Muscle Imbalance in Yoga

The term ‘muscle imbalance’ is used by physical therapists when referring to incorrect muscle function that causes pain at the joints or problems with posture and body alignment.  Muscle imbalance is often difficult to diagnose and treat because a lot of pain experienced is referred pain.

Referred pain is pain felt in a different place to the actual cause of the pain

An example: people with hip misalignment often have chronic pain and tension in the shoulders and neck that is only temporarily helped by massage or stretching. However, if hip alignment is corrected, the neck and shoulders improve by themselves.

A major problem experienced in yoga with muscle imbalance is when pain is felt in stabiliser muscles of the hips and shoulders and massage and stretching is prescribed. This often causes even more pain, because the tension in these muscles is related to weakness and overwork and stretching those muscles adds insult to injury, as far as the muscles are concerned.  Painful muscles respond well to a balanced strengthening program and become flexible and pain-free without excessive stretching.

It is commonly repeated in yoga classes that holding asanas for long periods builds strength or flexibility but this is a double-edged sword: how long an asana can be held depends on existing strength or flexibility and there is a fine line between beneficial and harmful practice.

  • Overdoing strengthening asanas causes fatigue in the stabiliser muscles which can stop working – causing other muscles to take over, resulting in incorrect usage habits that become entrenched in the body.
  • Overdoing stretching asanas damages muscles. Stretching should never be painful and if stretches are painful, they should be avoided and muscle imbalance suspected – there is no such thing as ‘no pain, no gain’ when it comes to stretching

It is important to remember that the muscular system is complex and interconnected in ways that are not clear to people who don’t have comprehensive anatomical and movement training and asanas and exercise are often presented to the layman as “strengthening this or that muscle” and people assume that if they do these asanas/exercises, everything will work as it should. This is not the case and treating muscle imbalance is both an art and a science best left up to trained and experienced Biokineticists or movement specialists or yoga teachers with this kind of training.

Unfortunately, finding treatment that works is not always easy – muscle imbalance is a complex problem which isn’t solved by doing a few isolation-exercises. More of the same yoga is not effective for treating muscle imbalances either. While many people claim that things get better with time, this is often not true.

Muscle imbalances caused by yoga are most commonly hip and shoulder imbalances which can be experienced as lower back, knee, wrist and elbow pain instead of pain in the hips and shoulders, due to the fact that there are no sensory nerves in many of the hip and shoulder muscles (Please refer to Flexibility and the Joints for a list of these muscles)

For example: with Chaturanga and vinyasa in general, a combination of

  • overdevelopment of the Pectoralis Major
  • shortening of the Pectoralis Minor from incorrect scapular positioning and shortening of the Biceps
  • poor functioning of the Serratus Anterior because of muscle fatigue from too much vinyasa

causes a variety of symptoms – pain or clicking in the elbow, poor circulation in the hands or tingling in the fingers, wrist pain and rotator cuff problems.

The other main problem of muscle imbalance in yoga is with the hips: mainly ‘yoga butt’ symptoms. The next posting will look at balanced methods for strengthening the hips with yoga

Reading sources:
Kinakin, 2004, Optimal Muscle Training
Cook, 2003, Athletic Body in Balance
Jarmey, Myers, 2006, The Concise Book of the Moving Body
Sharkey, 2008, The Concise book of Neuromuscular Therapy


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