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.

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!

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!

ANNOUNCING THE NEWEST SPECIAL GUEST TEACHER IN MY ONLINE CLASS LIBRARY!

I am extremely honored to have the opportunity to host and share classes from so many incredible science-based yoga teachers in my online class library! Today I’d like to announce the newest teacher to join the ranks of this innovative teaching faculty starting on October 10, 2018.

For many people, Francesca Cervero doesn’t need any introduction. But for those of you who don’t know her, a few points of note are that she runs a thriving yoga teaching mentoring business, she specializes in The Science of the Private Lesson™, and she also hosts the popular Support & Strategy for Yoga Teachers podcast.

One of the reasons I’m extra excited about Francesca’s classes is that they were actually filmed with live yoga students! And because she is well-known for her impressive skill of holding space in the yoga room in a grounded way, these classes will be a very helpful window into watching this skilled yoga teacher do her space-holding work.

Francesca is also well-known in the yoga community for expertly teaching yoga classes without demo-ing any poses at all. Many people wonder “how does she do it?”, and now we can finally watch her in her element and learn from her techniques.

Look for her first class to arrive in the library on October 10th! I hope you love it!

 
 

Shoulder Strengthening Beyond Chaturanga

Yoga is an amazing practice in many ways, but one important fact about the practice that's often overlooked is that it doesn't strengthen our shoulders in a well-rounded way.

Just think about it: the main shoulder-strengthening moves in a typical yoga practice are chaturanga, plank pose, and maybe a handstand or two. :) And considering all of the many (many!) ways that our shoulders can move and be strengthened, that is not really sufficient for truly strong shoulders.

This is why I'm more than thrilled about my brand new online shoulder-strengthening program that just released! It's called 5 Weeks to Strong, Flexible Shoulders, and once you sign up for it, you'll receive a 15-20 minute practice video emailed to you every 3 days for 5 weeks.

These practices are designed to strengthen the shoulders in all directions - and in both the pushing & pulling directions (yay!!) The practices build on each other progressively over the duration of the program, so that by the end, you will have significantly stronger, more resilient shoulders (and upper body in general) than when you started.

You can sign up for my new shoulders program on its own for $59, or you can become an All-Content member of my website ($25/month) and you'll automatically receive access to this new program, along with access to all other content on my website! (Isn't that amazing?)

Shoulder Alignment in Downward Dog: Is External Rotation the Best Cue?

I am more than excited about my newest article in Yoga International about the shoulders and downward dog! Externally-rotating the shoulders was thought to be the safest alignment for down dog for years.

But as I explain in this article, newer insights from science about pain, injury, and shoulder impingement syndrome are giving us good reason to re-think the classical way that we practice and teach down dog (and quite a few other asanas as well!)

Read my new article here, and feel free to let me know if you have any questions about it. I hope you enjoy learning new information and a fresh perspective on shoulder alignment!

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?