Brief History of Yoga
Yoga originated in ancient India circa 3,000 BC and offers an excellent blend of meditation, respiratory training, and movement. Practitioners of yoga enjoy the relaxing benefits of a class, most commonly performed in a heated room. Anyone who has taken a yoga class understands the mental focus and physical resiliency required to successfully complete a practice. In fact, the breathing practice utilized in yoga called ‘pranayama’ is very similar to the diaphragmatic breathing exercises we teach our patients in the clinic.
Should I be doing yoga?
Yoga has gained immense popularity in this country over the last decade. As a result, many patients ask for advice on whether or not they should be practicing yoga. My overwhelming answer is yes! Any physical practice that promotes movement, whether it is yoga, pilates, weightlifting, or running – is beneficial to the human body and should always be encouraged. However, the main caveat I give my patients when it comes to yoga is they need to understand which movements are healthy for their body’s and which movements are potentially damaging. Certain injuries or movement deficiencies can put the body at risk if you don’t know when to modify the yoga pose or to avoid it all together.
Low back pain and yoga
Let’s look at some examples. Chiropractors treat many patients with low back pain. Many patients experience increased back pain with sitting, picking items up off the floor, and bending forward to tie their shoes. The common theme is rounding postures of the low back, termed ‘flexion’ is provocative for these patient’s low backs. We term this type of back pain ‘flexion intolerant low back pain’. A patient with flexion intolerant low back pain should avoid flexion based activities while their low back is in the healing stages. Very often, these patients respond well to exercises or static positions that place the low back in extension – adhering to the natural lordotic curve of the lumbar spine.
If after assessment in the clinic the Chiropractor decides the patient will benefit from extension based exercises or static positions, the patient will be counseled to avoid all flexion based activities or postures for the low back (bending forward, prolonged sitting, etc.) during the initial stages of rehabilitation. If you have taken a yoga class, you are familiar with the numerous forward folds and sustained toe touches that are done during the class to stretch out the calves and hamstrings. If a patient is experiencing flexion intolerant low back pain, performing 20-30 forward folds in an hour practice is harmful to the body. In a patient prone to back pain, persistent forward bending places stress on the discs, nerves, ligaments, and muscles of the low back. Even Child’s pose position places the low back in end ranges of flexion and should be avoided for most acute back pain patients. Instead of forward folding, perform the downward dog position which will give similar benefits of stretching the calves and hamstrings while keeping a neutral spine.
Shoulder/ neck pain and yoga
Another example is a patient with shoulder and/or neck pain. Handstands, headstands, and other inversion based poses are very popular in yoga. Teachers cite the benefit of reversing the gravitational flow of blood in the body for improvements in circulation. While I agree with this notion, patients with shoulder and neck pain should not be putting this amount of stress on their muscles and joints. Performing a proper head or hand stand requires extreme levels of shoulder and scapular stability – something many beginning yogis do not possess. If you have shoulder or neck pain and are new to yoga, do not try and impress the rest of the class by forcing yourself into an inversion pose. Instead, ask your teacher to show you a regressed version that does not place as much stress on your neck and shoulders.
Knee pain and yoga
Last, the athlete with knee pain needs to be careful with certain yoga postures. Patient’s with current knee pain or a history of knee pain and surgery need to be cautious with certain yoga poses. Popular poses that impose large amounts of stress on the knee joint include the full squat (frog pose), hero pose (sitting on heels and laying backwards), pigeon pose (lying body weight on top of figure 4 pose), and standing tree pose. The common theme with these positions is they add load to the knee joint in extreme ranges of flexion and rotation. When the knee is forced into end ranges of flexion and rotation, the muscles and ligaments of the knee are placed under stress, which is amplified if previous or current injury exists. Instead of fighting through the pain to complete the class, work on poses like the lunge, warrior 1 and 2, bridge pose, and chair pose. These poses will strengthen the muscles and ligaments of the knee in less extreme ranges of motion.
Your Yoga Practice
Practicing yoga should be challenging but pain free and relaxing at the same time. If you are constantly fighting through pain in yoga, you are missing out on the many benefits of a successful practice. Do not feel bad about modifying your practice to work around injuries. Always remember it is YOUR practice, and not everyone else in the room. Make sure to communicate all injuries to teachers before the class starts so they can help you with modifications to make sure you get the same benefits as everyone else. As always, if you have a lingering injury that does not seem to be getting better, make sure to consult a health care professional who can diagnose and correct your specific issue.
Post written by Dr. Riley Kulm, DC. Check out his bio here.
We’re going to take a quick break from our ‘Treat Yourself like a Professional Athlete’ blog series to address commonly asked questions in our clinic – how much should I be stretching, how should I be stretching, and why do improvements in flexibility from stretching seem to happen so slowly?
Do you feel like you are constantly stretching and foam rolling yet are not improving flexibility? Patients regularly ask me how to become more flexible and mobile. They stretch their hips, hamstrings, and lower backs constantly, yet see little improvement in function, range of motion, or pain. For many patients, the issue is not the extensibility of their tissues, it is poor or inadequate stabilization patterns.
Create a Stable Base of Support
For the brain to allow movement and lengthening of a muscle, there must be a stable base of support. If a stable base of support is not present, the brain will perceive the movement as threatening and unsafe, and will put the brakes on. The brain does this by preventing muscles from expressing their full ranges of motion. This phenomena may show up as tight hamstrings, hip flexors, and lower back muscles.
Muscles most commonly attach to joints or on bony landmarks next to joints. With this in mind, the stable base of support required for movement is most often a joint, which includes the vertebrae in the spine. Poor stability at a joint is perceived as a ‘red light’ to movement. We call this ‘neurologic tension’ which refers to muscular tightness caused by the brain putting brakes on a movement. If all we do is stretch the tight muscle, we are not addressing the root cause of the problem – an inadequate base of support. The feet, hips, shoulders, and vertebrae in the lower back and neck are common areas where patients need to improve stability because many muscles attach to these areas.
Breathing to Release Your Hip Flexors
Many of our patients stretch their hip flexors constantly but do not see any improvement. The main muscle for hip flexion is the psoas major muscle. The psoas muscle attaches to the vertebrae in the spine, crosses the hip joint, and eventually attaches to the top of the leg near the head of the femur. If the psoas muscle does not have a stable base of support at the spine, the brain will not allow this muscle to fully lengthen, leading to tighter hips. Proper breathing patterns utilizing a diaphragm-driven belly breath and 360-degree cylindrical core stability are essential to create a stable base of support at the spine. At our clinic we teach patients how to breathe deeply into their abdomen. This is important because you must be able to breathe into an area if you want to activate the muscles in the area. Once they can breathe into the front, sides, and back of their abdomen, we teach them how to stabilize the muscles of the core using progressively more difficult exercises. Many patients notice improved hip flexor mobility simply by achieving better breathing and core stabilization patterns.
Stabilize Instead of Stretch
You should now understand how poor stabilization at joints can lead to an inflexibility of the muscles that attach at or near the joint. The focus of exercise therapies at our clinic teach patients to have better stabilization at their joints. Patients are amazed when they see active and passive ranges of motion dramatically improve once a stable base of support is created. We rarely give clients traditional stretching exercises because for the vast majority of patients, the root cause of stiffness is neurologic tension due to poor stabilization patterns.
As today’s blog post is more technical than previous posts, please feel free to reach out if you have any questions!
Post written by Dr. Riley Kulm, DC. Check out his bio here.