Do you dump into your joints in your practice? Examples of this could be locking out the knees in straight leg standing postures, hyperextending into the elbows in Downward Dog or crunching into the lower back or SI joint in backbends.
What do all these examples have in common? Underusing the correct muscles in the correct action to support the stability of the joints. This tendency can be related to hypermobility. It can also be related to an unwillingness to contract muscles due to tiredness accompanied by a desire to relax or even enjoying the sensations relating to stretch.
However, practicing passive stretching, which is used in Yin and restorative yoga in a Yang practice can lead to serious issues in the joints. Passive stretching involves relaxing the muscles of the body in yoga positions, creating a release through the myofascia. This puts more stress on the ligaments, whose main function is to create stability in the joint by connecting bones to bones. Yin yogis believe that a little bit of stress on the ligaments can be good for them and can even help strengthen them, similar to bones. However, this truth is valid in the context of using props on the Yin Yoga mat to honour where the body says No and not to push into or beyond bone on bone compression. This approach aligns with the principles of using the poses to create balance through the TCM meridians that to some degree align with the myofascial trains in the body. The intention of Yin Yoga is not to necessarily create more flexibility or deeper range of motion.
However, the passive stretching approach to Yin yoga does not necessarily translate onto the Vinyasa or Hatha yoga mat in a healthy way. In alignment based Vinyasa and Hatha yoga, we are trying to increase our range of motion as we advance into more flexible poses. If we approach advanced postures by merely relaxing into the joints, we may exert undue pressure on them. Instead we approach poses using active stretching techniques, which involve the dual action of engaging specific muscles to release their opposite or antagonist muscles, which in turn creates release and engagement in all the right places to support the skeletal body and avoid compression and impingement.
Let’s take a look at the 3 examples I referred to above.
- Locking out the knees. Hyperextension in the knees is very common. Whether or not, this is does to ligament laxity in the knee joint, the action of “hugging the back of the calf forward onto the shin bone” will help re-create stability in the joints. Students may also want to co-contract the quadriceps and hamstrings with the posterior calf muscles, specifically the latter, because on the hyperextended leg, muscles generally tend to be weak and the hamstring long. The hugging of the back of the calf forward onto the shin bone activates the tibialis posterior muscle which is a deep slow twitch antigravity muscle that sometimes gets bogged down holding the body up against the force of gravity all day long. An excellent way of encouraging this muscle out of its locked long state in straight leg standing poses in bending the knee, hugging the back of the calf forward onto the shin bone and then slowly straightening the knee once again, without locking, keeping the contraction in the calf muscles.
- Locking out the elbows in similar to correct. Often hyperextension of the elbows is accompanied by week bicep muscles. By bending the elbows, the biceps begin to engage. Then keeping the contraction in the elbow, the students should start to straighten the elbows once again without locking into the joints and relaxing the biceps once again.
- Crunching into the lower back and S1 joint in backbends is another common dumping action that can occur on the yoga mat. This is caused by arching the spine into the desired shape of the pose without engaging the spinal extensors and side body muscles, thereby creating jam in the lumbar, which can in turn contribute to premature degeneration of the discs. The spinal extensors are commonly called the erector spinae muscles and are synergised or assisted by other muscles of the back like the trapezius, latissimus dorsi and quadratus lumborum muscles. The side body muscles are also very important synergists of the erector spinae in backbends. They are activated by the cue side body long, or what I like to call the lateral hug, which cues students to adduct the outer shins, inner thighs, outer hips, side waist and side ribcage muscles towards the midline. The lateral hug creates connection with the core musculature and also creates extension through the spinal column. When these muscles are employed in backbends in conjunction with correct placement of the body, the joints are protected against dumping and there should be no pain, allowing the yogi to deepen their flexibility safely and with integrity.
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