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!

4 Basic Pain Science Concepts For Yoga Teachers, Part 1

I recently created a series of social media posts designed to help yoga teachers become better-informed about the complex topic of pain science. Pain science is growing in its reach in the therapeutic, fitness, and movement world, and even though yoga teachers generally don't treat people for pain (unless you're also a physical therapist or other health care professional in addition to being a yoga teacher), pain science actually has many important implications for us beyond the subject of pain itself. As yoga teachers, if we take the time to learn about even a handful of some of pain science's most fundamental insights, we'll be rewarded with a more current and accurate paradigm for approaching and dialoguing about not only pain, but movement, yoga, and bodies in general.

Here is a re-cap of the series of four posts that I shared through my social media channels so that they can be read all in one place together, and I'll follow up with Part 2 of this blog post series with some additional, new thoughts on how and why all of this might matter specifically to us as yoga teachers. I hope you enjoy perusing this info - feel free to share with your networks if you feel that it would be beneficial!


PAIN SCIENCE FACT #1: Pain and tissue damage do not always correlate. In fact, when it comes to persistent pain (often defined as pain lasting more than 3 months), the link between pain and tissue damage is often significantly weaker. (And yes, if you experience a pain that "comes and goes" versus a constant, steady pain that is always there, that is still considered persistent pain if it's been going on for longer than 3 months.)

Reason this is important: just because someone experiences pain somewhere in their body, this does not necessarily mean that there is *actual injured tissue* inside of their body. It might mean that, but it also really might not. (Remember, this is more likely the case when we're talking about persistent pain - not so much with acute pain. Acute pain is the direct result of a recent injury - like stubbing your toe on the door jam or spraining your ankle due to an accidental fall. Acute pain usually lessens and then stops once the injury has healed. Persistent pain, on the other hand, is also often also called chronic pain and is pain that lasts for a longer amount of time.)


PAIN SCIENCE FACT #2: Pain is an output of the brain. This is an often-cited pain science insight - but what does it actually mean? Remember that pain science involves a major perspective shift in how we see the body, so we really have to wrap our minds around some new concepts here. Typically, when we experience pain, we tend to think of the pain as being located "in our tissues", and our brain then senses it there and THEN we feel it. In this view, pain is an INPUT to the brain because it first exists "out there" in the periphery of our body, and then we sense it centrally (in our brain).

As intuitive as this "input" idea seems, it's actually the opposite of how pain really works! In reality, there is no pain *anywhere* in our tissues that is inputted to our brain. Instead, pain is a creation OF the brain that is meant to signal us to take protective action against a perceived threat. If you feel pain in your shoulder, for example, it's because your brain is *outputting* a warning signal to you about that area for some reason. Pain is therefore not an input from your tissues to your brain - it's an output from your brain to your tissues! How mind-trippy is that?

Now your brain might be correct that this painful area is under threat (especially if you recently injured that spot - too many sloppy chaturangas, anyone? Heh heh...) But your brain might also be wrong in its conclusion that the area is under threat - especially if there is no recent tissue damage there. And pain without tissue damage (and vice versa - tissue damage without pain) happens ALL. THE. TIME. Refer back to Pain Science Fact #1 to review this concept, and then see if you can put Fact #1 and #2 together to start to build your new pain science-informed paradigm.


PAIN SCIENCE FACT #3: We've already covered (in a very simplified way) the fact that pain is an output FROM the brain, not an input TO the brain. Pain doesn't exist in one's tissues to be sensed by the brain - it is instead a creation OF the brain to be sensed in one's tissues. But why and when does the brain choose to create pain?

We used to believe that all pain experienced in the body was the result of tissue damage somewhere inside of us - in other words, we thought pain was always the result of some structural problem. But we now understand that tissue damage is just *one input* that the brain considers when deciding whether to emit a pain signal. In addition to tissue damage, the brain considers inputs like past memories, emotions, expectations, beliefs, one's environment, things that health professionals say, and more when deciding whether to output a pain experience in any given moment. All of this information processing happens unconsciously, and in just a fraction of a second.

Now that you know this, think about someone who experiences a persistent pain in their low back (like 80% of us will at some point in our lifetimes). Here is a list of common reasons given when someone has back pain: your spine is out of alignment, you have a herniated disc in your spine, you have poor posture, you flex your lumbar spine too much, your SI joint is dysfunctional, you sit in a chair too much, you have SI joint instability, your core is weak, you have a vertebral subluxation, you lack core stability, your back muscles are tight, etc., etc.

This is a really long list of commonly-cited reasons for back pain, but the interesting thing is that they are ALL structural reasons - meaning that they all have to do with the physical structure of the body. But remember our new Fact #3 from today: the brain takes MANY inputs into consideration before deciding to output pain, and structural inputs are just ONE category of inputs. Combine Fact #3 with Fact #1 (the link between persistent pain and tissue damage is often quite weak), and your paradigm for how you think about someone's back pain might begin to shift and expand.


PAIN SCIENCE FACT #4: We often believe that our body is naturally vulnerable in certain movements or postures, like lumbar flexion, forward head posture ("text neck"), etc. We believe that these positions will injure our tissues and create pain, often blaming someone's low back or neck pain on these "bad postures".

What this viewpoint (that I used to share too!) overlooks is the fact that the tissues of our body are adaptable and become stronger when they are loaded (as long as the load isn't too high). Any movement that you desire to do is a "good" movement as long as your tissues are adapted to withstand its loads. (This is a super oversimplified explanation, but for more info, check out my blog post Are Some Movements Inherently Bad? (which was also re-printed in Yoga International).

Additionally, recall Fact #3 of this series - *many* inputs contribute to pain, not just structural ones. Recent research has strongly suggested that our *beliefs* about pain can directly influence our pain. For example, if we believe that a certain movement is bad for us, this can create what's called a nocebo - the creation or increase of pain or dysfunction based solely on negative expectations and beliefs.

BIG TAKEAWAY: The issue isn't that we need to *avoid* certain "bad" postures and catastrophize them - it's more that we want to move our body in a *wide variety of ways* so that we can be strong and adapted to many different positions. Movement variability is more important than fear of movement!


That concludes the series of posts that I shared through social media, but keep your eyes out for Part 2 of this series, which will attempt to address why all of this matters specifically to us yoga teachers. In the meantime, I also wrote a helpful introduction to pain science in Yoga International earlier this year (see "Yoga & The New Science of Pain"), and at the bottom of that article I included a lengthy list of links for further reading for those interested. Enjoy exploring this topic further if you feel so compelled!

Are Some Movements Inherently Bad?

We are often taught that there are ways the body can move that are inherently bad for us. We’re told that these movements will cause damage, “wear and tear”, or imbalance in the body, which will inevitably lead to pain and discomfort. Some examples of movements like these are cervical spine flexion (e.g. "text neck"), lumbar spine flexion, and many classic yoga alignment taboos like placing the foot directly on the knee in tree pose (vrksasana).

While this perspective is certainly well-meaning, it is missing some key insights about the body that recent science has revealed to us. Instead of asking whether a movement is good or bad, a more nuanced and helpful question is: are one’s tissues adapted to withstand the load of a particular movement? When we approach movement from this perspective, it becomes clear that there are no inherently bad movements - there are simply movements whose loads our bodies are not currently adapted to handle.

 


OUTDATED MODEL OF PAIN

One reason that the "bad movements" belief is unhelpful is that it is based on an outdated model of how pain works. If you read my recent article on The New Science of Pain in Yoga International, you may be familiar with the fact that the link between pain and actual tissue damage is often very weak. Recent studies have repeatedly shown that many people have real tissue damage in their bodies and no associated pain, and conversely, many people who experience chronic pain in their bodies have no associated tissue damage at all. Additionally, pain is not an input to the brain from the periphery of the body (i.e. from tissue damage), but an output from the brain that is meant to signal us to take some sort of protective action.

There are many more implications that the new science of pain has for today’s topic of “bad movements”, but for the sake of time I’m going to to leave this part of the discussion at that and encourage you to read my original article about pain if these ideas are new to you. (This paradigm shift is fascinating and important for us yoga and movement teachers to understand!)

 


DO OUR PARTS WEAR OUT LIKE THE TIRES ON A CAR?

The second main issue with the “bad movement” approach is that it is based on a model that views the body as similar to a car, or a machine. In this model, if we move or align our body in sub-optimal ways over time, certain body parts will wear out before others due to the accumulation of microdamage. Just like a car’s tires might wear out unevenly and need premature replacing if they aren’t aligned properly, our body’s joints (think knees, hips, spinal joints) can wear out if we move or align them poorly.

This idea makes great intuitive sense, but there is an important distinction between cars and human bodies that is missing from this perspective. Unlike a car or a machine, whose parts do mechanically wear out with time, our body consists of living, biological tissues which are constantly turning over and remodeling according to the demands they experience. For example, we all know that if we load our muscles and connective tissues with a weight-training program at the gym, they will respond by becoming stronger in order to handle these loads. Another way of saying this is that the tissues of our body adapt to the stresses placed on them (also known as Davis’ Law).


TEXT-NECK AND TISSUE ADAPTATION

Text-neck is not an inherently damaging movement.

Text-neck is not an inherently damaging movement.

As counterintuitive as it may seem, this same principle of adaptation applies in the case of the traditionally-labelled bad movement of “text-neck”. We are often cautioned that our head weighs the approximate amount of a bowling ball, and for every inch forward that it creeps, our neck is burdened with 10 additional pounds of damaging weight, leading to inevitable pain and imbalance in this area. (I have warned my yoga students about the dangers of text neck myself in the past too - believe me!)

But such cautions are rooted in the model which views our body like a machine full of parts that will wear out and break down if poorly aligned. By contrast, the living, biological organism of our body is constantly adapting to the loads it experiences. Therefore, if you position your head slightly forward of your torso on a regular basis, the muscles, fascia, and connective tissue of your neck will naturally adapt to become stronger and better able to withstand this load.

Now it’s certainly the case that holding any position for a long period of time, be it text-neck or otherwise, is problematic. But simply flexing our neck forward to look down is a natural movement that our body is designed to do. As well-intentioned as the cautions against text-neck are, they are not truly science-based and can encourage unnecessary fear and worry around this movement (which, ironically, can contribute to pain!)

 


“BAD ALIGNMENT” IN TREE POSE

Yoga alignment rules are another realm where "bad movement" beliefs often come into play. One classic example is the instruction that nearly every yoga student has heard to never place the foot on the opposite knee in tree pose (vrksasana). The reasoning behind this alignment rule is that the laterally-oriented force that the foot applies can damage the knee joint. We are instead instructed to always place our foot either above the knee (on the thigh) or below the knee (on the shin).

This alignment taboo does make intuitive sense, but let’s use the lens of biomechanics to look a bit closer. First of all, as we discussed above, the tissues of the body adapt to the loads placed on them. Therefore, in theory, if someone were to practice tree pose with their foot on their knee frequently enough, the tissues of the knee should adapt and get stronger to handle that load.

Secondly, yoga teachers often cue their students to actively press the standing leg and tree leg foot into one another in this pose. If practiced this way, this action actually creates stability in the standing knee joint which should resist any pressure applied by the tree leg foot.

And lastly, tree pose can be practiced with the tree leg actively working to hold itself up, rather than passively leaning against the standing leg. (Picture the leg lifting itself, rotating, and placing the foot on the opposite leg all on its own, without the help of your hand, and then holding itself up there.) In this scenario, the tree leg’s foot would actually be placing no pressure on the standing knee at all.

Upon closer examination, it becomes clear that the classic teaching that foot-on-knee placement in tree pose is inherently “bad alignment” is a questionable belief that probably does not apply to most bodies in this pose.

 


HEADSTAND (SIRSANA)

Another controversial asana in the yoga community is headstand (sirsana), a movement that many wonderful and well-meaning yoga teachers believe should never be practiced because our cervical spine is simply not designed to carry the full weight of our body in such a fashion.

It is absolutely the case that most Western bodies are not adapted to handle the loads that headstand places on their cervical spine. (This is why teaching full headstand to a group class is definitely not advisable!)

But if we look at headstand as a movement that applies certain loads to the body, and if we understand that the tissues of our body adapt to the loads they experience, we begin to realize that if someone were to intelligently and progressively load their cervical spine over time (and it would need to be slowly and over a lot of time!), it would be possible for their body to adapt to the loads of headstand. Sirsana would be a safe asana for this body to practice. It's therefore an oversimplification to state that headstand is an inherently bad movement. It would be more accurate to say that it is simply a movement which many bodies are not currently adapted to handle (but they could be trained with time!)

 

CONCLUSION

When we start thinking about movement in terms of load instead of inherently “good” or “bad”, we gain a more nuanced perspective on the body. It’s true that any movement with high enough loads can injure us, but low load positions that we frequent regularly are unlikely to be the source of damage and pain in our body because our tissues will respond by adapting to handle them. These realizations lead us away from viewing our body as an innately fragile structure that is vulnerable to damage from suboptimal forces, and instead as the strong, resilient, and adaptable organism that it truly is.

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!