What Does Being Wiped Out After a Yoga Practice Mean?

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Isn’t it interesting that you can feel tired and wiped out after a vigorous yoga class, but this doesn’t necessarily mean that you created *strength* in your body in that yoga class?

Strength is actually a really specific variable. It means how much force a muscle can generate against resistance.

If we want to increase strength, we need to expose our muscles to higher loads than they’re currently used to so that they’re challenged to adapt and become stronger (generate more force).

If we move around a lot at a fast pace for 60-75 min in a sweaty yoga class, this might make us tired afterward - but this isn’t necessarily the same thing as *strengthening*. This is just tired.

In fact, when I do actual strength work in my yoga practice (loading my muscles for adaptations), the moves are usually done slowwwly and are hard & effortful in the moment I’m doing them, but then afterward I don’t feel crazily exhausted and wiped out.

I personally like taking a sweaty, faster-paced yoga class that makes me tired afterward (I really do! 😀) But I don’t really count that as *strengthening* work in my mind, because that’s something different.

What are some ways that you work on the variable of strength in your yoga practice?

Should Yogis Worry About hips & knees that click & pop?

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When you lower down into squat pose (malasana) in yoga, do your knees make a popping sound? When you lift your leg toward your chest, does your hip sometimes make a clicking or “snapping” noise? What do joint sounds like this mean? Are they dangerous?

As of late, many yoga teachers seem to have taken a fearful turn with regard to joint noises. We often hear the claim that sounds emanating from joints are an indication of a significant dysfunction in the body such as weakness, instability, or tightness. We are cautioned that we should take immediate action to remedy these dysfunctions, or else we will face negative consequences such as joint degeneration and eventual joint replacement surgery in the future.

Now we all want our joints to stay healthy and move well for us as long as possible. This is a major focus of the yoga and movement classes that I offer, so I’m always interested in any information about the body that can help me guide my students toward increased joint health and longevity.

However, it turns out that the scientific literature on joint noise such as knee popping and hip snapping is clear. If you experience a joint noise that is accompanied by pain, swelling, or an acute injury, you should see a medical professional to have the joint evaluated. However, if your joint noise is pain-free and asymptomatic (which the vast majority of bodily joint noises are), there is no reason for concern.

  A very helpful graphic by Matthew Dancigers, Doctor of Physical Therapy, that I saw on  his Instagram feed .

A very helpful graphic by Matthew Dancigers, Doctor of Physical Therapy, that I saw on his Instagram feed.

DEMYSTIFYING JOINT NOISES

Joint noises are actually a normal, natural by-product of movement. The catch-all medical term for all of the interesting sounds that joints can emanate is crepitus. Examples of joint crepitus include clicking, popping, snapping, clunking, and more. The exact mechanism for the noise we hear when a joint clicks or pops is still not known, but some common explanations include anatomical structures coming into contact with each other, and the formation or collapse of air bubbles within joint cavities [Ref], [Ref].

Joint crepitus is more prevalent and obvious to hear in some bodies and than in others, but despite the fearful messages that we commonly hear about them in the yoga world, these noises on their own (i.e. unaccompanied by pain, swelling, or injury) are simply a normal physiological phenomenon that are nothing to be concerned about.

 

A CLOSER LOOK AT KNEES

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It’s common for people’s knees to click and pop when they flex and extend them - thus those knee pops we often hear when students lower into their squat (malasana) poses in yoga class. Many people believe that these noises are a sign that their knee joints are “wearing away”, that their bodies are prematurely aging, or that they have arthritis. But did you know that in a cohort of 250 subjects with normal, pain-free knees, 99% of them had knees that made noise? [Ref]. This is how prevalent, normal, and benign knee noises are. Yes, some arthritic knees can have joint crepitus - but so do most healthy knees. No definitive link between joint noise and joint pathology has been demonstrated by research [Ref].

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In fact, in this same study I mentioned above, the remarkable suggestion is made that knees that make noise are actually healthier than knees that do not. I’ll give you a moment to pause and absorb this thought, because it is the complete opposite of the cautions we usually hear. Knees that make noise might be healthier than knees that don’t. It’s true!

Without going too far into the details, the basic idea is that there is one type of knee sound that specifically happens in joints that are mobile and well-lubricated. As a knee becomes arthritic and starts to lose mobility, this type of crepitus actually decreases. So when this sound is absent, it can be a sign of an unhealthy joint with arthritis and decreased joint lubrication - not the other way around!

Therefore despite popular thought, noisy knees are normal and very common. And rather than being associated with joint degeneration and dysfunction, research suggests that knee crepitus is actually associated with healthy knees!

 

A CLOSER LOOK AT THE HIPS

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Hips that click, pop, and snap when they move are another joint noise we are often taught to worry about in the yoga world. This noise is commonly the result of either the psoas tendon moving across a bony prominence on the front of the pelvis, or the iliotibial band moving over the greater trochanter of the femur.

Although this type of hip noise is often claimed by yoga teachers to mean that one has a dysfunctional, unstable, or problematic hip that should be addressed, the scientific literature actually points to the same conclusion I mentioned in the beginning of this piece: if a snapping, popping, hip is accompanied by pain, seeing a medical professional is certainly advised. (The issue is generally resolved through conservative treatment, which is great!) But if the hip noise is pain-free and asymptomatic (as most hip noises are), there is nothing to be concerned about. Here are a few quotes I pulled from the scientific literature on this topic:

“When pain is not present [with snapping hip], treatment is not warranted” [Snapping Hip Syndrome (Musick 2017)].

“[Snapping hip is] a common asymptomatic condition which may occur in up to 10% of the general population” [Endoscopic Release of Internal Snapping Hip: A Literature Review (Via et al 2016)].

And my personal favorite: “Snapping caused by the iliopsoas tendon… is a common incidental observation that often requires little treatment on the part of the clinician other than assurance to the patient that this finding is not a harbinger of future problems” [Evaluation and Management of the Snapping Iliopsoas Tendon (Byrd 2006)].

This serves as further evidence that audible joint noises are normal, and are not a necessarily a sign of dysfunction in the body.

 

THE MOST CLASSIC EXAMPLE: KNUCKLE CRACKING

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Perhaps knee and hip noises don’t warrant concern if they are pain-free, but what about the sounds associated with knuckle cracking? We are probably all familiar with the caution that cracking your knuckles will give you arthritis later on in life. But it turns out that this warning is unsubstantiated as well.

We knew this as far back as 1975, when a study conducted found no correlation between knuckle-cracking and arthritis. A quote from this paper reads: “The data fail to support evidence that knuckle cracking leads to degenerative changes in the metacarpal phalangeal joints in old age. The chief morbid consequence of knuckle cracking would appear to be its annoying effect on the observer.” [Ref]

Additionally, a more recent study on knuckle cracking from 1990 looked at 300 subjects and compared those who did and did not habitually crack their knuckles. It found that “there was no increased preponderance of arthritis of the hand in either group” [Ref].

 

WORRY AND FEAR-AVOIDANCE OF BENIGN BODY NOISES

As we can see, the evidence about joint noises is clear: if they’re accompanied by pain, swelling, or injury, you should see a medical professional for an evaluation. But if they are asymptomatic and pain-free, there is no need to worry about them.

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In reality, the human body is not a perfectly silent organism. Our insides naturally make noises due to normal physiological processes. Think about the sounds we sometimes hear when we are digesting our food, or the sound of our heartbeat when we’re exercising. Joint noises are simply another form of sound that can be a by-product of movement.

Rather than encouraging worry and catastrophizing, we should see asymptomatic joint noises as a normal part of healthy movement. When we teach people that certain movements and joint sounds are inherently worrisome, this can encourage fear-avoidance behavior and a reduction in movement, which have their own negative consequences and can ironically contribute to pain.

As physiotherapist Clare Robertson writes in her excellent paper titled Joint Crepitus - Are We Failing Our Patients?:

“To accurately inform and reduce anxiety is likely to empower patients and reduce their risk of catastrophizing... It is well documented that there is a clear link between catastrophizing and long-term poor outcome within musculoskeletal medicine.” [Ref]

 

P.S. If you find the topic of joint crepitus interesting, you might enjoy this short video from Physiotutors, a source for evidence-based physiotherapy education:

 

Yoga Anatomy Images & How Muscles Work

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You know those yoga anatomy images you see where the muscles are shown in two different colors - one color is supposed to be “contracting” and the other color is “stretching”?

These pictures would have you believe that “contracting” & “stretching” are opposites - and that shortened muscles are contracting & lengthened muscles are relaxing.

Know what I mean?

I feel like I see these types of images in yoga books & on blogs all over, but did you know that our body doesn’t work like these pictures claim?

Muscles can actually contract through their entire range - when they’re short, mid-range, and long. Just because a muscle is in a lengthened state doesn’t mean it’s not working!

As our body moves into various yoga asanas, some muscles shorten while others lengthen - but ALL of the muscles on all sides of the moving joints are working, regardless of what length they’re at.

Instead of worrying too much about which muscles are “on” or “off” in our poses (or “contracting” and “stretching” as the yoga anatomy images label it), it’s more accurate to think of them all as “on”, because that’s how we move - through co-contractions.

Aaaand I don’t know why this picture I found of wheel (urdhva dhanurasana) doesn’t seem to depict the person with their palms flat on the floor. Maybe he’s supposed to be doing wrist lifts in wheel? (Which actually sounds cool and I want to try it!)

What Does "Yoga Butt" Mean? Settling the Age-Old Question

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Have you ever heard of the term "yoga butt"? If so, do you know what it means? In my experience, this term is a bit confusing because it has two different definitions that are both commonly used in the yoga world.

 

YOGA BUTT DEFINITION #1

The first definition has to do with the idea that the practice of yoga gives yogis firm, attractive backsides - the appearance of which is often colloquially referred to as "yoga butt".

[Side note: I find this first definition ironic because in all honesty, traditional yoga does not challenge the glutes enough to create very firm and toned backsides in the first place. It really doesn't! But that's another topic for another blog post - and if you happen to be a yogi who is interested in some actual focused glute work within a yoga context, consider trying my "Recruit the Glutes" practice in my online yoga class library! It's a great class that does have a good chance of helping yogis to create a yoga butt, if that's something they desire. :) ]

 

YOGA BUTT DEFINITION #2

This first definition for "yoga butt" was all that I knew throughout my earlier yoga days. But later on, I started hearing about a new, alternative definition of the term. "Yoga butt" had also come to be known as a nagging, irritating pain that many yogis experienced in their "butt" area - specifically at the very top of their hamstrings, where these muscles attach to the sitting bones (or ischial tuberosities in anatomy-speak).

This "yoga butt" pain is often exacerbated when yogis fold forward or perform a "hip hinge" type movement like uttanasana (standing forward fold), paschimottanasana (seated forward fold), or virabhadrasana III (warrior 3). And this yoga butt pain is surprisingly common in the yoga world. In fact, it's rare to meet a long-time yogi who has either never experienced this version of yoga butt or doesn't know someone who has.

 

SETTLING THE AGE-OLD QUESTION

Because there are clearly two different definitions for the same term being used concurrently in the yoga world, I decided to put out an "anatomy geeky" survey on my Instagram page last week that asked:

What does "yoga butt" mean? A) an aesthetically-pleasing gluteus maximus or B) proximal hamstring tendinopathy?

Because the "cute butt" definition was the one that I personally had known long before I learned about the "hamstring pain" definition, my prediction was that the majority of votes would be for option A. But to my surprise, these were the results of the poll:

 

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Clearly, the hamstring pain definition was the winner by a wide margin. (77% to 23% - in politics that would be a huge landslide!) The fact that so many more yogis associate the term "yoga butt" with pain than with a cute derriere reveals just how widespread the problem of high hamstring tendinopathy truly is in the yoga community.

And luckily, my brand new online program  "5 Weeks to Strong, Flexible Hamstrings" is designed to address this exact issue! Why, you might ask?

 

HOW DOES HAMSTRING STRENGTHENING HELP YOGA BUTT?

Well, the main reason that so many yogis experience pain at their proximal hamstrings tendons is that although yoga is full of a high amount of passive hamstring stretching in forward bend positions (which repetitively compresses the hamstrings tendons on the bony protrusion of the sitting bones), yoga includes very few, if any, hamstring-strengthening moves.

We know that in order for our hamstrings and their tendons to be resilient and healthy, they need to have a high capacity for load tolerance. And the only way we can increase our hamstrings' capacity to tolerate load is to strengthen them. (Passive stretching and other passive techniques like self-massage and rolling do not load tissues enough to ask them to adapt.)

And this is why my new online program is perfect for yogis: it fills in a missing gap that traditional yoga classes miss out on completely: the important ingredient of hamstring strengthening. If you or any of your yogi friends have an experience of high hamstring pain, this new program might be a perfect solution. (And as a side note, this program is also excellent for anyone who feels that they have "tight" or inflexible hamstrings. It's also ideal for anyone who simply wants to strengthen their hamstrings because yoga does not strengthen them, which is a good idea for all of us yogis!)

Check this new offering out, and feel free to let me know if you have any questions at all.

I'll see you and your hamstrings in my excellent new program!

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

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

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

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

Deconstructing Down Dog Shoulder Alignment

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

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Part 1

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

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

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

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

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

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

 
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Part 2

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 
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Part 3

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 
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Part 4

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Myth of Symmetry in Yoga

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

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

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