strategies for changing this extremely common movement pattern. I really recommend watching the whole video - there are some great twists on a classic exercise at the end of the video that I think your body and mind will love exploring. This video is great for your own personal movement explorations, and it’s also a valuable tool to use when working with your yoga and movement students. I hope you enjoy!

Common Movement Blind Spot #1: The Rib Cage & Pelvis Connection

Welcome to the first in a series I’ve created on common movement blind spots! When we talk about restoring health and function to our bodies through yoga and movement, we often think in terms of two overarching categories: strength and flexibility. A third element of movement health that doesn’t always receive the attention it deserves, however, is that of “motor control”. Whereas strength has to do with our muscles’ ability to generate force (i.e. how heavy an object can you move?) and flexibility generally refers to our ranges of motion (i.e. how far at a certain joint can you move?), motor control pertains to how you do a particular movement - which muscles contract to move which bones at which joints, all orchestrated in the background by the nervous system. Put another way, motor control is the process by which our brain directs and coordinates our various parts in order to complete a movement.

Strength and flexibility are certainly important for us to cultivate, but they aren’t inherently useful qualities on their own; they need the direction that motor control offers in order to be truly meaningful for us.

 

WHAT IS A MOVEMENT BLIND SPOT?

The way we coordinate the gas & brake pedals when driving without thinking about it is due to a helpful motor program created by our brain.

The way we coordinate the gas & brake pedals when driving without thinking about it is due to a helpful motor program created by our brain.

There are many movements which we perform so frequently that our brain has created set motor control patterns for how we do them. Think, for example, of the way you brush your teeth, coordinate the gas and brake pedals when driving a car, or walk down the street using your own personal gait pattern. These are all activities that we don’t have to think about consciously - we’ve repeated them so many times that we can now perform them virtually on autopilot. Movement programs like these are a helpful and necessary part of moving smoothly through our daily life. But we all also possess other less useful habitual movement patterns that don’t truly serve us in the long run. We are generally unaware of these less-than-optimal, ingrained patterns, and this is why they are called “movement blind spots”.

 

NEUROPLASTICITY: THE NEW FANCY TERM FOR YOGA TEACHERS TO KNOW

Because motor control patterns are by their nature habitual, they tend to limit our potential for movement variety. Therefore if we only ever move our body in habitual ways, we create an environment in which our brain can fall into a metaphorical “rut”, churning out the same unvaried motor tasks over and over again. I like to think of this in layman’s terms as having a “bored brain”.

When we ask our brain to move our body in new and different ways, however, this unique sensory input causes our brain to create new neural pathways in order to perform these movements. In contrast to a “bored brain”, I like to picture this as having an alert, engaged brain whose interest has been piqued. This process of forming new neural connections in response to novel stimulation is known as neuroplasticity, or the ability of the brain to adapt and change. Neuroplasticity is certainly a fancy-sounding word, but it’s a helpful one for us yoga teachers to know and understand. In fact, neuroplasticity may actually be an important key to the optimal function and long-term healthy aging of our brain.

The way that we bring awareness to our movement blind spots so that we can "break" these non-optimal movement patterns is through the powerful tool of neuroplasticity. And today’s common movement blind spot example will be an excellent start to this endeavor!

 

COMMON MOVEMENT BLIND SPOT #1: THE RIB CAGE & PELVIS CONNECTION

One of the most common habitual movement patterns that I see is the unconscious “glomming together” (my favorite technical term :) ) of the movement of the rib cage with the movement of the pelvis. Even though the rib cage and pelvis are two distinct body parts and they should be able to move independently of each other, most people always move them together as one big unit without realizing it.

I’ve included a video that fully addresses how to recognize and change this movement blind spot because it’s helpful to convey what I'm describing with a live demonstration. But I’ve also written everything I talk about in this video below in case you'd like to read about it as well:

HOW TO RECOGNIZE AND CHANGE THE RIB CAGE/PELVIS HABITUAL MOVEMENT PATTERN

Hands and knees is a great shape in which to explore this movement. If you were to ask most people to lift their chest forward and up in this position, they would happily comply, but as they lift their chest, their pelvis would also roll forward into an anterior tilt (their tailbone would tip toward the sky). If you were to then ask them to round their chest (upper and mid-back flexion), they would do so, but their pelvis would also roll backward into a posterior tilt. The same thing would happen if you asked them to move their pelvis instead of their rib cage - as they tilted their pelvis forward and back, their chest would also lift and round at the same time.

Do you see how this is a large, undiscriminiated movement pattern that is taking over what should be a smaller, more refined movement? Now moving the rib cage and pelvis simultaneously like this is not an inherently bad movement at all, but lacking the awareness that you move this way is not so great, nor is being denied the many other movement possibilities that you could be doing because you’re stuck moving in this one pattern all of the time.

Let’s now attempt to pique the interest of our “bored brain” by asking it to move our rib cage and pelvis in a way that is different from our habitual pattern. Come back onto your hands and knees. Do your best to embody a neutral spine and pelvis. Now try a very small movement of curling your tailbone just an inch toward the floor while your rib cage holds still (it will want to round, but try not to let it.) Then curl your tailbone back up toward the sky an inch. Continue this back-and-forth movement several times. With a bit of focused attention, are you able to stabilize your rib cage as you isolate this movement to just your pelvis? Don’t worry if it doesn’t happen right away - just keep playing with this movement until you feel some sort of change. Once you learn the motor control of moving your pelvis a small amount without the rib cage also jumping in, experiment with increasing the range until you can move the pelvis into a full posterior and anterior tilt without the rib cage also moving. Congratulations - you are changing your movement pattern, which is neuroplasticity in action!

Now let’s initiate the movement from the opposite direction. Come back to your neutral spine. Can you round your upper and mid-back into one inch of flexion without also moving the pelvis toward a tuck? Then lift your chest an inch toward extension without also lifting your tailbone toward the sky. As you become more skilled at this movement, slowly increase the range until you can move from full thoracic flexion to full thoracic extension while the pelvis holds still.

Once you’ve become a neuroplasticity master and have regained control of your rib cage and pelvis as separate entities, you might be interested in exploring your spinal movement and your brain-body connection in general more in-depthly in my recently-filmed online workshop Anatomy of the Spine for Increased Core Connection.

 

CONCLUSION

Working to change our movement blind spots requires slow, focused work that might seem “small” compared to the bigger movements that we’re used to in yoga and other movement systems. But an important takeaway message is that “small” does not mean “basic” when we’re dealing with human movement. Gaining control of our “smaller” movements is actually some of the most advanced movement work that we can do. And as much as we enjoy practicing the bigger movements that our bodies can do, these moves simply can’t offer us their fullest benefits unless we have a strong connection to our smaller movements as a foundation. The more we work on our motor control skills on and off the yoga mat, the more refined, graceful, and potentially pain-free our movements will become.
 

Related Post: Common Movement Blind Spot #2: The Shoulder Blade & Spine Connection

Related Post: A Biomechanics-Informed Response to Yoga Journal: We Do Not Need To Tuck Our Tail In Every Yoga Pose

Related Online Workshop: Anatomy of the Spine for Increased Core Connection