Questioning Yoga Journal's Reasoning Regarding Weight-Training

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The yoga community tends to be a tad uninformed about human movement & strength training physiology, and when established yoga entities like Yoga Journal publish misinformed articles like this one, this doesn’t help matters much!

This article features a yoga sequence that is claimed to be “better than most weightlifting programs” for building muscle & strength.

And unfortunately, that claim simply isn’t true and only serves to confuse people.

Weightlifting is actually much better than this yoga sequence for strengthening because unlike the yoga sequence, weightlifting utilizes close to maximum force production & progressive overload, which are the ingredients you need for true strengthening.

And due to time constraints on this mini-post, I won’t go into how “strength” and “building muscle” (i.e. hypertrophy 🤓) are not actually the same thing, even though the YJ article lumps them together as though they’re interchangeable.

To be clear, the YJ sequence definitely offers many benefits 👍🏽, but it is not significantly strengthening or muscle-building.

Now I know that it’s very common for people to use the term “strengthening” loosely - I do this myself at times too!

But my main issue with this article is the way it misleads people into thinking that yoga is *better* than weightlifting for strength, which promotes the long-outdated idea that yoga is the only practice we need to be healthy.

Yoga has many amazing benefits, and we can even make it *strengthening* if we make some conscious additions & changes to it. But the sequence as featured in the article does not accomplish this, nor is it better in any way than weightlifting for strength.

Let’s be clear with our terms so that people who really DO want to strengthen won’t be misled into thinking that sequences like this will do the trick!

EXPERT Q&A ON YOGA, STRETCHING & INJURIES W/GREG LEHMAN

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As a member of the yoga community for many years, I regularly hear claims made about how stretching affects the body. These claims vary widely, and I’ve heard everything from “stretching is a magical cure that will heal all of your ailments” to “stretching is damaging for the body, and therefore yoga is bad for us.”

I try to be as evidence-based as possible in my approach to yoga, so I’m naturally skeptical of claims that appear to lack scientific support. In order to clarify some of the truth versus fiction regarding stretching for both myself and the greater yoga community, I decided to consult with an expert who is extremely up-to-date on the most current scientific research on stretching.

Dr. Greg Lehman, BKin, MSc, DC, MScPT, is a Clinical Educator, Physiotherapist, Chiropractor, and Strength and Conditioning Specialist. He travels the world teaching his Reconciling Biomechanics with Pain Science course to health & fitness professionals. He is also the creator of the “Recovery Strategies” pain workbook, which is an amazing, informative, and free resource for anyone in pain. Greg’s work has had a profound impact on the therapeutic, fitness, and yoga/movement worlds, and I am incredibly honored to feature his insight on my blog!

YOGA & STRETCHING Q&A W/GREG LEHMAN

QUESTION 1: In the yoga world, there is a widespread claim that stretching can lengthen connective tissues like ligaments & tendons, causing them to become lax and leading to "joint instability". Is this a biologically plausible assertion?

ANSWER: There is no evidence that this actually happens.  Pretty unbelievable, eh? There is certainly more evidence that suggests when you pull (apply tension) to connective tissue it responds by getting stiffer, stronger and sometimes thicker.  Old research by Dr. Woo has shown this consistently.  The only consistent thing that can make connective tissue less stiff is immobilization and injury.  So, it is possible that people who gain massive amounts of flexibility may have at some point damaged their tissue. 

If people feel “lax” because they stretch I would guess that it would be more of muscle or nervous system change.  People may not have the strength in those ranges to control the motion rather than the idea that they lengthened connective tissue constraints.

 

QUESTION 2: What exactly does "stability" mean when it comes to our joints, and is there evidence to support that a lack of joint stability causes pain and/or dysfunction?

ANSWER: A stable joint system just means when it gets perturbed or jostled it comes back to its resting place.  But, people have expanded the definition to mean that a joint just moves a lot when you don’t want it to move.  Joint instability is a problem when a joint pops out of place and does not readily go back into place.  It certainly does happen but I doubt it’s that common.

 

QUESTION 3: Can passively stretching a muscle compromise its strength (i.e. decrease its ability to produce force)?

ANSWER: Not significantly, meaning 1-5% of max force production [if stretching immediately prior to a strength activity].  And since we regularly don’t need to produce max force it’s not really an issue.  And you only get this transient force reduction when you hold a static stretch for 45 or more seconds.  Some research (Blazevich) even suggests that these max force/power losses are mitigated or completely ameliorated provided you do a warm up.

There is no reason to think that long-term stretching will make you weak.

 

QUESTION 4: Aside from concerns about lengthening ligaments & tendons that we've already covered here, is it inherently injurious or damaging for the body to spend time in passive end range stretches? What about for someone with a connective tissue disorder such as generalized joint hypermobility (GJH) or Ehlers-Danlos Syndrome (EDS)?

ANSWER: I think with EDS it makes sense to limit those movements and get strong instead.  That’s one of those conditions where shit really does pop out of place.  But for other people, who cares if you hang out at end range. You are just applying tensile load to tissue (pretty much what strength training does but at other ROMs) and the tissue will adapt by getting stronger. 

We aren’t made of taffy.  We don’t really “stretch” that way with applied loading like end ROM stretching.  I don’t think it’s injurious but you could certainly argue that there are better options to achieve health and mobility – like adding strength training or even resistance throughout the range of motion.

 

QUESTION 5: There is a growing dialog in the yoga world about the distinction between active & passive stretching, with a new emphasis being placed on the benefits of training active strength & control through our ranges of motion ("active stretching") and a de-emphasis being placed on passive stretching. The reasoning goes that if we have more passive ROM available at a joint than active ROM, we are more susceptible to injury because we lack "control" in those end ranges. Would you agree with this line of thought?

ANSWER: I think you should do both.  I wouldn’t be worried about injury though.  I don’t think most people are getting injured because they have lost “control” of the joint.  Further, if you get injured because the joint suddenly goes to end ROM, it’s not strength at end ROM that would have helped you - it’s the strength and control that you needed before you went to end ROM. 

 

QUESTION 6: Many long-term yoga practitioners have discovered through imaging that they have a hip labral tear, and yoga is often blamed as the cause of this tear. Given that yoga is a low-load activity and that a majority of people in general will develop an asymptomatic labral tear as they age [Ref, Ref, Ref, Ref], is a long-term yoga practice a likely cause of a hip labral tear?

ANSWER: Labral tears are common. Heck, they might even be beneficial for performance.  It’s not unreasonable to think that ANY activity can predispose you to joint changes.  They happen and I doubt there is much we can do about it.  You will see labral tears and bony changes in most sports. 

So should we stop physical activity because of the chance of a labral tear? No. There are way too many benefits from a movement practice that far outweigh the negatives of a potential increase in the chance of having a labral tear.

 

QUESTION 7: In terms of stretching physiology, I believe that many people conflate the "muscle spindle stretch reflex" (reflexive muscular contraction during a stretch) with "stretch tolerance" (tolerating the discomfort of stretching) in their minds. Could you describe the difference between these two phenomena? Do they both play a role in stopping us at the end range of a stretch?

ANSWER: I’m not sure to be honest.  Stretch tolerance definitely plays a role as the stretch is stopped (in the experimental studies) when the participant says its too much.  What happens with long term stretching is that you are able to go farther without there being a dramatic change in tissue qualities.  Meaning we assume that the changes in ROM are due to your tolerance or perhaps habituation rather than a structural change.

The muscle spindle stretch reflex is assumed to not be occurring during end ROM stretching because in these studies they monitor muscle activity.  Meaning, they try to make sure there is no measurable muscle activity that occurs at end ROM.  We assume its just a passive resistance to stretch.  However, it is plausible that there is minor amount of activity that isn’t being picked up and this could be “putting on the brakes”.

 

QUESTION 8: Do you believe there are ways in which passive stretching could actually be beneficial for the body on a musculoskeletal level? If so, how?

ANSWER: Yes.  I think long term stretching is just passive tensile force and tension has the ability to create positive structural adaptations in tissue.  Some (Kubo) have argued that passive stretching can make tendon more efficient.  Others suggest that passive stretching influences muscle stiffness which might be good to balance the stiffness changes in a tendon that can occur with injury.

I certainly don’t view stretching as a negative which I once did.  I think if you argue against stretching you are really not “against” stretching but more pro some other intervention.  So, if you like to stretch and its helpful for you I would encourage you to keep it up. 

THANK YOU AGAIN TO GREG FOR HIS GENEROSITY IN SHARING HIS KNOWLEDGE AND INSIGHT WITH THE YOGA COMMUNITY. I HOPE YOU FOUND THIS INTERVIEW INFORMATIVE AND HELPFUL FOR YOUR YOGA PRACTICE & TEACHING! -JENNI

Learn much more from Greg Lehman on his website here, and follow him on Twitter!


Top Yoga & Movement Teachers to Watch in 2019

There’s an amazing list that just came out on the “Top 19 Yoga & Movement Teachers to Watch in 2019”, and I am honored and thrilled to be included in it!

This list was curated by the innovative online magazine Shut Up & Yoga, and their list includes many of my other favorite yoga/movement teachers as well - including fully half of the special guest teachers in my online class library! (Do I know how to pick ‘em or what? :) )

Click here to check out the article, and to find out what my favorite word is and why (and much more, of course!) I hope you enjoy reading more about my perspective on yoga & movement, as well those of all of the other interesting and innovative teachers who were featured.

Welcome to Kettlebells + Yoga and Our New Special Guest Teacher in my Class Library!

I’m more than excited to welcome our newest special guest teacher to contribute to my online class library: the amazing Lizette Pompa!!

I have been a huge fan of Lizette for a long time, and I was thrilled when she said yes to the idea of contributing some kettlebell + yoga flows to my online class library!

Using a kettlebell is one way that we yogis can bring a form of external load into our yoga practice, and Lizette does a great job of unifying the feeling of a yoga flow with the added load / "prop" of the kettlebell.

Lizette is a yoga teacher and yoga studio owner based in Uppsala, Sweden who loves to incorporate strength into her yoga classes. She is incredibly strong and dedicated to her yoga practice, and she inspires me every day with her posts on Instagram.

I hope you love her first practice in my library (which is only $8.99/month for unlimited access to all classes & you can cancel anytime, by the way!) I've already taken this class two times, and my body is verrry happy!

My Biggest Wish for Yogis in 2019

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If I could have one wish for our yoga community in the coming year, it would be for us to intentionally *load our bodies* more. But what do I mean by that?

When I talk about loading the body, I just mean exposing the body to enough of a physical challenge that its tissues are stimulated to *adapt* to become stronger.

When our tissues become stronger, our whole body becomes more resilient.

We are less likely to experience injuries because we’ve increased the load-bearing capacity of our tissues, we have more confidence and trust in our body (which can decrease the likelihood of pain), and research suggests that higher levels of strength levels are associated with increased longevity and long-term health!

So all of those are excellent reasons to load our body regularly. But as amazing as yoga is (and I personally love this practice!), yoga is actually a *low-load* activity.

(Obviously for an inactive person, yoga might offer enough load for some adaptations, but at some point, we all adapt to our yoga practice and plateau, you know?)

For all of the talk we hear these days about injuries in long-term yoga practitioners, the reality is that it’s most likely *underloading*, and not overloading, that is the root cause of the bulk of these injuries. Crazy, huh?

And that’s why my biggest wish for yogis in 2019 is to load their bodies more! This could come in the form of integrating more strengthening moves right into our yoga practice (see my online class library for tons of yoga classes that do this!), and/or in the form of yogis taking on other additional activities that involve higher & varying loads (i.e. weightlifting, rock climbing, etc - the possibilities are endless!)

More load = more resilient tissues = happier yogis!

Stretching Misconceptions in the Yoga World

Does stretching make our muscles longer? Does stretching weaken our tissues and de-stabilize our joints? Can “overstretching” give us lax ligaments? Does stretching apply enough stress to our tissues to make them stronger?

There are a lot (a lot!) of claims about stretching that tend to circulate in the yoga community, and not all of these claims are accurate! Did you know?

“Histology” is the branch of biology dealing with the study of the tissues of the body. And from what I can see in the yoga world, many of the claims that we hear about stretching simply don’t jive with what histology/science has revealed about the properties of human connective tissue (including ligaments & tendons) and muscle tissue.

I really appreciated it when the incredibly knowledgeable Greg Lehman stated this quote I’ve featured here during his presentation to us at Jules Mitchell’s 300-hr yoga teacher training that I recently completed. Thank you, Greg!

And for more clarity and some foundational science about stretching, yoga, and which claims are cool and which ones we should definitely retire, check out my new online mini-workshop “How Stretching Affects the Tissues of the Body!”

See you in the workshop for some excellent yoga geeky learning!

Backbends Insights for Your Practice

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It’s so easy to think about backbends as being all about the spine. And they do of course involve the spine, but did you know that our spine doesn’t move as efficiently or powerfully without the support of the arms & legs?

For example, have you ever lifted up into cobra pose (bhujangasana), and felt your feet get light on the floor? (I know I have!) This is often a sign that our legs have disengaged from the movement.

If we instead push our feet actively into the floor in cobra pose 💪🏽, this signals our legs to participate, and if you’re like me at all, you’ll feel lighter and more connected throughout your whole pose (and you might even lift up higher!)

And in camel pose (ustrasana), it’s easy to place our arms in position without asking them to work much or to really “engage” with the pose.

But if we instead work on *active* shoulder extension (arms moving behind you) and connecting to our lats (back muscles), our camel pose might feel more supported, lifted, and quite transformed!

These are just a couple of examples, but you can apply this idea to all backbends. Get your arms & legs activated & participating in your backbends, and notice the difference in how your spine feels!

Strength, Flexibility, Endurance, etc: How Does Yoga Stack Up?

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Depending on which yoga circles you tend to run in, you might hear the message that A) yoga is a panacea that gives our body everything it needs, or B) there a ton of things wrong with yoga and although it does have psychological and spiritual benefits, it doesn’t do much for us on a physical health & fitness level.

Now I’m exaggerating somewhat for effect here, but I do observe two distinct camps in the yoga world. As someone who started off my yoga journey in camp A and then later migrated to camp B for a time, I can certainly relate to both perspectives. But these days I prefer to take a realistic, evidence-based approach that is more nuanced than either camp A or B.

It’s a physiological fact that yoga doesn’t offer our body everything it needs to be healthy. (No single physical activity possibly could!) Those in camp A would be wise to reconsider this idealistic approach.

But at the same time, there are many fitness and health-based benefits that yoga truly does offer us that seem to be overlooked by many in camp B. As an example, I recently put out a survey via my Instagram account that asked people to respond with the ways they thought yoga was good for our body. I received many excellent responses, but to my surprise, no one mentioned any musculoskeletal/biomechanical benefits from the practice at all! The reported benefits were mainly psychological in nature, such as relaxation, time for introspection, improved body image, etc. But there wasn’t any mention of physical benefits such strength, flexibility, endurance, etc.

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And so today I thought we could look at some classic core components of fitness and use research and critical thinking to determine if and how yoga includes these components. Once we understand which components yoga offers and which it doesn’t, we can then decide to either integrate some of the “missing” items into our yoga practice to the best extent that we can - or we can simply choose to partake in other activities that naturally do a great job of offering these components.

There are of course many other benefits of yoga beyond physical ones, but I’d like to focus on this category specifically because I feel that our yoga community could use some clarification on these points.



Flexibility - YES

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It’s been well-established in the research that yoga does improve flexibility. This is because a typical yoga practice takes our joints through their end range of motion on a regular basis. Here are just a few references that support this: [Ref], [Ref], [Ref], [Ref], [Ref]

Of course there is a lot of nuance to this topic. Yoga doesn’t seem to improve flexibility for every person at all joints, and oftentimes additional techniques like directed muscle contractions during stretches can help increase flexibility more efficiently than classic yoga techniques alone.

Additionally, there is a growing discussion around the distinction between flexibility and mobility, with mobility being the preferred quality to pursue over flexibility. But because “flexibility” is the official term on most fitness component lists, let’s just keep this discussion simple and consider flexibility to be about range of motion (ROM), and we’ll assume that in general, most of us could use to increase our ROM, at least at some joints.

And with that said, yoga in general has been shown to reliably improve flexibility in most people!


Strength - YES, but limited

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Yoga can definitely offer muscle strengthening benefits, but they are limited. For example, yoga does strengthen the upper body in a “pushing” direction of movement (think pushing the floor away in plank pose or chaturanga), but it does not include significant strengthening in the “pulling” direction of movement (think pulling your body toward something, like a pull-up).

Additionally, because yoga involves bodyweight only, it can definitely strengthen our body up to a point. (And some yoga classes intentionally incorporate creative bodyweight strengthening moves to maximize this benefit for yogis.) But once our body adapts to the loads of our bodyweight, if we’re interested in further strengthening, we need to start using some form of external loading (i.e. weights or another form of resistance). To accomplish this, we could try incorporating some forms of external resistance into our yoga practice, or we could take on a separate weightlifting practice, which is a physical activity whose very “job” is to increase strength.



Muscular Endurance - PROBABLY, but just to an extent

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Muscle endurance is a distinct category from muscle strength (although there is some natural overlap between them.) Whereas muscle strength is defined as the amount of force that a muscle can generate against resistance, muscle endurance has to do with a muscle’s ability to sustain a submaximal contraction for an extended period of time without fatiguing.

Does yoga increase muscle endurance? From my look at the research, I didn’t find an abundance of high-quality studies that examined this, but the studies that I did find seemed promising. These two studies [Ref, Ref] both saw muscle endurance increase in their experimental yoga groups. I also found two studies on Pilates mat exercises (different from yoga, but similar in that they use bodyweight only and no equipment), and in these studies muscle endurance also increased from the practice [Ref, Ref].

Additionally, based on my understanding of how muscle endurance works, I would imagine that regularly practicing sustained standing pose sequences would build muscle endurance in the lower body, as would repeatedly practicing vinyasa-type sequences for the upper body.




Power - NO

It’s tempting to equate the term power with the term strength, but in fitness terms, these are two separate (although related) qualities. Whereas strength means the amount of force a muscle can generate against resistance, the term power means how fast you can exert the strength that you have.

Power might start to make more sense if you consider some activities that typically utilize it: sprinting, swinging a baseball bat, and playing basketball all require an element of generating force very quickly. In order to train for power, activities like plyometrics (jump training) and dynamic kettlebell work are often recommended.

Yoga, by contrast, is a slower-paced activity. Even faster “power yoga”-type classes (no pun intended!) are still slower in speed than the fast, explosive movements of power-based training. One could possibly argue that jumping back to chaturanga might be a power-type activity because it’s done quickly and utilizes strength - but this isn’t enough to qualify yoga as a “power”-building activity in my opinion. If you’re looking to train the element of power, there are many other activities that are excellent at offering this!




Balance - YES

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Yoga includes many poses that naturally challenge our balance, including high lunge, warrior 1, and all of the single-leg standing balance poses (tree pose, dancer pose, etc.) It seems like common sense to assume that yoga would therefore have positive effects on balance, but research has actually demonstrated this to be the case as well [Ref], [Ref], [Ref], [Ref], [Ref].

As we age, the risks from taking a fall can actually be quite detrimental to our health and well-being, so yoga’s potential to help us improve balance is a very valuable benefit on a functional level.

Additionally, when we take arm balances and inversions into account, yoga also helps us to work on balance with our hands as our base of support. So yes, in many regards, yoga helps us to improve balance!



Proprioception, Body Awareness, Body Maps - YES

Proprioception is your sense of how your body is arranged in space, and it’s intimately connected with the “body maps” in your brain, which are neurological representations of all of the parts of your body. The more accurate your body maps are, the better your proprioception, body awareness, and quality of movement in general.

I didn’t find a plethora of good studies on yoga and proprioception (although proprioception is included in the discussion of some of the studies on yoga and balance that I included in the “balance” section.) However, given that yoga is a low-load activity that tends to be practiced slowly, mindfully, and with control, it would stand to reason that it has the potential to improve our proprioception and to help clarify our body maps in our brain.



Cardiovascular Endurance - POSSIBLY, to a minor extent

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Most of us are familiar with the idea that a “cardio” or “aerobic” activity is one that has the heart rate elevated for a sustained amount of time. Classic cardiovascular endurance activities include running, swimming, and biking.

Based on our understanding of how these aerobic activities look and feel (elevated heart rate, sweating, shortness of breath, lots of exertion), it seems clear that yoga is not a cardiovascular fitness practice to the same degree as these other classic activities. However, depending on the pace of the yoga practice, I believe that some yoga classes could be considered low-intensity cardiovascular activities.

In fact, this recent study [Ref] compared “high speed yoga” to “standard speed yoga” and found that “high-speed yoga results in a significantly greater caloric expenditure than standard-speed yoga. High-speed yoga may be an effective alternative program for those targeting cardiometabolic markers.”

Other research on this topic is mixed. These two studies [Ref], [Ref] did not support the idea that yoga could be considered cardiovascular exercise, but the type of yoga examined did not appear to be a very intense form. These two studies [Ref], [Ref] were more favorable to the idea - although the first one would be stronger evidence if it had included a control group.

My feeling is that if the style of yoga you’re practicing includes faster pacing and causes you to feel like you are moderately exerting yourself for a sustained amount of time, that practice could be considered a form of low-intensity cardiovascular exercise.

On a related note, I found a thorough research review that looked at 69 studies on whether yoga reduced the risk of cardiovascular disease and metabolic syndrome, and it concluded that “there is promising evidence of yoga on improving cardio-metabolic health” [Ref]. This isn’t answering the question of whether yoga improves cardiovascular endurance, but it does suggest that yoga can offer similar health benefits to cardio-type exercises!





IN SUMMARY…

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The reality of yoga’s effects on the body is of course more nuanced than this generalized list. For example, a gentle yoga class will probably not include the elements of strength, muscular endurance, and low-intensity cardiovascular endurance - but it might include balance, proprioception, and flexibility. And a faster-paced vinyasa yoga class might include the elements that a gentle class doesn’t - but these won’t be endless, and they really do depend on what and how an individual teacher chooses to teach.

When making decisions about your own yoga and movement practices, consider yoga in the context of everything else that you do on a regular basis. For example, if you happen to trail run 2-3 times a week, you might not be interested in the potential cardiovascular benefits of faster-paced yoga classes; perhaps you would choose a slower-paced practice instead. If you strength train regularly at the gym, you might not need to focus on strength in your yoga practice; perhaps a gentle type of yoga is the right fit for you.

And if yoga is your sole form of physical activity/exercise, then it would be great for you to take yoga classes that excel in movement variety and well-rounded strengthening so that you can maximize the benefits from your practice.

In general, the more that we appreciate yoga for what it does offer us while accepting what it clearly doesn’t, the higher our chances are of finding fulfillment in our yoga practice and balance and health in our bodies.