Yoga is a great way to improve your overall health. It can be gentle enough to accommodate people with limited mobility or past injuries, while at the same time delivering a workout that can be comparable to aerobic exercise. Yoga is one of those activities that improves multiple aspects of health; strength, flexibility, balance, coordination, circulation, lymph drainage, state of mind, breath, and our sense of wellbeing.
But it’s not as easy as simply signing up for the next yoga class at your local studio and pushing your body to stretch as much as the experienced yogis next to you — or even progressing your practice with deeper stretches and more advanced postures years into yoga.
How to Use Yoga to Find Balance
Balance is something that’s taught a lot in yoga — balance of breath, of mind, of thoughts. Equanimity is a tenant discussed in many classes.
Unfortunately, the balance between mobility and stability is not so much of a focus. It is revered by most to go deeper into poses over time and match what your fellow yogi is doing one mat over, maybe you’re going for that sweet Instagram pose.
The deeper you progress in poses, the more you become imbalanced, it turns out, resulting in too much mobility in the body. In fact, those that typically gravitate to yoga already tend to be too flexible to begin with. They walk onto the mat being able to do many poses with ease, followed by a sense of accomplishment. That body type will become more prone to injury with deep poses, that body type really needs more stability.
There’s a baseline of flexibility that is healthy for the body. Thinking about what the body is designed to do and being mobile enough to do that is ideal. Can you touch your toes, sit on the ground, squat to pick something up, reach high to that top shelf, balance on uneven ground? Anything beyond this, that requires stretching the joint in unnatural ways, will cause injury.
First, when you are at an extreme range of motion, you end up stretching and straining the ligaments, joint capsules, and connective tissues that hold the joint together, making the joint itself sloppy and more susceptible to joint and connective tissue irritation.
Secondly, when you become looser, the body loses its ability to hold itself together with these ligaments, muscles, and capsules. The balance of mobility and stability is off. This makes the brain create muscle tension around joints to make up for this lack of stability, resulting in tight muscles holding on for dear life. This tightness continues even off the mat and into everyday life.
It is a paradox: more flexibility creates more tightness.
Even if you can bring your leg behind your head, you end up developing muscle tension that has a grip on you all day long. This tension is very common in the hip flexor muscles (iliacus and psoas) with the focus on so many hip openers in yoga. Chronic tension created by a brain that is trying to hold you together, pulls on you in a way that affects the entire mechanics of your body, doing its part to create injury somewhere along the chain.
Instead of diving into hyper-flexible poses, it’s vital to build a strong foundation in your joints. This is how you balance this mobility with stability. The more you slow down transitions and begin holding those poses through multiple breaths, without going too deep, the stronger you will get and the more in tune with the practical depth a pose should be for you.
Using the hip area as an example, here are three ways to increase your hip strength and stability in your yoga practice:
- Keep your core and midline engaged. This transfers the work abs, so your hip flexors and back don’t overcompensate to hold you together and your brain trusts you that you will keep the joints strong and stable.
- Use micro-adjustments to trigger the right muscles.
Get really serious about your form in down dog, tabletop, and bridge poses. Even if you’ve been practicing yoga for years, you may realize you’re engaging new muscles when you become hyper-aware of what is happening in subtle ways.
- Back off from the end range.
Poses like pigeon, triangle, and standing splits often focus on achieving a very deep stretch, but your hips are not meant to be in those positions. Back out of the pose 20% and focus on holding that space with vitality instead of hanging on your ligaments at the end range.
A strong body is a healthy one.
Use Yoga to Support Flexibility, Not Increase It
As a general rule, yoga and gentle stretching is an amazing way to offset the sedentary lives many of us have today. But, in yoga deep poses like all the warrior poses, full pigeon, and those where one leg is forward and another one back, creates too much mobility in the hip region, making the hip flexors have to overwork to hold you together. Then poses like staff pose, boat pose, and standing hand to toe can cause these already tight and overused muscles to have to work harder. Meanwhile, moving right into child pose after a deep stretch like that shortens the muscles and can cause cramping or knots.
The point is, you just need to listen to your body. More isn’t better. Although a gentle stretch helps to warm up tissue and counteract a sedentary life, moderation is the key.
Bring It Together at Your Core
Your goal in yoga shouldn’t necessarily be to do the splits or hold bird of paradise. If you want to have yoga as a lifelong practice and not be injured in the process, you should be thinking about being strong, stable, and well-aligned first. This strength is actually the key to keeping you on your mat.
It’s time to strike a true balance between strength and flexibility, be the change agent that looks at the practice of yoga from this balanced perspective and your body will thank you.