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Yoga’s dirty little secret

February 22, 2015

Today’s post was inspired by my Bikram yoga class this morning. As we were doing the Standing head to knee pose I cringed when I saw the extremely hyper-mobile woman in front of me locking her joints out with no muscle control every time the instructor told us to lock out our knees. I wanted to tell this young woman that rather than locking her joints she should think about pulling her kneecaps up to get the quads switched on, while at the same time squeezing her glutes and standing tall.

The way she was moving in such an extreme state of hypermobility with absolutely no stability or control was, quite frankly, an injury waiting to happen, especially if she continued to only practice yoga as her sole form of exercise. I am going to throw this out there: this lady does not need yoga; she needs strength and stability training. But she has probably had people her whole life tell her that she should “so do yoga” because she is so flexible.

This is where I have a bit of a beef with yoga.

When I suggest that certain people try yoga, I often hear, “I can’t. I am far too inflexible.” This especially applies to men. One of the biggest fallacies is that yoga is only for flexible people. This couldn’t be further from the truth. I’d go as far as to say that yoga is sooo much more beneficial for people who aren’t flexible. Naturally flexible people would benefit more from doing some form of strength training to gain more stability in their joints and muscles.

Injuries often happen from being too far on either side of the spectrum, whether it’s tightness or hypermobility. I will always suggest to a strong but tight person to do yoga as I have found supplementing with yoga to be extremely beneficial once you have a good base of strength, and need to balance it out with mobility. But to a floppy, flexible person who has no strength and injures themselves easily I generally recommend that they stay far away from yoga. I’d personally rather my clients be strong and tight than weak and flexible. Obviously the Holy Grail is strong and flexible together, but if I had to pick one, I’d take strength.

Incredible flexibility isn’t a goal that most people need to strive for; it’s really just not that necessary. Unless you are a dancer, contortionist, compete in yoga, or do some other activity that requires flexibility, you really only need enough flexibility to have good posture, balance and symmetry. I get annoyed when people think that you should be flexible to do yoga or when they tell me “they are way too tight and inflexible to do yoga”. Um, that’s the whole point of yoga! And it’s not just about stretching. I think of yoga as movement through wider ranges of motion with a strong focus on controlled breathing. Also a big focus on alignment and posture. It can be extremely beneficial for you if you struggle with difficulty completing movements or getting into certain ranges of motion.

But overall I feel that instead of blindly striving towards greater flexibility (which is hard to quantify anyways), we should strive for greater balance. If you have tight hamstrings but open hips (like me!), strengthen your hips so they start to stabilize your body better, and so the hamstrings naturally begin to open (or vice versa with tight hips and loose hamstrings – I have found many girls have this issue).

The same goes for shoulders that round forward, a forward head lean, an excessive curvature in the lower back, and a number of other issues. It’s a matter of correcting your posture, bringing up weak or lagging muscles, increasing restricted ranges of motion, and stabilizing areas that are overly weak or flexible.

And, most importantly strength train in some form, even if it means doing a more challenging form of yoga to build strength! Increasing your strength in the areas where you are weak or “loose” is one of the best things you can do to stay injury free. Flexibility that is weak and loose is not a good, healthy thing for the body.

This is why in the mobility class I teach I focus not only on flexibility and mobility but also on stability in different areas of the body. If you are too flexible and dangerously weak this can be a recipe for injuries, just as being too tight and immobile can be a recipe for injuries. People automatically assume the flexible person who can move freely will stay injury free but this is not always the case. Every body is different and has their weak and strong areas. Each muscle has a corresponding opposing muscle group. Bad things happen when there are severe imbalances between these opposing muscle groups. So I think we need stop thinking it’s about “flexibility” when in actuality it should be about balance.

It’s also about body awareness, which is shockingly something that most people lack. People are generally aware if they are strong/weak, fat/thin, or even if they are coordinated/not very coodinated, but most people have no idea if their shoulders have a normal range of motion or if their chest is tight.

Our body is the one possession that we will have for our whole life and is the only thing we truly own. As such, people should take more time familiarizing themselves with it and exploring themselves. From this awareness, people will hopefully more likely start performing better self-care. This is a big part of overall fitness, staying healthy and injury free.

So the moral of my post is this: yoga has a dirty little secret and that is that stretching is NOT automatically good for everyone. Espeically when it comes to hypermobile people who are injury prone, yoga could be one of he worst things they can do. People blow out discs while doing deep forward and back bends. By keeping a decent amount of muscle engagement while performing a stretching activity (contracting and firing the right muscles around the joints, rather than just locking out the joints) the risk for injury drops a lot.

By all means, do yoga and stretching if you find it's benefiting you. It certainly benefits me. As I said above, often the ones who strength train the most, and the strongest people are the ones who need yoga the most. Stress and tension (like weight training) generally are what causes things to tighten and become inflexible. Build strength together with mobility. By striving for balance and greater body awareness yoga will improve your flexibility and it will also strengthen you in different ways than just weight training can do. Remember yoga is far more than just stretching. Use it appropriately and it can be an excellent tool.



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