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OUTDATED MODEL OF PAIN
One reason that the "bad movements" belief is unhelpful is that it is based on an outdated model of how pain works.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
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.
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!)
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.