Yoga As Exercise

Yoga has many health benefits, but there is a growing trend of yoga-related physical injuries and many physical therapists view yoga negatively. Unfortunately, these concerns are well justified. A lot of myth surrounds yoga asana practice: many people believe that asanas can somehow heal anything wrong with the body. Claims that regular muscle or joint pain from yoga practice is some kind of ‘opening’ or ‘healing’ should be treated with suspicion.

Asana practice should be evaluated as any other exercise system. Yogis need to remember that there is no such thing as a universal practice. It makes more sense to keep your body in a condition to practice yoga, rather than using yoga to condition the body.

Yogic asana practise has a lot in common with Chi-Kung, Tai Chi and some traditional martial arts: a focus on breath and synchronisation of breath and movement. As such, yoga practice is a valuable way to develop and focus awareness but yoga is not a complete physical exercise system.

From an exercise point of view, a few factors are common to many yoga-related injuries.

  • A limited range of repetitive movements
  • Ignorance of teachers and students about the effects of asanas on the body and an uninformed approach to exercise
  • Yoga has no pulling movements

Sports medicine recognises that repetitive movements develop muscles in particular ways and are a recipe for injury, which is why cross training is recommended for sports. Variation of exercise is considered the key to muscle development.

Using a relatively limited asana repertoire as a way of acquiring gymnastic prowess often ends in injury. Usually, athletes have that kind of physical ability in yoga, using the strength and flexibility that they acquired from sport. Yoga is not preparation for gymnastics and it can be dangerous to rate physical ability as the high point of yoga practice. Focusing on your breath as you move is a much greater accomplishment.

Although most yoga teacher-training includes basic anatomy and there are many explanations about how to use muscles in any asana, no amount of alignment tweaking will help someone who has acquired a muscle imbalance in yoga classes that emphasise strength. Rehabilitation exercises are the most effective treatment for muscle imbalance.

People who do want to practice yoga as a strengthening exercise should attend classes with someone who has a strength and conditioning qualification, rather than with someone who has a partial understanding of anatomy and exercise and chooses asanas based on what they feel like doing on a particular day.

An unbalanced yoga practice causes the same kinds of injuries that occur in gyms when people choose weightlifting exercises according to what looks best in the mirror. For example, extensive use of Virabhadrasana to strengthen the legs is almost a guarantee of Sacroiliac joint trouble.

Pulling and pushing movements of the arms are the opposite of each other and exclusive practise of pushing movements causes wrist, elbow and shoulder injuries. Similar problems occur in weight-lifters who favour bench-pressing. Chaturanga and arm-balances have a similar effect to bench-press: stronger chest and Latissimus Dorsi muscles cause excessive internal rotation of the Humerus, stressing the rotator cuff muscles responsible for external rotation.  Although inversions develop the upper back muscles and help to maintain a balance between the chest and shoulders, many yogis skip inversions because they are difficult or dangerous.

It can also be helpful to Ashtanga and vinyasa practitioners to practice pulling movements like chin-ups and rows to prevent injury. Be aware that this is unsuitable for those with an existing injury or if pulling exercises cause pain: shoulder-muscle rehabilitation needs to come first.

If yoga classes become a place where yogis show off their ripped bodies and hyper-flexibility, injury and chronic pain are inevitable. Yogis who do acquire these kinds of injuries need to educate themselves about what works for them. Respect for one’s own body must come before blind obedience to any guru, teacher, or practice system.

Reading Sources:
Boyle, 2004, Functional Training for Sports
Jarmey, Myers, 2006, The Concise Book of the Moving Body
Cook, 2003, Athletic Body in Balance
Kinakin, 2004, Optimal Muscle Training,
Ellenbecker, De Carlo, DeRosa, 2009, Effective Functional Progressions in Sport Rehabilitation

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2 thoughts on “Yoga As Exercise

  1. Pingback: A little more on my perspective.. | Darlene Seto

  2. Pingback: A little more on yoga… | Darlene Seto

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