[Microblog] There is No "Right Way" To Do A Yoga Pose

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When I think about yoga alignment, the approach I take these days is that there is no one "right" way to practice any yoga pose. The right way to align a yoga pose really depends on who is practicing the pose and what their individual goals are. Our goals can also change every time we practice a pose, and that's actually great. Otherwise we just practice the same thing the same way all the time and never provide new input into our tissues or our nervous system.

In this "hovering" variation of pigeon pose, my goal is to create *strength* in my hips in a pigeon-like joint arrangement. This is good stuff that will create tissue health and neurological control in my hips - something that nearly all of us can use more of. Consider changing up your pigeon pose regularly and all your other poses too - as long as they align with your specific goal in the moment, then that is "right" way for you to practice the pose.

Top 5 Movement Science Insights For Yoga Teachers

These are 5 of the most eye-opening insights I have learned from anatomy, physiology, kinesiology, and pain science that have given me a much different perspective on the body than the one I learned through my yoga studies alone. I hope you find these ideas interesting and inspiring for your own yoga practice and teaching!

Each of these insights is simply my best offer at a summary and takeaway for yoga teachers who might not have the time or interest to study these issues thoroughly on their own. There are volumes more to be read about each of these points from primary and secondary sources, so feel free to investigate the links and references I've included below, or to do your own research on these topics to help you come to your own conclusions.

If you're interested in how one might embody these Top 5 insights in their yoga teaching, consider trying some classes in my online class library, which is a great resource of practices from myself and other wonderful science-minded yoga teachers I admire.

Please read the insights below with a willingness to question your own biases and an openness to incorporate critical thinking into your approach to yoga and movement. Without further ado, here are my Top 5 Movement Science Insights For Yoga Teachers!

 

 

MOVEMENT SCIENCE INSIGHT #1: STRETCHING & STRENGTHENING ARE NOT OPPOSITES

One of the core rules we tend to learn in our yoga teacher trainings is that after we've "worked" or “strengthened” a muscle or muscle group, we should then stretch the area to lengthen it back out and restore "balance". The reasoning behind this rule is usually that when a muscle "works" or "contracts", it is shortening. Therefore to avoid leaving your muscle in an excessively shortened state, you should balance it out by "lengthening" or "stretching" it after you've worked it.

This idea would make sense if muscles did only shorten when they contract. But shortening while contracting is actually only one part of the physiological equation - muscles work just as often as they lengthen too. Picture your hamstrings and the way they lengthen while they're working to control your swan dive into uttanasana (standing forward fold) in yoga. When a muscle works as it lengthens, this is called an "eccentric contraction", and we move this way all the time in our normal human movements. [Ref]

Because muscles can and do actually contract through all of their ranges (short, long, somewhere in between, etc.), it is clear that the physiological opposite of a muscle contraction is not a stretch. With this in mind, it might be time to re-think our classic "strengthen it, then stretch it" rule!

 

MOVEMENT SCIENCE INSIGHT #2: NO YOGA POSES ARE INHERENTLY "BAD" OR "GOOD"

Last year I wrote a blog post called Are Some Movements Inherently Bad? which basically suggested that no movements are inherently “bad”, and the only truly bad movement is one for which your individual body is not prepared or conditioned. But the inverse of this insight is also true. While no movement is inherently bad, no movement is inherently good, either. There is a trend in the yoga world toward teaching yoga poses and other movements like “corrective exercises” that are thought of as "better", more "functional", or "healthier" for the body. But the reality is that movements don't have inherent value (i.e. "better for you", "worse for you", etc.) outside of the specific context of who is practicing the movement and with what goal in mind.

We honor the complexity of the human body and its relationship to movement when we avoid valuing certain yoga poses and movements as inherently better, more functional, or worse than other yoga poses and movements. Context and individualized goals are the main determinants of what makes a movement “good”, “bad”, “functional”, or “dysfunctional”.

 

MOVEMENT SCIENCE INSIGHT #3: ALIGNMENT IS LESS ABOUT INJURY-PREVENTION AND MORE ABOUT LOAD-OPTIMIZATION

We generally learn in our yoga teacher trainings that alignment is important in yoga poses primarily because it prevents injuries. However, we’re now learning that the categories of alignment, injury, and pain are not as interrelated as we have previously been taught. Many people exhibit “poor alignment” and are pain-free, while many others exhibit “stellar” alignment and have chronic pain (and to make matters more confusing, pain and injury (i.e. tissue damage) are also not always correlated either.) [Link]

It turns out that the human body is more resilient and adaptable than previous models of alignment and pain have accounted for. Our body actually has a remarkable ability to adapt to become stronger in response to the loads it experiences (as long as those loads aren’t beyond the ability of our tissues to withstand.) [Link] Therefore if we habitually position ourselves in a way that is different from “ideal alignment”, it’s less likely that our body will sustain inevitable damage from the “misalignment” and more likely that our body will simply adapt to better handle the loads of this alignment. (This is assuming that the joints in question are asymptomatic and healthy, of course!)

Now in a high-load situation, such as squatting in the gym with a 300-pound barbell on one’s back, alignment is undeniably an important tool for minimizing risk of injury. [Link] Activities like this involve high forces that are more likely to be beyond the ability of our tissues to withstand, and so aligning our joints intelligently is definitely recommended.

But compared to heavy weightlifting scenarios, yoga is for the most part a low-load activity. Small variances in alignment under low load are not enough to cause inevitable injury and damage in most bodies. For example, if someone’s front knee drifts inward a few centimeters in warrior 2 (breaking the classic alignment rule of keeping the knee stacked directly over the ankle), the tissues of the knee will most likely respond to that load by adapting to become stronger at that angle. And if the shoulders drift slightly out of “joint-stacked” alignment over the wrists in plank pose, the shoulders, elbows, and wrists should be signaled to grow stronger and better able to handle load from this new angle.

In fact, exposing our body to variable loads like this is actually a great way to prevent injury because it helps condition our tissues to become stronger at all angles, rather than strong in only the classic “joint-stacked” position of traditional alignment rules. I would argue that increasing the ability of one's tissues to tolerate load by strengthening the body at all angles and ranges is a much more effective strategy for injury-prevention than "alignment" is.

These days I view alignment as a tool that helps my students direct the loads in their bodies where I intend for those loads to go, rather than as a necessary tool for injury-prevention.

 

MOVEMENT SCIENCE INSIGHT #4: WE USE TOO MUCH FEAR-BASED LANGUAGE AROUND ALIGNMENT IN YOGA

This insight piggybacks right onto insight #3. It’s very common in the yoga world to pepper our alignment instructions with cautionary language, such as “Align your front knee right over your ankle in Warrior 2 to protect your knee” or “Press your pubic bone into the floor in shalabhasana to keep your low back safe.”

As well-intentioned as they are, warnings like this can actually serve to instill a false sense of fragility in our students, which can counterintuitively result in their experiencing pain. We know now that pain is a creation of the nervous system in response to a perceived threat. And our beliefs about our body are actually one influence that can directly escalate or de-escalate our nervous system’s perception of threat and output of pain. [Ref], [Ref], [Ref] Therefore the more we trust in the robustness and resiliency of our body, the more we communicate a message of confidence to our nervous system, which is likely to result in lower threat levels and decreased pain. And conversely, the more we believe that our bodies are innately fragile and vulnerable to injury from low loads and small micro-“misalignments”, the more likely our beliefs are to contribute to increased threat levels and increased pain.

In warrior 2 pose, stating that keeping the knee directly above the ankle is important “to protect your knee” is a potentially nocebic suggestion to offer to our students. (A nocebo is a negative expectation of an otherwise harmless event or action that causes negative consequences like pain.) Likewise, stating that the pubic bone should stay grounded in shalabhasana “to keep your low back safe” suggests to our students that their spines are fragile structures that will experience damage if their pelvis is tilted a few millimeters in the “wrong” direction.

Instead of using cautionary, nocebic language about alignment in our yoga classes, consider talking about alignment in terms of what it helps us achieve in our poses. For example, in warrior 2 we could say “Keep your front knee lined up over your ankle to engage your lateral hip muscles” or “Press your pubic bone into the floor in shalabhasana to lengthen your low back and direct the backbend into your thoracic spine.” These types of cues utilize alignment more for load-optimization reasons and less for injury-prevention reasons. Instead of instilling a sense of fragility about their bodies, these types of cues encourage increased body awareness in our students, which can be confidence-building and empowering.

 

MOVEMENT SCIENCE INSIGHT #5: TWO COMMON YOGA CUES WE CAN STOP USING

We often teach yoga poses in a way that tells our students which specific muscles they should (or should not) be contracting in particular movements.

In certain contexts, suggesting which muscles a student should be using at any given time can be a useful type of guidance. But it's helpful to realize that as a general rule, our nervous system actually does a good job of automatically organizing and coordinating the movement of our body all on its own, without needing much conscious input from our thinking mind. In fact, consciously "micromanaging" which muscles our nervous system chooses to recruit can often interfere with our built-in, sophisticated motor control system in a way that results in less efficient movement. [Ref]

With this in mind, here are two cues that are very common in the yoga world today that we could all use to stop giving:

1) The glutes & bridge/wheel: there is no need to tell our students that they should "soften their glutes", "relax their glutes", or otherwise disempower the main muscles of hip extension that their bodies naturally recruit when they lift their hips up into bridge pose (setu bandha sarvangasana) and upward-facing bow pose (urdhva dhanurasana). [Ref]

2) Arms overhead & shoulder positioning: there is no need to cue our students to "pull your shoulders down your back" when their arms are overhead. When our arms lift up, our shoulder blades naturally rotate and lift along with the arm movement. [Ref] This is a normal, optimal movement that is often referred to as "scapulohumeral rhythm", and it is not helpful to interfere with this natural coordinated action by trying to consciously pull the shoulder blades down the back to prevent them from lifting.

 

Thank you for reading these Top 5 insights with an open mind, and I hope to see you on the mat virtually or in person in the near future!

**Related: Keeping Your Yoga Teaching Current Online Training

Jumping Back To Plank: What's the Big Deal?

All my life in the yoga world, I have heard the instruction that one should never jump back into plank pose. Instead of landing in plank, this core yoga rule goes, we should land directly in chaturanga dandasana - in other words, we should always jump into the bottom of a push-up and never jump into the top of a push-up. The reasons usually cited for this instruction are that jumping back into plank is injurious for any number of body parts including the wrists, shoulders, low back, knees, ankles, and big toes.

I used to believe and teach this yoga rule as well, but in more recent times I have changed my perspective on the issue. I don't think that there is anything inherently wrong with jumping back into plank pose, and I think the widespread prohibition of this movement mostly serves to create some unnecessary fear and worry about our yoga practice.

Here are my main reasons for this viewpoint - I hope you use them to examine your beliefs and then come to your own conclusion about the "never jump to plank" rule!
 

Reason #1: You can certainly injure yourself jumping into plank, but...

I definitely agree that it's possible to injure oneself while jumping into plank pose. If you lack the ability to engage through your core, press strongly through your arms, and land lightly, some areas of your body may experience a higher-than-optimal level of stress, which could lead to injury. But I fail to see how this is different from so many other movements in yoga that can also be injurious if one lacks proper technique and body awareness - yet we don't make blanket statements about the importance of "never" doing most of these other movements.

If we jump back to plank with no arms, will this protect our shoulders? :)

If we jump back to plank with no arms, will this protect our shoulders? :)

One yoga transition that stands out to me as especially risky for the body if one lacks the proper strength and control is, ironically, jumping straight into chaturanga. Even though chaturanga is traditionally considered the safer asana to jump into, this pose is actually much more challenging to execute skillfully than plank pose. Chaturanga involves much higher loads to the neck, shoulders, and spine than plank pose does, and these loads are significantly higher if we jump into the pose (especially if we slam down with a lot of velocity like many yogis do) instead of lower slowly into it. In fact, so many yoga students lack the foundational skills to practice chaturanga well that I created a whole online tutorial on how to approach this pose with integrity.

I would suggest that contrary to popular teachings, one is at greater risk of injury from performing a sloppy jump-back into chaturanga than they are from performing a sloppy jump-back into plank pose.

 

Reason #2: Jumping Into Plank Is Commonly Practiced In Other Movement Systems Without Concern Or Widespread Injury

The "burpee", a common warm-up exercise that includes a jump-back to plank.

The "burpee", a common warm-up exercise that includes a jump-back to plank.

If you ever visit a gym or other fitness setting, a common movement used for warming up that you'd likely see is something called a burpee. (Yes, I agree that this is an odd name for an exercise, but a fun trivia note is that the burpee is named after the person who founded it - a physiologist named Royal H. Burpee.)

To perform a burpee, one begins in a standing position, lowers down into a squat, jumps back into plank pose with straight arms, often performs one push-up, jumps forward again into a squat, and then jumps up and lands back in a standing position. A typical "set" of burpees is anywhere from 10-15 done in a row, and people typically perform at least 3 sets (and often many more) in one workout. In addition to this classic exercise, there are many variations, such as the one-leg burpee, in which one jumps back into a one-legged plank instead of a traditional plank, the side burpee, in which one jumps into a variation of side plank, and the one-arm burpee, in which the entire movement is performed with one arm lifted.

In addition, multiple research studies have been done by exercise scientists which include the burpee as a movement alongside other classic fitness exercises. (Examples here and here.)

The fact that the burpee, which involves jumping back into plank pose repetitively, is so prevalent in the fitness world and is also included in research studies suggests to me that it has not been found by fitness professionals or sports scientists to be particularly injurious for the body.

 

Reason #3: Jumping Into Plank Could Actually Have Some Benefits

To be honest, even though I don't believe that jumping into plank pose is inherently dangerous, I don't tend to teach this movement very often in my yoga classes. But I do believe that jumping into plank (and chaturanga for that matter) could have some benefits for the body that we often overlook when we focus on fear and worry about this transition instead.

There is a type of fitness training called plyometrics which utilizes jumping exercises to increase a person's power, or the speed at which they can use their strength during a task. Plyometrics are also known to enhance one's endurance and agility, and several studies have actually shown that they can increase bone density (examples here, here, and here).

There is some debate about whether a burpee (a.k.a. the fitness world's version of "jumping into plank") can technically be considered a plyometric exercise. But I believe there is enough crossover between the two to suggest that they would offer some similar benefits.

An example of a plyometric exercise.

An example of a plyometric exercise.

Additionally, we know that movement variability is important for neural learning, tissue health, and overall graceful aging, so the argument could be made that learning how to jump back skillfully into both plank and chaturanga - and not just one or the other - could be beneficial.

 

Reason #4: There Are No Inherently Bad Movements

You might recall a controversial blog post I wrote earlier this year called Are Some Movements Inherently Bad? (also re-published in Yoga International with a far more angry comment thread here.) In this post, I argued that instead of looking at a movement as inherently bad and damaging for the body, we should reverse our reasoning and instead look at an individual body and ask if it is adapted and prepared to handle the loads of that particular movement.

For example, a beginning yoga student with an office-working, sedentary lifestyle who has never borne weight on her arms might be prone to injury if she tries jumping into plank (and even more so if she tries jumping into chaturanga - yikes!) But because the biological reality of our bodies is that they adapt to become stronger to the loads they experience on a regular basis, most practiced yogis who have a good sense of body control and core stabilization should be able to jump lightly into plank pose without causing injury.

 

CONCLUSION

To be clear, I'm certainly not suggesting that all yoga teachers run out and start teaching everyone to jump into plank during every vinyasa. I'm simply questioning the reasoning behind the ubiquitous "never jump into plank" warning that nearly every yoga teacher learns in their yoga teacher training. Is this transition necessarily dangerous for everyone, and is jumping into chaturanga somehow innately safer? Where do these beliefs stem from? I believe that questioning our biases about these transitions can help us to become more critically-thinking yoga teachers who can serve our individual students better.

**Related: Keeping Your Yoga Teaching Current Online Training

Are Some Movements Inherently Bad?

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

Text-neck is not an inherently damaging movement.

Text-neck is not an inherently damaging movement.

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.

 


HEADSTAND (SIRSANA)

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!)

 

CONCLUSION

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.

Common Movement Blind Spot #2: The Shoulder Blade & Spine Connection

In my first blog post in this series, I discussed the importance of motor control as an important aspect of movement to consider alongside the more commonly-emphasized categories of flexibility and strength. I also introduced the concept of movement blind spots - non-optimal habitual movement patterns that are directly related to motor control.

The potent tool that we can utilize to change these unconscious movement habits (and our new vocabulary word that we learned last time!) is neuroplasticity. Neuroplasticity is certainly a fancy-sounding term, but it simply means the process of forming new neural connections in the brain in response to novel stimulation; in other words, changing the brain! There are many ways we can encourage neuroplasticity, such as learning a new language or memorizing new information, but within the context of yoga, we use movement (and specifically new and novel movement) to re-wire how the brain perceives and moves the body. In my ideal world, all yoga teachers would understand the general concept of neuroplasticity and how it relates to what we do every day on the yoga mat.


COMMON MOVEMENT BLIND SPOT #2

If you missed the first post in this series, I encourage you to go back and read it before you delve further into this one. We want to make sure we’re clear on Common Movement Blind Spot #1 before we work with Blind Spot #2.

Today’s focus is the shoulder blade and spine movement blind spot. In this pattern, movement of the shoulder blades is unconsciously “glommed together” with movement of the spine. These are technically two separate parts of our body and we should ideally have the motor control to move each of them individually, but in most of us they tend to move them together like one big, undifferentiated body part without our realizing it.

Important note: there is nothing wrong with moving your shoulder blades and spine together at the same time, of course. What is non-optimal and worth working on, though, is the unconscious habit of always moving both of these spots together when we really mean to move them individually. If we lack the body awareness to differentiate between these two areas, we’ll be denied the benefits of movement options and variability that come with increased proprioception and motor control quality.

In this video, I fully address how to recognize and change this shoulder blade/spine movement blind spot. We cover a quick bit of anatomy followed by two potent strategies for changing this extremely common movement pattern. I really recommend watching the whole video - there are some great twists on a classic exercise at the end of the video that I think your body and mind will love exploring. This video is great for your own personal movement explorations, and it’s also a valuable tool to use when working with your yoga and movement students. I hope you enjoy!

Common Movement Blind Spot #1: The Rib Cage & Pelvis Connection

Welcome to the first in a series I’ve created on common movement blind spots! When we talk about restoring health and function to our bodies through yoga and movement, we often think in terms of two overarching categories: strength and flexibility. A third element of movement health that doesn’t always receive the attention it deserves, however, is that of “motor control”. Whereas strength has to do with our muscles’ ability to generate force (i.e. how heavy an object can you move?) and flexibility generally refers to our ranges of motion (i.e. how far at a certain joint can you move?), motor control pertains to how you do a particular movement - which muscles contract to move which bones at which joints, all orchestrated in the background by the nervous system. Put another way, motor control is the process by which our brain directs and coordinates our various parts in order to complete a movement.

Strength and flexibility are certainly important for us to cultivate, but they aren’t inherently useful qualities on their own; they need the direction that motor control offers in order to be truly meaningful for us.

 

WHAT IS A MOVEMENT BLIND SPOT?

The way we coordinate the gas & brake pedals when driving without thinking about it is due to a helpful motor program created by our brain.

The way we coordinate the gas & brake pedals when driving without thinking about it is due to a helpful motor program created by our brain.

There are many movements which we perform so frequently that our brain has created set motor control patterns for how we do them. Think, for example, of the way you brush your teeth, coordinate the gas and brake pedals when driving a car, or walk down the street using your own personal gait pattern. These are all activities that we don’t have to think about consciously - we’ve repeated them so many times that we can now perform them virtually on autopilot. Movement programs like these are a helpful and necessary part of moving smoothly through our daily life. But we all also possess other less useful habitual movement patterns that don’t truly serve us in the long run. We are generally unaware of these less-than-optimal, ingrained patterns, and this is why they are called “movement blind spots”.

 

NEUROPLASTICITY: THE NEW FANCY TERM FOR YOGA TEACHERS TO KNOW

Because motor control patterns are by their nature habitual, they tend to limit our potential for movement variety. Therefore if we only ever move our body in habitual ways, we create an environment in which our brain can fall into a metaphorical “rut”, churning out the same unvaried motor tasks over and over again. I like to think of this in layman’s terms as having a “bored brain”.

When we ask our brain to move our body in new and different ways, however, this unique sensory input causes our brain to create new neural pathways in order to perform these movements. In contrast to a “bored brain”, I like to picture this as having an alert, engaged brain whose interest has been piqued. This process of forming new neural connections in response to novel stimulation is known as neuroplasticity, or the ability of the brain to adapt and change. Neuroplasticity is certainly a fancy-sounding word, but it’s a helpful one for us yoga teachers to know and understand. In fact, neuroplasticity may actually be an important key to the optimal function and long-term healthy aging of our brain.

The way that we bring awareness to our movement blind spots so that we can "break" these non-optimal movement patterns is through the powerful tool of neuroplasticity. And today’s common movement blind spot example will be an excellent start to this endeavor!

 

COMMON MOVEMENT BLIND SPOT #1: THE RIB CAGE & PELVIS CONNECTION

One of the most common habitual movement patterns that I see is the unconscious “glomming together” (my favorite technical term :) ) of the movement of the rib cage with the movement of the pelvis. Even though the rib cage and pelvis are two distinct body parts and they should be able to move independently of each other, most people always move them together as one big unit without realizing it.

I’ve included a video that fully addresses how to recognize and change this movement blind spot because it’s helpful to convey what I'm describing with a live demonstration. But I’ve also written everything I talk about in this video below in case you'd like to read about it as well:

HOW TO RECOGNIZE AND CHANGE THE RIB CAGE/PELVIS HABITUAL MOVEMENT PATTERN

Hands and knees is a great shape in which to explore this movement. If you were to ask most people to lift their chest forward and up in this position, they would happily comply, but as they lift their chest, their pelvis would also roll forward into an anterior tilt (their tailbone would tip toward the sky). If you were to then ask them to round their chest (upper and mid-back flexion), they would do so, but their pelvis would also roll backward into a posterior tilt. The same thing would happen if you asked them to move their pelvis instead of their rib cage - as they tilted their pelvis forward and back, their chest would also lift and round at the same time.

Do you see how this is a large, undiscriminiated movement pattern that is taking over what should be a smaller, more refined movement? Now moving the rib cage and pelvis simultaneously like this is not an inherently bad movement at all, but lacking the awareness that you move this way is not so great, nor is being denied the many other movement possibilities that you could be doing because you’re stuck moving in this one pattern all of the time.

Let’s now attempt to pique the interest of our “bored brain” by asking it to move our rib cage and pelvis in a way that is different from our habitual pattern. Come back onto your hands and knees. Do your best to embody a neutral spine and pelvis. Now try a very small movement of curling your tailbone just an inch toward the floor while your rib cage holds still (it will want to round, but try not to let it.) Then curl your tailbone back up toward the sky an inch. Continue this back-and-forth movement several times. With a bit of focused attention, are you able to stabilize your rib cage as you isolate this movement to just your pelvis? Don’t worry if it doesn’t happen right away - just keep playing with this movement until you feel some sort of change. Once you learn the motor control of moving your pelvis a small amount without the rib cage also jumping in, experiment with increasing the range until you can move the pelvis into a full posterior and anterior tilt without the rib cage also moving. Congratulations - you are changing your movement pattern, which is neuroplasticity in action!

Now let’s initiate the movement from the opposite direction. Come back to your neutral spine. Can you round your upper and mid-back into one inch of flexion without also moving the pelvis toward a tuck? Then lift your chest an inch toward extension without also lifting your tailbone toward the sky. As you become more skilled at this movement, slowly increase the range until you can move from full thoracic flexion to full thoracic extension while the pelvis holds still.

Once you’ve become a neuroplasticity master and have regained control of your rib cage and pelvis as separate entities, you might be interested in exploring your spinal movement and your brain-body connection in general more in-depthly in my recently-filmed online workshop Anatomy of the Spine for Increased Core Connection.

 

CONCLUSION

Working to change our movement blind spots requires slow, focused work that might seem “small” compared to the bigger movements that we’re used to in yoga and other movement systems. But an important takeaway message is that “small” does not mean “basic” when we’re dealing with human movement. Gaining control of our “smaller” movements is actually some of the most advanced movement work that we can do. And as much as we enjoy practicing the bigger movements that our bodies can do, these moves simply can’t offer us their fullest benefits unless we have a strong connection to our smaller movements as a foundation. The more we work on our motor control skills on and off the yoga mat, the more refined, graceful, and potentially pain-free our movements will become.
 

Related Post: Common Movement Blind Spot #2: The Shoulder Blade & Spine Connection

Related Post: A Biomechanics-Informed Response to Yoga Journal: We Do Not Need To Tuck Our Tail In Every Yoga Pose

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

Pelvic-Tucking and Lumbar Flexion: Movements We Shouldn't Do In Yoga?

Last year, I wrote two separate blog posts addressing an unhelpful trend I had noticed in the yoga community: the over-use of the pelvis-tucking cue by yoga teachers. Instead of offering the instruction to tuck one’s pelvis only when doing so would specifically enhance the anatomical intention of a pose, many yoga teachers (and yoga teacher training programs in general) were treating the pelvis-tucking cue as an almost universal action that students should be working throughout their entire yoga practice.

In today’s blog post I'd like to address this same alignment issue again, but this time from a surprisingly different perspective. Since the time that I wrote these two pieces, I have noticed that this pelvis-tucking message has grown much more widespread in the yoga community, which is a wonderful progressive step for us. However, this shift in perspective has brought with it a large population of yogis who are now taking a stand on the complete opposite end of the spectrum from the original issue. Today, I regularly hear yoga teachers report that they “never teach to tuck the pelvis”, that they have dropped this instruction from their teaching language altogether, and that tucking the pelvis and the accompanying flexion of the lumbar spine that occurs are “bad” or “harmful” movements for the body and should not be practiced.

As well-intentioned as such viewpoints are, they are unfortunately not an improvement over the original situation. Instead of treating this as a black-or-white “to tuck or not to tuck” issue, I’d like to suggest that we move toward a nuanced approach to pelvic movement that takes into consideration the individual asana in question and the individual body being taught in the moment.

 

WHAT EXACTLY IS A PELVIC-TUCK?

First of all, let’s take a brief look at the anatomy of a pelvic tuck so that we can make sure we’re all on the same page when we talk about this term. Technically called a “posterior tilt of the pelvis”, this action takes place when the pelvis rotates backwards (or posteriorly) in the sagittal plane, which is the anatomical plane in which we view the body from the side. When this happens, the tailbone moves down and forward while the pubic symphysis (the place where the two pubic bones meet in the front of the pelvis) moves forward and up toward the navel.

Here’s a quick video of me demonstrating a pelvic tuck because visuals are always so helpful!

 

WHY DO MANY YOGA TEACHERS NOW BELIEVE WE SHOULD NEVER TUCK OUR PELVIS?

Many teachers have misinterpreted the messages calling for a more judicious approach to pelvic-tucking (like those of my original articles) to instead be messages calling for the cessation of all tucking everywhere by everyone. But aside from this, some yoga teachers have concerns about the flexion of the lumbar spine that happens when our pelvis tucks. Here’s a quick visual demonstration of this - do you see how when the pelvis posteriorly rotates, the lumbar spine naturally moves into flexion?

There is a widespread belief in the yoga and movement world that lumbar flexion is an inherently damaging movement for the body. (I used to believe this idea myself some time ago too!) The general claim is that spinal flexion puts an unhealthy amount of pressure on the lumbar spine which can lead to harmful conditions like joint degeneration, ligament sprains, and disc herniations. I’ve even heard statements like “Your spine is like a credit card. Repeatedly flexing it is like bending a credit card over and over - with enough time, the credit card will simply break.”

It turns out that cautions like these are based on a “lever system” model of the body which is limiting in its scope and is quickly becoming outdated. This model views the body, and especially the spine, as an inherently fragile structure that is quite vulnerable to injury when it experiences compressive forces. But a more current and accurate model of the body is that it is a naturally resilient biotensegrity structure whose tissues are supported three-dimensionally and have the ability to adapt to the demands placed upon them, thereby becoming stronger and better able to withstand load in the future.

Forces affect biotensegrity structures like the human body (new model) differently than they affect lever systems like machines (old model). Of course if the spine were to experience a high load while in a position of flexion (like in heavy weightlifting, for example), it could certainly be injured. But basic unloaded and low-loaded spinal flexion is a safe and natural movement for healthy spines.

When we pathologize a particular movement and tell people that it is inherently damaging, we create a significant amount of fear around that movement. When we have fearful beliefs about a movement, our brain is more likely to output pain for us when we do that movement (also known as a nocebo). This pain very likely has nothing to do with any actual tissue damage being caused by the movement, and instead has everything to do with beliefs and fear surrounding the movement. This will result in our participating in the movement less and less (sometimes called fear avoidance), which can cause us to lose mobility and range of motion in that direction of movement. (For more on this fascinating topic, you might be interested in viewing a workshop I recently taught on the anatomy of healthy spinal movement!)

 

IN CONCLUSION…

Beliefs about pelvis-tucking and lumbar flexion have moved from one end of the spectrum to the other in recent times. A current trend in the yoga world is to not teach or practice this movement at all because it is inherently harmful to our bodies. I am hopeful that our yoga community will settle on a more nuanced, less fear-based view of this issue in the near future. Our pelvis and spine and their adaptive, resilient tissues were designed to move in many different ways, and to keep these areas healthy and functioning well, we should move them in all of these ways on a regular basis. And when it comes to the specific yoga asanas that we teach or practice, we should let our anatomical intention for each pose - and not a one-size-fits-all rule - determine the pelvic positioning we teach.

 

 

FURTHER READING & EXPLORATION

If this is the first time you’ve heard this progressive message about lumbar flexion, here are a few suggestions for further reading and exploration on the topic:

-Jules Mitchell, M.S. - Watch her online class called Limber Lumbar (great name!) on the websites Udaya or Yoga Anytime, or even better, take her excellent Science of Stretching lecture series!

-Literature review research article: “To Crunch or Not to Crunch: An Evidence-Based Examination of Spinal Flexion Exercises, Their Potential Risks, and Their Applicability to Program Design” by Bret Contreras & Brad Schoenfeld

-Spinal Flexion Is Important for Low Back Health and Strength by Dean Somerset



Related Post: A Biomechanics-Informed Response to Yoga Journal: We Do Not Need To Tuck Our Tail In Every Yoga Pose

Related Post: Core Strength Fiction & Facts

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

Is The Cue "Pull Your Shoulders Back" Helpful?

One of the most common instructions we tend to hear in yoga class is “pull your shoulders back”. This cue is often offered as a universal guideline for how we should position our shoulders throughout our entire practice, and it has its roots in a broader cultural idea that “shoulders back” is inherently good posture. In fact, this belief is so ubiquitous that we often don’t think to question the anatomical reasoning behind it. But as we now know, many of yoga’s traditional alignment rules could benefit from the insight of a more modern movement-science perspective. It turns out that as well-intentioned as the “shoulders back” cue is, on an anatomical level this instruction does not solve postural issues, nor does it help our body function better.

 

THE ANATOMY OF “SHOULDERS BACK”

For many of us, the extent of our anatomy knowledge is that our shoulders are the general, vague area located underneath the prominent shoulder pads of our mom’s awesome 80’s blazer. :)

This seemingly-simple part of the body is quite complex, however, consisting of three separate interlocking bones and four individual moving joints. At the bony level, our shoulder (often referred to anatomically as the “shoulder joint complex” or the “shoulder girdle”) actually looks something more like this under those eye-catching shoulder pads:

The shoulder girdle can move in a myriad of different ways. One pertinent pair of shoulder movements for our discussion today is protraction and retraction. When we protract our shoulders, our scapulae (shoulder blades) move away from one another on our back, and when we retract, they move toward each other. One of today’s postural realities is that many of our yoga students present with “rounded-forward shoulders” and the corresponding appearance of a caved-in chest. We interpret this overly-protracted position as non-optimal, and we therefore naturally conclude that in order to remedy it, our students should pull their shoulders back, or retract their scapulae, throughout their entire yoga practice.

Here is my good friend Rachel exaggerating the appearance of rounded-forward shoulders.

Here is my good friend Rachel exaggerating the appearance of rounded-forward shoulders.

But this well-intentioned notion is problematic for a few reasons. The first and possibly most fascinating has to do with a lack of awareness that many of us have about the way we move. Unless we’ve consciously worked to change this pattern, most of us aren’t actually able to pull our shoulders back without also moving our spine into a slight backbend. In anatomical language, we would say that most people aren’t able to retract their scapulae without also extending their spine.

Just to make sure we understand the clear difference between these two movements, let’s take a look at a simple visual aid. Scapular retraction is a horizontal motion performed by the muscles that lie between the shoulder blades and the spine:

Scapular retraction.

Scapular retraction.

Whereas spinal extension is a vertical movement performed by the muscles that run up and down along the spine, like this:

Spinal extension.

Spinal extension.

Although these are clearly two distinct anatomical actions, in most people they have become “lumped together” as one undiscriminated movement. Therefore, when we ask students to pull their shoulders back, they will more than likely also unconsciously extend their spine.

Now spinal extension is of course a fine movement in general, but if we’re asking our students to move their shoulders back, we’re really requesting pure scapular retraction - no unnecessary extra movements included. Aside from that, as I’ve discussed before, when many of us extend our spines, we end up unknowingly performing most of the movement at T12/L1, the very mobile vertebral segment at which the thoracic and lumbar spines meet. When this happens, our front lower ribs protrude forward, our chest lifts toward the sky, and we end up creating non-optimal compression in the lumbar spine region. This is not a favorable position for our spine, but it is the position that 95% of our students will assume if we ask them to pull their shoulders back.

Another reason that constantly pulling our shoulders back all day is undesirable is that it negatively impacts the quality of our breath. The “shoulders back, chest up” position which we so commonly equate with good posture in fact impedes our ability to take a full, nourishing breath. Give this experiment a quick try in your own body: for a moment, pretend that your yoga teacher just cued your class to pull their shoulders back, and be a dutiful student by retracting your scapulae and lifting your chest. Then place your hands on either side of your rib cage and take a full breath cycle of inhale and exhale, allowing your rib cage to swell laterally into your hands on the inhale. Notice how deeply you were able to inhale. Now stop squeezing your scapulae back - just allow your shoulders to relax forward - and find a neutral rib cage by dropping your front low ribs down until they are buried beneath your abdominal flesh. Try inhaling into your hands in this new position. Your breath capacity should be noticeably more expansive. This is a perfect example of how the way you choose to position your body in space can have a direct effect on how your body functions.

 

A third reason that chronic scapular retraction is problematic is that this action creates unnecessary tension in our upper- and mid-back. In fact, if you happen to be familiar with massage therapy, you might know that the rhomboids and middle trapezius - the muscles that lie in between the shoulder blades - are a classic place in which clients love to receive massage. One main reason that this area so commonly craves the therapeutic touch of massage is that many of us spend the majority of our day using muscular effort to pull our shoulders back. Massage helps to relieve the chronic tension created by this habit, but its effects are usually only temporary.

 

WHAT SHOULD WE DO WITH OUR SHOULDERS INSTEAD?

As radical as it might seem, instead of pulling your shoulders back, try simply allowing them to relax. Let go of any retracting effort and just let your shoulders naturally fall where they will. Although this might “feel” to you like your shoulders are too rounded forward, the truth for most people is that if they were look at themselves in a mirror, they would discover that their shoulders are not nearly as far forward as they thought they were (although some rounding is quite normal). Allow your default alignment to be a shoulder girdle that is relaxed and free from effort. And then in the longer term, begin to proactively target the tension that is pulling your shoulders forward in the first place with smart stretches and conscious movement exercises designed for the pectoralis major and pectoralis minor muscles of the front of the chest.

 

In conclusion, the idea that we should pull our shoulders back throughout our whole yoga practice (and all day long in general) is a universal alignment cue that does not serve our body well. Let’s instead learn to only offer this cue during yoga asanas in which scapular retraction enhances the specific anatomical purpose of the pose. The more that we strive to teach intentional movement versus scripted alignment cues, the more our students will benefit from the insightful quality of our classes!
 

Related Post: Common Movement Blind Spot #2: The Shoulder Blade & Spine Connection

Related Online Class: Shoulders-Focused Practice