Yoga For Structural Integrity and Where to Start

What Is Yoga?

In the broadest of terms, yoga is the practice of moving through a series of poses and holds using the breath as an object of focus.  There are many different kinds of yoga, from Kundalini to Bikram and everything in between.  Most people do yoga not to become an adherent practitioner of one particular type of yoga, but to reap the benefits of practicing the poses through the linkage of breath and movement.  The main benefits of yoga include:

·      Increased Flexibility

·      Establishment of proper joint alignment and integrity

·      Impressive Core strength

·      Dramatically increased balance

·      Strengthening of the feet, wrists, shoulders, and stabilizer muscles of the legs

·      Stress relief and meditative benefits of breath focus

Why Yoga?

For the average person who gets started with exercise and healthy living, the physical consequences of our 21st century lifestyle start to get in the way of progress.  Sitting inside most of the day slumped over a computer, phone or notebook contributes to muscular imbalances and poor posture.  Even the frequent gym goer who stretches out before and after their exercise will fail to compensate for these muscle imbalances with stretching alone.

What makes yoga such a powerful tool for restoring the structural integrity of the body is that it combines the actions of stretching overly tight muscles and strengthening muscles that have become dormant and weak as a result of our modern lifestyle.  The yoga poses are much more active than static stretching.  Each pose combines an element of balance, strength and stretching.  Likewise, learning to transition smoothly between the poses in pace with the breath strengthens the nervous system’s proprioceptive control over the neuromuscular system. 

The combined strengthening and stretching action of yoga is the primary source of its numerous benefits.  There’s more though.  Various types of yoga focus on different athletic potentials of the body, but that’s a topic for a different article for the intermediate yogi.   

 The Muscle Imbalances of 21st Century Living

Structural integrity, mostly referred to as posture, is built from two, primary joint centers in the body.  Those two centers are the hips and the shoulder girdle.  Each of these locations is highly dependent on the condition of the other because they are the tethers that hold the spine in shape.  Let’s start by looking at the hips:

Proper posture is the result of a properly titled pelvis.  However, since most people sit in chairs most of the day, an imbalance develops which usually results in a forward tipping of the pelvis.  This is known as an “Anterior Pelvic Tilt”.  This tilting develops because of the progressive tightening of the hip flexors and low back muscles combined with the weakening of the deep abdominal wall and the glutes.  

It’s useful to look at the hips as being held in place by an “X” like connection to four muscles: Hip flexors, glutes, deep abdominal wall, and low back muscles.  The common anterior pelvic tilt contributes to an over curved spine.  The over curving starts proximally at the lumbar spine (the low back) and is referred to as lordosis.  This lordosis needs to be compensated for by the upper curve of the spine.  The result is a complementary, exaggerated curve in the upper spine known as kyphosis.  Therefore, the result of imbalance in the hip region is a kypholordotic posture that comes with low back pain, forward head position, and an unstable shoulder girdle.

It’s nearly impossible to have proper shoulder alignment with unbalanced hips, and almost everyone has imbalanced hips.  However, the kypholordotic posture is self strengthening in that once it’s established, it continues to worsen by the continued strengthening of the overly tight, tonic muscles and weakening of the overly stretched, clonic muscles.  For the shoulder girdle, living a 21st century lifestyle leads to the tightening of the pectorals, anterior deltoids, and trapezius to further pull the shoulder girdle forward.  Every time you lean over a desk or look down at your phone, you’re strengthening the muscles on the front of your body that contribute to the over curving of the kyphotic, upper spine.

For most people who start lifting weights, and especially those who do a lot of pressing exercises, shoulder pain is the obvious consequence of poor shoulder alignment.  Once this pain is noticed in the shoulder girdle, it’s critical to back off strength training in order to establish structural integrity.  The problem will be made much worse if one continues strength training with a forward sitting shoulder girdle because the already tight muscles of the anterior, upper body will only get stronger and tighter.  Thankfully, yoga is an excellent way to establish this integrity.  Likewise, the inverted yoga postures like downward facing dog, and the arm balances will serve as a substitute for weight training to strengthen the shoulder muscles. 

Anatomy of a Yoga Pose

 The logical solution to the muscle imbalances that our modern lifestyles produce is to stretch the tight muscles while we strengthen the weak ones.  By equalizing the pull from each point on the “X’s” of the joint centers, proper alignment can be reestablished.  This is exactly what yoga poses do. 

Take for example, one of the most basic and common poses, downward facing dog.  When properly performed, downward dog requires the contraction of the core to keep the hips elevated, stretching of the backs of the legs, and a simultaneous stretch of the front of the shoulder girdle and strengthening of the back by rolling the shoulders back towards the ears. 

This complementary profile of stretching and strengthening is found in virtually all yoga poses.  Some of the strengthening action is subtler.  For example, balancing poses strengthen small, stabilizer muscles as well as the neuromuscular connections to the larger muscles.  Whether the yogis of thousands of years ago knew the anatomy of the hips and shoulders or not, they created a tradition of exercise that is amazingly effective at creating a strong, stable, and balanced physique.    

The Focused Basics

On the next page is a series of poses designed to stretch the hip flexors, low back, and anterior upper body muscles while the complementary muscle groups are strengthened.  At first, focus on the integrity of the poses.  Build your balance in the lunges and stretches and establish the strength in the shoulders to hold the downward dog position for extended periods of time. 

Once you’re comfortable in the individual poses and confident in the stretching-strengthening action of the pose, it’s time to work on the transitions and the focus on breath.  The transitions should be smooth and controlled as the smoothness is the manifestation of proper strength and integrity.  Likewise, breathing should be done through the nostrils only with the lips sealed.  Generally, inhales should create space while exhales allow for release and deeper stretching or folding.  During transitions, exhales are generally done while effortful moving is required.  On the other hand, unfolding to an upright position is always done on an inhale.   Maintaining deliberate and controlled breathing through the strain of the poses is the source of yoga’s ability to calm the mind both in practice and in times of other, life stress. 

Screen Shot 2016-08-13 at 12.48.22 PM.png

Although they haven’t been mentioned yet, tight hamstrings are often the barrier to proper low back stretching.  Having overly tight hamstrings will completely prevent the low back muscles from releasing their tension in a lordosis posture.  Yoga’s emphasis on forward folding action is clear recognition of the importance of releasing the backs of the legs to allow for proper hip alignment. 

Conclusion

Yoga poses are the most accessible way to restore the body’s structural integrity.  Beginning to practice can be very humbling and frustrating.  Realizing the extent of your imbalances and lack of flexibility is never pleasant.  However, progress is made quickly and the psychological consequences of that progress are amazing.  After an initial period of familiarizing yourself with some basic poses and learning to flow breath and movement together, yoga can become a vigorous exercise modality in itself.  Becoming a more accomplished yogi will provide you with impressive strength and body control while giving you a mentally engaging and profoundly stress relieving way to exercise. 

Namasté Ya Filthy Animal