Super Cool Anatomy Fact #53

 

(This is a little factoid that I shared on my yoga FB page, and I thought I'd also share it here on my blog because it's a pretty important concept for yoga teachers to understand. It's not a full blog post like my usual ones, but I have some more of those coming soon. :) )

SUPER COOL ANATOMY FACT #53: You probably know that your muscles move you around, but did you know that your connective tissue plays an important role in moving you around too? It's harder to picture because we know that our connective tissue doesn't actively contract like our muscles do. But our connective tissue actually stores what's called *potential energy* when it lengthens.

Think about this frog here. When this frog decides to jump, it first moves into a crouch, which stretches its tendons & other connective tissues, loading them with potential energy. When the frog releases this position, it certainly uses its *muscles* to propel itself forward, but its jump is hugely enhanced by the stored potential energy that was loaded into its connective tissues. It would never jump as impressively far if it didn't have its spring-like connective tissue to propel it much further than its brute muscle force alone could.

We humans rely on properties like this when we move too. It's therefore important to keep our connective tissue healthy for optimal energy storage and force transmission. One great way to cultivate healthy connective tissue is to integrate active stretching into your yoga/movement practice. When we strength-train our tissues at all ranges, we signal our connective tissue to grow stronger and stiffer ("stiff" being a good thing when we're talking about connective tissue!) We don't create healthy, efficient tissues by pulling on them and trying to make them longer - we create strength and resiliency in our tissues by making them stronger at all ranges.

Try thinking less about "length" and more about strength and efficiency in your yoga/movement practice and see if your flexibility magically improves anyway! My new hamstrings-focused online yoga practice is a great place to start if these ideas are newer to you. :)

Hamstring Strengthening for Yogis

I recently wrote a blog post that questioned the widespread belief that strengthening muscles makes them "tighter". In the post, I focused on the hamstrings as my main example, because so many people have "tight" hamstrings, but they are generally not recommended to strengthen them due to a belief that this would only make them tighter. Additionally, we spend a lot of time stretching our hamstrings in yoga, but very little time strengthening them.

Can you tell that I think hamstring-strengthening is a good idea, especially for yogis? :)

This video demonstrates one method of strengthening the hamstrings that can easily be included in any yoga class. I love this move and hope you have fun trying it out!

Fact Check: Will Strengthening Your Tight Hamstrings Make Them Tighter?

In any given yoga class, we are bound to practice an abundance of poses which stretch our hamstrings and relatively few that actually strengthen them. This rarely-discussed imbalance in yoga sequencing tends to occur for two main reasons.

First of all, there simply aren’t that many yoga asanas out there which strengthen the hamstrings in a meaningful way. Even if a yoga teacher wanted to focus specifically on hamstring strengthening in a particular class, she would have very few options in the traditional yoga pose canon from which to choose. Second, yoga teachers are well aware that many of their students have “tight” hamstrings, and there is a conventional belief in the yoga world (and in the fitness community in general) that it is not advisable to strengthen “tight” muscles because it will only make them tighter.

Today we’ll focus on the latter of these two issues: the idea that we should avoid strengthening our tight muscles because they are already tight. This is a very common and completely understandable belief among yogis. After all, one of our foundational goals in our yoga practice is to cultivate balance in our body. With this goal in mind, one of the last things we would want to do is create more tightness in an area that was already tight-feeling to begin with.

 

BUT WHAT DO WE MEAN WHEN WE SAY “TIGHT”?

Surprisingly, the widely-used term “tight” often means quite different things to different people. The following are all possibilities for what someone could be describing when they say they are “tight”:

-they aren’t able to stretch very far in a given direction
-their actual experienced sensation of their muscles when they stretch is “tight”
-the general, perpetual state of a specific muscle or group of muscles in their body is tight (i.e. “my hip flexors are tight from sitting so much”)
-they experience a vague sense of achiness or discomfort somewhere in their body (i.e. “my low back feels stiff and tight”)
-something else entirely :)

The reality is that there is ultimately no science-based definition for the word “tight”. The term is a very subjective one that each person experiences uniquely in his or her own body. This lack of an actual physiological definition for “tight” throws into question the very basis for the “strengthening tight muscles makes them tighter” belief. If there is no clear mechanism for what “tight” is, any rule about the body based on this concept begins to lose its meaning.

 

ARE TIGHT MUSCLES SHORT MUSCLES?

Although the notion of “tight” lacks a physiological definition, one commonly-shared belief about tightness is that the muscle(s) in question are shorter than they should be, and the natural solution to their “tightness/shortness” is to therefore lengthen them back out by stretching them.

This has been the dominant paradigm regarding stretching and “tight” muscles in the yoga world (and the fitness community in general) for many years. In my 2-part blog post series Stretching Is In Your Brain, I discussed that in contrast to this “short muscles that need to be lengthened” idea, a more updated, research-based perspective on stretching is the notion that our body’s flexibility is instead governed by our brain and central nervous system via a mechanism called stretch tolerance. [See study.] In summary, our inflexibility is not due to physically short muscles - it is instead due to our brain putting the brakes on our movement because it perceives that any deeper of a stretch will not be safe for us (and it’s probably right!) The “tightness” feeling that we experience at the end of our stretch is not the feeling of short muscles reaching the end of their length, but of an output of our brain in response to our stretch designed to signal us to stop the movement.

Isn’t this a fascinating and possibly mind-bending new way to approach the body in terms of stretching and our yoga practice?

 

STRENGTHENING THOSE TIGHT HAMSTRINGS

The hamstrings muscle group: biceps femoris, semitendinosus, & semimembranosus.  (Image courtesy Real Bodywork, Inc.)

The hamstrings muscle group: biceps femoris, semitendinosus, & semimembranosus. (Image courtesy Real Bodywork, Inc.)

Paradigm-shifting aside, let’s return to the main topic of this article, which is the common belief that strengthening a tight muscle will make it tighter. In the same way that we tend to believe the outdated idea that our inflexible muscles are “short”, we also tend to believe that strengthening a muscle will physically alter that muscle so that it becomes shorter.

For example, the hamstrings might be the number-one-cited area of “tightness” in the average body. (But remember that “tightness” is a non-specific term without true scientific meaning.) If we believe that our hamstrings are “tight” because they are short, and if we also believe that strengthening muscles will physically shorten them, then there is no way that we would ever think that strengthening our short, tight hamstrings is a good idea. Tight plus tight equals more tight, right?

In addition to the example of the hamstrings, here are a few other areas of the body to which we often apply this same logic:

-our hip flexors are short from too much sitting, so we shouldn’t do hip flexor-strengthening moves

-our spines are rounded-forward (hyperkyphotic) from too much slouching, so we shouldn’t practice traditional abdominal work because it would shorten our abdominal muscles and pull us into more of a slouch

-our calves tend to be tight from high-heel (and other positive-heeled shoe) wearing, so we wouldn’t want to strengthen our calves because it would further tighten them

These arguments would absolutely make sense if we were still operating under the paradigm of physically-short muscles that we lengthen back out by stretching. But in the same way that we now understand that stretching a muscle doesn’t make it “longer”, we have also learned that strengthening a muscle does not make it “shorter”. Or to be more accurate, there is very little (if any) evidence to support the idea that strengthening a muscle causes it to structurally change so that its resting length becomes shorter.

As counterintuitive as it may seem (believe me, I know!), strengthening muscles does not “tighten”, “stiffen”, or “shorten” them - it doesn’t decrease their flexibility in any way. [See study.] In fact, if we strength train our muscles eccentrically (which means that our muscles are active as they lengthen), this has been shown to actually increase their flexibility. [See study.] So not only does strengthening a muscle not physically shorten it, but if done correctly, it can increase its stretch tolerance. This seems so contrary to popular thinking, but once we understand that our muscles only do what our powerful, communicative, and dynamic central nervous system tells them to do, these concepts begin to make more intuitive sense.

One important note is that while strengthening doesn’t stiffen our muscles, it will stiffen up our connective tissue (which is distinct from, although interwoven with, our muscle tissue) - but this is actually a desirable outcome. As I discussed in Stretching Is In Your Brain Part 2, we want our connective tissue to be stiff so that it can be strong, resilient, and less vulnerable to injury.

IN CONCLUSION...

In circling back to the overarching question of this article: no, strengthening your tight/short hamstrings (or any other muscles) will not make them tighter/shorter. But it will make the connective tissue of your hamstrings stronger and less prone to injury. This is especially relevant for yogis, given the high incidence of hamstring pulls and strains we experience in the yoga community as a result of the traditional sequencing of lots of hamstring stretching and very little strengthening. With this new knowledge about muscle physiology in mind, we should feel encouraged to strengthen any area of our body we might have previously been avoiding because we were afraid it would “tighten” up as a result. This change in approach will represent a path toward greater body awareness and the true balance that so many of us seek through our time on the yoga mat.

 

Related: 5 Weeks to Strong, Flexible Hamstrings online program

Related Online Workshop: Re-Imagining Hip-Openers: A Yoga Anatomy Workshop

The Easiest Mistake to Make in Backbends

I am sooo thankful to have published a second article in Yoga International! It's all too easy to do backbends in a way that will make your spine mad at you :), and I hope this article will provide lots of helpful info for how to approach these poses in a way that will offer true positive change in your body. Thanks so much for reading, guys!

https://yogainternational.com/article/view/the-easiest-mistake-to-make-in-backbends

In other news, I'm working on a new series of posts for my blog on shoulder mechanics in yoga. I haven't written specifically about the shoulders here yet, so I'm hoping that these posts will help fill in some missing info on this important area of the body. Stay tuned for this and more great movement info to come!

Stretching Is In Your Brain Part 2: What Is The Value Of Flexibility Without Strength?

In Part 1 of my “Stretching Is In Your Brain” series, we looked at some updated information on what happens physiologically inside of us when we stretch. To re-cap, new science is revealing that the widely-held belief that we physically grow our muscles longer during a stretch is inaccurate. Instead, flexibility is controlled by our nervous system, which determines how far it will allow us to move into a stretch based on how safe it perceives our body to be in that range of motion.

As yoga practitioners and teachers, we’ve been treating our muscles as though they are independent entities which we can mold through direct manipulation, but in reality our muscles are just the peripheral, subservient component of a much broader system of communication and control. Let’s explore some of the implications that this major paradigm shift has for how we approach the body in our yoga practice.

 

WHAT DOES PULLING HARD ON OUR TISSUES ACHIEVE?

In the old paradigm of stretching in which we believe that we’re physically pulling our tissues longer like taffy when we stretch, it would logically follow that in order to gain more flexibility, we should simply pull harder and deeper. Wringing oneself deep into a spinal twist or receiving a strong adjustment from a teacher intended to push your range of motion further are common examples of this strategy. But we now understand that flexibility is much less about using brute physical force to grow our muscles longer, and much more about using intelligent communication to suggest to our nervous system that a particular range of motion is safe.

In fact, the “brute force” method of stretching is problematic in multiple ways. When we stretch, our muscles aren’t the only tissues that are affected. Muscles are surrounded by and interpenetrated with fascia, which also makes up the body’s ligaments and tendons. When we move our body into a stretch, both our muscles and our fascia experience the stretch at the same time.

It’s important to understand that fascia has only a set range that it can stretch. Stretching offers many benefits to the health of our fascia, but it won’t change the range of this tissue. This means that after fascia experiences the load of a stretch, only one of two possibilities can happen: 1) it returns to its original length after being stretched or 2) it is stretched too far and is damaged. And that’s it! We don’t make our fascia “longer” when we stretch. And if we pull too hard on this tissue in an effort to elongate it, we will most likely move beyond its ability to withstand the load, which will ultimately lead to injury. As counterintuitive as it may seem, for the health and balance of our structure, we actually want our fascia to be quite “stiff” and “resilient”.

 

BUT HOW MUCH STRETCH IS THE RIGHT AMOUNT?

We understand that stretching intensely does not benefit us, but how do we know where that boundary lies in our body as well as our students’ bodies? Here’s a key rule to use in your practice: when we stretch, we should only move into a range of motion over which we have muscular control. This is because our nervous system feels safest when it senses that we have control over our movement.

Put another way, we don’t want to create flexibility without the strength to support it. If we stretch within these parameters, our practice is likely to contribute to a balanced body that moves well. However, when we stretch into a range in which the targeted muscles cannot function, we are creating excessive mobility (and more than likely hypermobility) that we don’t have the ability to stabilize. 

Hanumanasana, yoga's forward split.

Hanumanasana, yoga's forward split.

To illustrate this point, let’s look at hanumanasana, yoga’s forward splits. If we practiced this pose with the goal of building flexibility within the context of strength, we would only move as deep into the shape as the muscles of our legs could maintain control. Picture it: without using your arms pressing into the floor, you would slowly lower down into your full hanumanasana and then use those very same leg muscles to lift yourself all the way back up (again, without the use of the arms!) This might seem like a superhuman acrobatic feat, but I promise it would be possible if you truly worked to build power at your end range.

My friend Maddy demonstrating gomukasana arms.

My friend Maddy demonstrating gomukasana arms.

Let’s touch in on a few other asanas to see how this “stability at your end range” principle might apply. Padmasana, or lotus pose, is one of yoga’s classic asanas. Most of us use our arms to pull our legs into this shape. We also sometimes use momentum to quickly fold our legs into lotus, but momentum is another method of moving into a range of motion that we don’t have the strength to control. Is it any wonder that padmasana is notorious for tearing soft tissue in many a yogi’s knee joint? Try this instead: without using your arms or momentum, use only the muscles of your legs to fold your feet as close to your hips as you can and breathe there. This shape - one over which your muscles have control - is the correct stability edge for your body. Another great example is ekapadasirsasana, yoga’s leg-behind-the-head pose. If that leg can climb behind your head itself, without the use of your arms, then you’re staying within your excellent strength-at-your-end-range limits. But I have yet to see a yogi who can accomplish such a daunting task! A less obvious pose in which we commonly move beyond our stability edge is gomukasana, or cow-face arms. Many people like to use their opposite arm to help that bottom arm climb higher up the back, but as soon as we interfere with that bottom arm’s own ability to move itself to its edge, we are stretching past our active range of motion and into unsupported mobility.

 

IN CONCLUSION...

I know that so many of us yogis are used to going as deep as our bodies will allow in our poses. Think of the innumerable beautiful photos that yoga teachers have in their portfolios or on Instagram of their bodies looking extremely graceful in a perfectly-executed forward split. (I don’t personally have a photo of myself in hanumanasana, but I certainly have photos of many other asanas in which I’ve moved well beyond my active boundaries.)

The science behind utilizing stability as a container for flexibility is not yet widely understood in the yoga world - and not surprisingly, the number of overstretching injuries in our community is quite high. But as a yoga community, we have to ask ourselves some tough questions: if you have the mobility to move deeper into a pose than your muscles can control, where is that mobility coming from, what is it offering you in terms of how well your body functions, and how many more times can you practice this pose before an injury occurs? What is the value of flexibility without the strength to support it? This is the kind of shift in thinking that yoga needs to make if we want our practice to truly offer the structural health and other long-term benefits like aging with ease that so many yoga practitioners seek.

Stretching is In Your Brain: A New Paradigm of Flexibility & Yoga (Part 1)

In yoga, we tend to place a lot of emphasis on stretching as a means toward more flexibility. But what actually happens in our body when we stretch? Most of us envision our bodies as consisting of play-doh like tissues that we pull on and make longer through stretching, but new science is revealing to us a model of stretching that is much more complex, dynamic, and fascinating than what has previously been imagined. And it turns out that thinking of our bodies in this older “play-doh” like version may be counterproductive and can lead to a number of injuries and structural problems resulting from our yoga practice. In order to keep our wonderful yoga tradition evolving and current, it’s important that we understand this new and fascinating science of stretching and any implications it might offer for our practice and teaching.

 

A NEW PARADIGM OF FLEXIBILITY

Biomechanics-based Restorative Exercise™ teaches a lot of new and eye-opening information about stretching and flexibility that isn’t yet common knowledge in the yoga world. Additionally, the wonderful yoga teacher Jules Mitchell is on a mission to educate the yoga community about the science of stretching. Her recently-completed master’s thesis in exercise science is a comprehensive literature review of the most current scientific research on stretching to date, and it’s full of an abundance of important information for yogis.

Utilizing the innovative knowledge that these resources offer, let’s examine some of our current beliefs about stretching and introduce some helpful ways we can begin to update these beliefs to reflect the newest scientific word on the street.

 

WHAT WE THINK HAPPENS WHEN WE STRETCH

Most people think of their muscles as being either “long” or “short”, and that during a stretch, they are targeting their “short” muscles by physically “lengthening” or “loosening” them. In this stretching paradigm, our muscles are mold-able tissues like taffy or play-doh which we can form into a shape of our choosing by simply pulling or pushing on them. For example, when we fold forward into paschimottanasana (seated forward fold), we tend to imagine that our hamstrings are physically growing longer in that moment of our stretch in the same way that taffy would grow longer if we tugged on both of its ends for awhile. We imagine that when we release paschimottanasana, our hamstrings remain just a bit longer than they were before we did the stretch. And we also imagine that the longer and deeper we hold a pose like paschimottanasana, the longer and looser our hamstrings become.

This stretching paradigm is what most of us were taught in our yoga classes, workshops, and teacher trainings. It’s completely understandable that we might see the body as working like this, but new research is revealing a very different version of the biomechanics of stretching.

 

THE NEW SCIENCE OF WHAT HAPPENS WHEN WE STRETCH

We all know that when we stretch, we experience a feeling of “tightness” at our end range of motion - a sensation that limits us from moving any deeper into the stretch. We have traditionally defined this “tight” sensation as the result of having reached the end length of the muscle(s) we’re stretching. In other words, we pulled on the ends of our muscle until we reached its maximum physical length, and once we hit that boundary, the stretch stopped and we felt the “tightness”. With enough stretching, we could increase the length of our muscle and therefore move further into our stretch with time.

The king of flexibility.

The king of flexibility.

But we now understand that increasing our flexibility has much less to do with the physical length of our muscle tissue, and much more to do with the part of our body that controls and moves our muscles: the nervous system. Our brain and spinal cord, which make up our central nervous system (CNS), are constantly monitoring the state of our body. One of the main imperatives of the CNS to keep our body where it perceives it is safe. Normal movements that we make throughout our day are considered safe by the CNS because it knows and trusts them. But on the other hand, our CNS is not familiar with ranges of motion that we never move into, so it’s much less likely to consider those places safe. When we stretch, if we move into a place that the CNS isn’t familiar with, our nervous system will likely end our stretch by creating a sensation of discomfort at the end range of motion it considers safe. 

For example, if you happen to work on your computer for 8 solid hours a day (and if you don’t take frequent intermittent stretch breaks for your shoulders - hint hint :) ), the CNS becomes very familiar with the arms-forward position that you use while typing and considers that range safe. Then later, if you decide to do a chest stretch in which you take your arm out to the side and then behind you, the CNS doesn’t feel that that movement is safe because you so rarely go there, so it will limit your range very early on in the stretch.

A major takeaway from this new flexibility paradigm is that when we increase our range of motion through stretching, it isn’t because we pulled on our tissues and made them longer. It’s because we visited the edge of our stretch (also called stretch “tolerance”) enough times that our CNS started to feel comfortable there and it began to allow us to move deeper into that range.

 

OKAY, I THINK I’M STARTING TO GET IT, BUT WHY IS THIS IMPORTANT?

It’s definitely interesting and more scientifically accurate to understand this previously-overlooked role that our nervous system plays in flexibility. But whether it’s your nervous system or the physical length of your muscles limiting you in a stretch, why does it matter? Isn’t a stretch a stretch, regardless of the mechanism behind it?

That’s a great question - I’m so glad you asked! The main answer has to do with what tissues are being targeted when we stretch. We often think and talk about stretching our muscles in our yoga poses (i.e. paschimottanasana stretches our “hamstrings”), but in truth our muscles are surrounded by, interwoven with, and inseparable from our fascia. Our fascia is our incredible body-wide web of connective tissue that is literally everywhere inside of us, and it includes our tendons and ligaments. Muscles and fascia are two distinct tissues with different properties, but both are affected when we stretch. And how we choose to stretch, which is based on whether we believe that we’re physically lengthening our muscles (old paradigm) or increasing our nervous system’s tolerance for the stretch (new paradigm), determines how our fascia will be affected during the movement. (Preview for Part 2 of this post: if we’re going with the older “pulling on our tissues like play-doh" paradigm, we’ll feel more drawn to stretching deeper and harder in our poses, which is much more likely to simply damage our tissues than give us the flexibility we seek.)

I’ll elaborate more on this and other important topics, like how we might choose to apply this new information to our yoga practice and teaching, in my next blog post. Stay tuned, guys! And in the meantime, if you’re interested in further reading, check out this awesome article by Jules Mitchell (written for a pretty science-oriented reader). See you for Part 2 soon!

What Does Your Twist Tell You About The Strength Of Your Core?

We know it’s important to have a strong, functioning core. But did you know that working our core muscles is only one half of the core strength equation? In order for our core to be truly strong, it must also be flexible and supple. As counterintuitive as it may seem, mobilizing our waist area with poses like twists has just as much to do with core strength as “core work” does. However, the traditional alignment we use for our twists in yoga often misses this important core strengthening benefit. In this article, we’ll use biomechanics to uncover some common twisting “cheats” so we can turn our twists into the awesome core-focused poses they should be!


A TIGHT CORE IS A WEAK CORE

(Update, February 2016: I really appreciate the sentiment of this section of this post, but since the time that I wrote it I have learned more and shifted my perspective. The term "tight" does not have an objective, scientific meaning, and there is also currently no evidence that I know of that suggests that strengthening a muscle will cause it to become 'short and tight', even though this a very commonly-held belief. I still love this blog post in general (especially the great photos of twisting alignment below), but this specific section right here is a tad outdated now.)

The first time I heard the statement that tight muscles are weak muscles, I was certainly dubious. Everyone knows that short, tight muscles are strong while long, loose muscles are weak, right? Isn’t that the way the body works? But it turns out that this common belief is actually an anatomy myth that doesn’t hold true once we examine the science of musculoskeletal function. It is correct that in order to be strong, a muscle must be able to contract - but this is only half of the movement equation. For true functional strength a muscle must have the ability to both contract and release.

When we talk about whether a muscle is strong, we’re really referring to how well it can “generate force”. This takes place at the level of the sarcomere, the basic contractile unit of a muscle. When a healthy muscle contracts, its sarcomeres generate force by shortening, and afterward they release and lengthen again so that they’re ready to shorten the next time the muscle is asked to contract. But if we work our muscles so much that they become short and tight, their sarcomeres are now in an overlapped, “locked short” position and can no longer release back to the place where they can contract again. Muscles like these are not functionally strong because they have a very limited ability to generate force.

So what happens to the muscles of our core if we “strengthen” them with a bunch of core work until they become short and tight? We might end up with defined abdominal muscles like your stereotypical six-pack abs, but if at the micro level, our sarcomeres are overlapped and can’t release back to their optimal force-generating position, our core is not physiologically strong.

 

MOBILIZING FOR CORE STRENGTH

For today’s purposes, let’s define the “core” as the area between the rib cage and the pelvis. We now understand that in order for this area to be strong, the muscles and fascia that live there must also be supple. One of the best ways to mobilize these tissues is through twisting. A twist takes place when we rotate our rib cage relative to our pelvis, our pelvis relative to our rib cage, or both at the same time.

Here’s a great visual that demonstrates this movement. My top hand represents a rib cage, my bottom hand is the pelvis, and the blue fabric in between is the muscles and fascia of the core:

No twist has taken place here because the rib cage and pelvis are facing the same direction.

No twist has taken place here because the rib cage and pelvis are facing the same direction.

Successful twist! The rib cage and pelvis have rotated relative to each other (see how the hands have turned?) and there's clearly a twist in the blue fabric.

Successful twist! The rib cage and pelvis have rotated relative to each other (see how the hands have turned?) and there's clearly a twist in the blue fabric.

Ideally a twist in our body would mobilize the muscles of our waist in the same way that these hands mobilized the blue fabric. Most of us are actually much stiffer through the waist than we realize, though, meaning that our true twisting range of motion is relatively small. But because of a prevailing idea in yoga that going "deeper" in a pose is better, we tend to bypass placing a load on the tight tissues of our waist in favor of moving where it's already easy for us to move, ending up in a shape that creates the illusion of a twist without mobilizing our core muscles much at all. Let me show you what I mean.

Here’s a wonderful yoga student named Craig (who also just happens to be my husband!)


Here are a few places where Craig can move really well in his body:

He   can move nicely at his neck - see how he can turn his head all the way to the side?

He can move nicely at his neck - see how he can turn his head all the way to the side?

He can also move his arms relative to his torso with ease.

He can also move his arms relative to his torso with ease.

In fact, Craig can combine these two movements to create a quite aesthetically-pleasing twist, wouldn’t you say?

But wait... is this a twist? Or does it just appear on the surface to be a twist? Well, if you use your anatomically-informed eyes to look at the Ganesha print on the front of Craig’s shirt, you’ll see that Ganesha is facing straight forward - he didn’t move through space at all. If Ganesha didn’t move, then Craig’s rib cage didn’t move, which means that his core didn’t receive a stretch at all, and this shape was, in fact, a twist “illusion”.

Another easy way to miss your best twist is to lift your chest instead. If we arch our spine when we twist, we’ll feel like we’re deeper in our twist because we moved more, but we’re simply mobilizing a place that wasn’t the target area of our pose - with the added drawback of creating compression in our lumbar spine. This kind of twist looks something like this:

Do you see how Craig has lifted his chest and tilted his rib cage backward in this example? He has also let his head rotate much further around than his rib cage, and if you look closely, you’ll see that his eyes have moved even further around than his head (!), all of which makes Craig feel like he moved deeper into his twist, when in reality his core didn’t rotate much at all.

In this final example, Craig is demonstrating a true core-mobilizing (and therefore core-strengthening!) twist:

He hasn’t arched his spine to create excessive movement in non-optimal places, and the change in angle of Ganesha shows us that he successfully turned his rib cage relative to his pelvis. An aligned twist like this is the essential ingredient to core strength that many of us have been missing. Your body will love it when you find it!

 

IN CONCLUSION...

In our continuing pursuit of an updated yoga practice that’s informed by biomechanics and anatomy, it’s helpful for us to look beyond the oversimplified categories we’ve been taught for our poses. “Spinal twists” and “core work” are actually intimately connected when it comes to core function. And as has become a central theme of my blog posts, in order for our twists to have a beneficial impact on our core, we need to let go of the idea that “deeper is better” and learn to work within our body’s true limits. The path of seeing ourselves accurately and clearly is an essential key to the transformative effects that yoga has to offer!

 

Related Online Class: Twisting-Focused Flow

Related Online Workshop: Anatomy of the Spine for Increased Core Connection

Integrity in Your Movement: Hips vs. Spine

Once you’ve spent enough time studying the body and movement, you begin to develop refined anatomical eyes that can see patterns in the way people move that they can’t sense in themselves. One of these patterns that I see is that yogis tend to move where it’s already easy for their bodies to move while avoiding the work required where true positive change is needed. This is a complex issue that has partly to do with the alignment we choose for our poses. But another factor is a surprising sensory disconnect between what we feel is happening in our body and what is actually happening (also known as poor proprioception), combined with a widespread notion that going “deeper” into our poses is better or more “advanced”.

In our continuing effort to update our beloved yoga practice with modern-day biomechanics knowledge (the science of how the body moves), let’s examine how we can improve one specific body awareness issue that applies to many different yoga poses.

 

MOVING FROM THE HIPS VS. THE SPINE

We love to do everything while sitting in chairs!

We love to do everything while sitting in chairs!

Due to our sitting-based lifestyles, the overwhelming majority of us have tight, locked up hips. (Update February 2016: Although it's commonly believed that sitting makes our hips tight, I realize today that "tight" is a very subjective term that does not have an objective, scientific meaning. Many of use the term "tight" to imply "short", though, as in "sitting shortens the muscles of your hips", but truthfully, we don't actually have evidence to support this claim.) As I’ve written about before, when we don’t move well at one area of our body, we will compensate for that lack of mobility by moving more than we should at an adjacent area of the body, thereby creating too much mobility (a.k.a. hypermobility) in that spot. In the example of our tight hips, the neighboring area that we tend to overuse is our lumbar spine (low back). Hypermobile areas are the sites of pain and injury in many people - is it any wonder that so many of us experience low back pain in our lives?

We spend a lot of time in yoga trying to open our hips, but because it’s so much easier to move from our bendy lumbar spines than our stiff, unyielding hips - and also because of the belief that going “deeper” into our poses is better - we all-too-often bypass the very hip opening we seek by moving from our spine instead. Here’s an easy-to-remember rule: if we want to open our hips when we stretch, we need to move from our hips (the stuck place that needs mobility) and not from our spine (the hypermobile place that needs stability.)

This simple rule can be a challenging one to apply to our practice, though. Most yogis (even very experienced ones) haven’t developed the proprioception necessary to feel the difference between moving from their hips vs. moving from their spine, beyond an obvious example like swan diving forward into uttanasana (forward fold) from standing. Even yogis who consider themselves as having “open hips” because they can put their leg behind their head, drop into full hanumanasana (forward splits), or fold forward into pigeon pose are usually unaware that they’re not actually achieving these shapes by moving primarily at their hips. Instead, they’re moving more from (you guessed it) their lumbar spine, and also quite often at their knee joint (hello knee pain in hip openers!)

 

SUPTA PADANGUSTHASANA AND MOVEMENT INTEGRITY

Supta padangusthasana with big toe hold.

Supta padangusthasana with big toe hold.

But before we worry too much about complex shapes like leg behind the head and hanumanasana, let’s take a look at a relatively simpler shape: supta padangusthasana, or reclined big toe pose. The traditional version of this asana has the yogi hook their big toe with their fingers. Although this is how the pose is commonly taught, in reality if we bind this way, we’ll tuck our pelvis under, which flexes our lumbar spine and turns what we think of as a hamstring-opener into a low back-opener instead. It’s fine to do the pose this way (really, it is!) if your goal is to open your low back, but if you’re interested in stretching your hamstrings (and therefore your hips), you’ll need to ditch the big toe bind and opt for a yoga strap or belt instead.

Supta padangusthasana with a strap - an improvement over the big toe hold, but not the end of the story...

Supta padangusthasana with a strap - an improvement over the big toe hold, but not the end of the story...

Many informed yogis already practice this pose with a strap (great job, you!), but even with the help of an excellent prop, most of us still fail to find our optimal hamstring stretch. Remember our foundational rule that we must move from our hips in order to stretch our hips. It sounds like such common sense, but when we’re talking about bodies with ingrained non-optimal movement patterns, our brain doesn’t see things so clearly (poor proprioception). In order to move solely from our hip joint in supta padangusthasana, we simply need to pull our stretching leg in without also moving our pelvis. If the pelvis moved, the spine moved, which means you’re stretching your low back. Make sense?

Supta padangusthasana with a strap AND opposite hamstrings on the ground - the best variation yet!

Supta padangusthasana with a strap AND opposite hamstrings on the ground - the best variation yet!

But how do we know if we’re doing it right? There’s a perfect alignment marker designed just for this purpose that is extremely helpful, yet not well-known in the yoga world. You’ll know that you’ve moved your stretching leg solely at your hip joint if the hamstrings of your opposite leg are on the floor. This is because if you pull your lifted leg past the true edge of your hamstrings’ length, those hamstrings will pull the pelvis into a tuck, which will cause the other leg’s thighbone to lift away from the floor. (Can you picture that?) If a little Hot Wheels car can drive itself underneath your bottom leg’s hamstrings, then you know you need to lower your raised leg down - sometimes a LOT - until those hammies are back on the floor. Don’t be surprised if this means that the new alignment for your pose has your lifted leg only about 45 degrees (or less!) from the floor. Although it might be tough to accept this newly-defined edge for a pose you’ve done so many times before (believe me, I know from personal experience!), learning to reign your poses in to the actual, biomechanical stretch edge of the tissues you’re trying to mobilize is a huge first step toward improving your mind-body connection and therefore your proprioception.

 

IN CONCLUSION...

Supta padangusthasana is a great pose to examine in learning to refine hip vs. spinal movement. As poses become more complex like the super bendy ones on display in YouTube clips and Instagram photos these days, the emphasis on “deeper” shapes and how a pose looks takes priority over which tissues in the body we’re mobilizing and for what reasons. Although poses like these are fun, creative, and artful, if our goal in practicing yoga is to cultivate long-term balance and health in the body, the science of biomechanics would tell us that the pursuit of deep, bendy shapes is not the correct means to that goal. In my practice and teaching, yoga is about a focused and humble encounter with one’s own limitations. Once we learn to see and accept our body with clarity and accurate perception, we can begin our path toward movement integrity and wellness.

 

Related Post: Let's Forget About Hip-Openers

Related Online Workshop: Re-Imagining Hip-Openers: A Yoga Anatomy Workshop