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!

Is The Cue "Pull Your Shoulders Back" Helpful?

One of the most common instructions we tend to hear in yoga class is “pull your shoulders back”. This cue is often offered as a universal guideline for how we should position our shoulders throughout our entire practice, and it has its roots in a broader cultural idea that “shoulders back” is inherently good posture. In fact, this belief is so ubiquitous that we often don’t think to question the anatomical reasoning behind it. But as we now know, many of yoga’s traditional alignment rules could benefit from the insight of a more modern movement-science perspective. It turns out that as well-intentioned as the “shoulders back” cue is, on an anatomical level this instruction does not solve postural issues, nor does it help our body function better.

 

THE ANATOMY OF “SHOULDERS BACK”

For many of us, the extent of our anatomy knowledge is that our shoulders are the general, vague area located underneath the prominent shoulder pads of our mom’s awesome 80’s blazer. :)

This seemingly-simple part of the body is quite complex, however, consisting of three separate interlocking bones and four individual moving joints. At the bony level, our shoulder (often referred to anatomically as the “shoulder joint complex” or the “shoulder girdle”) actually looks something more like this under those eye-catching shoulder pads:

The shoulder girdle can move in a myriad of different ways. One pertinent pair of shoulder movements for our discussion today is protraction and retraction. When we protract our shoulders, our scapulae (shoulder blades) move away from one another on our back, and when we retract, they move toward each other. One of today’s postural realities is that many of our yoga students present with “rounded-forward shoulders” and the corresponding appearance of a caved-in chest. We interpret this overly-protracted position as non-optimal, and we therefore naturally conclude that in order to remedy it, our students should pull their shoulders back, or retract their scapulae, throughout their entire yoga practice.

Here is my good friend Rachel exaggerating the appearance of rounded-forward shoulders.

Here is my good friend Rachel exaggerating the appearance of rounded-forward shoulders.

But this well-intentioned notion is problematic for a few reasons. The first and possibly most fascinating has to do with a lack of awareness that many of us have about the way we move. Unless we’ve consciously worked to change this pattern, most of us aren’t actually able to pull our shoulders back without also moving our spine into a slight backbend. In anatomical language, we would say that most people aren’t able to retract their scapulae without also extending their spine.

Just to make sure we understand the clear difference between these two movements, let’s take a look at a simple visual aid. Scapular retraction is a horizontal motion performed by the muscles that lie between the shoulder blades and the spine:

Scapular retraction.

Scapular retraction.

Whereas spinal extension is a vertical movement performed by the muscles that run up and down along the spine, like this:

Spinal extension.

Spinal extension.

Although these are clearly two distinct anatomical actions, in most people they have become “lumped together” as one undiscriminated movement. Therefore, when we ask students to pull their shoulders back, they will more than likely also unconsciously extend their spine.

Now spinal extension is of course a fine movement in general, but if we’re asking our students to move their shoulders back, we’re really requesting pure scapular retraction - no unnecessary extra movements included. Aside from that, as I’ve discussed before, when many of us extend our spines, we end up unknowingly performing most of the movement at T12/L1, the very mobile vertebral segment at which the thoracic and lumbar spines meet. When this happens, our front lower ribs protrude forward, our chest lifts toward the sky, and we end up creating non-optimal compression in the lumbar spine region. This is not a favorable position for our spine, but it is the position that 95% of our students will assume if we ask them to pull their shoulders back.

Another reason that constantly pulling our shoulders back all day is undesirable is that it negatively impacts the quality of our breath. The “shoulders back, chest up” position which we so commonly equate with good posture in fact impedes our ability to take a full, nourishing breath. Give this experiment a quick try in your own body: for a moment, pretend that your yoga teacher just cued your class to pull their shoulders back, and be a dutiful student by retracting your scapulae and lifting your chest. Then place your hands on either side of your rib cage and take a full breath cycle of inhale and exhale, allowing your rib cage to swell laterally into your hands on the inhale. Notice how deeply you were able to inhale. Now stop squeezing your scapulae back - just allow your shoulders to relax forward - and find a neutral rib cage by dropping your front low ribs down until they are buried beneath your abdominal flesh. Try inhaling into your hands in this new position. Your breath capacity should be noticeably more expansive. This is a perfect example of how the way you choose to position your body in space can have a direct effect on how your body functions.

 

A third reason that chronic scapular retraction is problematic is that this action creates unnecessary tension in our upper- and mid-back. In fact, if you happen to be familiar with massage therapy, you might know that the rhomboids and middle trapezius - the muscles that lie in between the shoulder blades - are a classic place in which clients love to receive massage. One main reason that this area so commonly craves the therapeutic touch of massage is that many of us spend the majority of our day using muscular effort to pull our shoulders back. Massage helps to relieve the chronic tension created by this habit, but its effects are usually only temporary.

 

WHAT SHOULD WE DO WITH OUR SHOULDERS INSTEAD?

As radical as it might seem, instead of pulling your shoulders back, try simply allowing them to relax. Let go of any retracting effort and just let your shoulders naturally fall where they will. Although this might “feel” to you like your shoulders are too rounded forward, the truth for most people is that if they were look at themselves in a mirror, they would discover that their shoulders are not nearly as far forward as they thought they were (although some rounding is quite normal). Allow your default alignment to be a shoulder girdle that is relaxed and free from effort. And then in the longer term, begin to proactively target the tension that is pulling your shoulders forward in the first place with smart stretches and conscious movement exercises designed for the pectoralis major and pectoralis minor muscles of the front of the chest.

 

In conclusion, the idea that we should pull our shoulders back throughout our whole yoga practice (and all day long in general) is a universal alignment cue that does not serve our body well. Let’s instead learn to only offer this cue during yoga asanas in which scapular retraction enhances the specific anatomical purpose of the pose. The more that we strive to teach intentional movement versus scripted alignment cues, the more our students will benefit from the insightful quality of our classes!
 

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

Related Online Class: Shoulders-Focused Practice