I write today about paradigmatic shifts in yogasana – an evolution in three acts – inspired by three teachers, whose work I’ve been deeply studying and with whom I’ve been privileged to train in vivo. Having multiple teachers is an exercise in blessings and curses and maddening dissonance. I am constantly reconciling and reconvening the experts in my head. I call a summit of this brain trust at least once a week, usually on Facebook, where I am then schooled by my smart(er) colleagues and their respective adepts. This is a mashup of what I’ve come to understand from these bodysmarties and how I’ve integrated their wizardry into my movement and life practices.
Act One by Ray Long: The Bandha Yoga Codex: Using Reciprocal Inhibition, Muscle Isolations, Co-Activations, and Facilitated Stretches in Yogasana
I have devoured Ray Long’s books and had the great fortune of a weekend workshop with him in Vancouver. It was through his teachings that anatomy ceased being abstract, non-contextual, and tedious rote memorization. His beautifully rendered books brought anatomy to life through methodical application of stretching physiology to yogasana. His MO is to define the position of joints in a pose, identify prime mover muscles (agonists) and their corresponding stretchers (antagonists), and use stretch reflexes – muscle spindle, reciprocal inhibition, and golgi tendon organ to facilitate muscle extension. Where I find him most masterful is in cuing how to isometrically contract a muscle using directional cues like “press the hand onto the floor to contract serratus anterior” or “the cue for engaging these muscle together is to press the sole of the back foot into the floor and [isometrically] drag it toward the back side of the mat.” I wish all yoga teachers cuing isometric contractions would read Ray’s books and learn clear, sensible instructions instead of what can sometimes come across as vague, mystifying directives. After learning of Jules Mitchell’s work, I started using Ray’s cues for muscle contraction not to facilitate reciprocal inhibition (ie contracting the quadriceps to further stretch the hamstrings), but instead I use his money cues to isometrically contract the stretching muscle, thereby increasing strength at the end range of motion, which, it turns out, is what actually increases flexibility.
I have read and recommend the following books by Ray Long.
Act Two by Katy Bowman: Neutral Pelvis: How I Learned to Stop Using My Back to Stretch My Hip and Other Lessons in Honoring My Boundaries.
I’ve already written my primer on Katy Bowman on this blog. Most relevant here is Katy’s brilliant teachings on forces, loads, visible and invisible boundaries, and errant joint motions. Let me try to explain. In yoga, your body is subject to various forces, but of primary importance is how you position your joints in relation to each other. These forces are experienced as loads on your tissues. Regardless of the yoga lineage or alignment system you follow, your alignment markers are tools for helping you establish and maintain visible boundaries in your postures. Consider reverse warrior pose. If you maintain 90 degrees of flexion in your front knee as you laterally flex your spine, you will receive a different stretch than if you lose some of that flexion in your knee as you move into the pose. Try it. Circumventing your visible boundaries, as in the reverse warrior example, will not get you what you want in the pose – in this case, a stretch in the lateral trunk muscles.
When you disregard or have no visible boundaries (alignment markers) you are probably not stretching what you think you are. If alignment points (for example “90 degree flexion in knee in reverse warrior” or “shoulders stacked over wrists in cat/cow”) are your visible boundaries, what, then, are invisible boundaries? They are hidden forces, like errant joint positions, that undermine your alignment. Take the pelvis. In Katy’s system of Restorative Exercise, a neutral pelvis is one, where the pelvic bones and pubic bone are in the same plane perpendicular to the floor. These visible boundaries (alignment markers), when honored, assure that you are stretching your hip flexors vs. overextending your back. Try this simple test. In a standing position, put your pelvis in neutral (Katy’s post linked to above gives a great visual). Remain upright (don’t fold forward into a Vira 3 variation), extend a leg behind you as far as you can. Notice that in order to get the leg that far back, your pelvis had to tilt forward and you contracted the muscles in your lower back. You used your back to stretch your hip flexors. Now try it again, this time keep your pelvis neutral while you extend your leg. This movement was much smaller and did not involve your back at all. This is your true range of motion in your hip flexing muscles. You can apply this same concept to prone postures like Dhanurasana (bow) or Salabhasana (locust). There is nothing wrong with involving your back, if you are aware that you are doing it and desire the accompanying lumbar extension and compression. If, however, you compress your spine each time that you only meant to extend your hip, then you are using your back to do the work of the muscles that should be stretching your hip.
Act Three by Jules Mitchell: Strong at Any Length: A Yogi Turned Biomechanist Turned Yoga Stretching on its Head
I have a nerdy girl crush on biomechanist Jules Mitchell. Me and about a gazillion other yoginis. The crush is strictly science based. I am a former research librarian, whose idea of a good time is to sit at home on Friday night with a stack of research papers. Jules wrote her masters thesis on the science of stretching and she turned the world of yoga on its head (not to be confused with the king is dead kind of headstand). She slogged through hundreds of research articles trying to confirm what she thought she knew about yoga stretching – that it makes muscles longer. What she discovered is that increases in range of motion are not biomechanical, but neuromechanical – yoga doesn’t lengthen muscles, it merely increases your nervous system’s tolerance to stretch further. This is a ridiculously oversimplified explanation of Jules’ epic, paradigm shifting, game changing, head exploding thesis. But you are in luck, because she blogged about her research along the way and you can read about it. Start with her seminal post on tissue mechanics. If you want a concise distillation of Jules’ conclusions, read Jenni Rawlings’ post Stretching is in Your Brain – another smartypants to whom I am most grateful.
Two ways that Jules applies what she learned about the relationship between strength and flexibility inform my own practice. I was introduced to the idea of training active range of motion initially by Katy Bowman.
- Train active range of motion
- Strengthen at your end ranges of motion via muscle contraction
Training active range of motion in yoga simply means that you use muscle control to get into and out of a posture. If you have to leverage one body part with another or use your hands to lift your foot/leg into position, you are “placing” yourself into a position that you are not strong/flexible enough to get into organically. When you do this, you bypass your neurology and the tax for that “deeper” pose is that you no longer provide optimal muscular stability to your joints and you are in danger of stretching your connective tissues to permanent deformation or failure. It is when you are in an active range of motion that you increase strength and flexibility.
For instance, in the seated spinal twist ardha matsyendrasana, instead of leveraging your elbow against your knee to twist your torso, you could simply use the core musculature of your trunk to twist. Try this, keep your hands on your shoulders and twist using only your core muscles. If you need a hand on the floor behind you for support, make sure you are not leveraging the twist further with that hand. Notice how far you are able to twist. This is your active range of motion. Now place your opposite elbow to the outside of your knee and leverage to see how much further you can twist. The difference is your passive range of motion. At best, in passive range of motion, you are not getting stronger or more flexible. At worst, you have rotated into a range of motion that is not safe for you because you bypassed the brake signal your nervous system gave you in the active twist. It is your brain that stops you from twisting further – not short or tight muscles. This concept applies whenever you are twisting, but expecially think about losing the leverage in postures like parivrtta utkatasana (revolved chair) and parivrtta trikonasana (revolved triangle).
Here are a few more postures to try that exemplify the brilliant work of Ray Long, Katy Bowman, & Jules Mitchell.
Vrksasana – I used my hands to pick up my foot and place it high up onto my inner thigh.
In this second version of tree pose, I used the strength and range of motion of my hip and leg to place my foot on my thigh without using my hand and while maintaining Tadasana (no cheating my foot up by contorting my body in some other manner). You see, my brain stopped me from going further because foot high on the thigh is not a position that I ever got into on my own before beginning to train active mobility. The first time I tried placing my foot without using my hand, I couldn’t get my heel higher than my knee joint! I am living evidence that training in active mobility improves both strength and flexibility.
And how about the Bikram or Hot Yoga variation? A striking difference between passive and active range of motion. Not only does passive range of motion make your shorter, it sometimes changes the color of your clothes. Just kidding.
Utthita Hasta Padangustasana takes on a whole new look, when you don’t use your hand to bypass your neurology.
In the classic pose, first picture, I am in passive range of motion – I used my hand to lift my foot, much higher than I could get it there on my own. My lumbar curvature is AWOL and if I had a dog tail, it would be between my legs.
Notice in the second picture, that even though I used active range of motion to lift my leg, I am not wearing a neutral pelvis. By retroverting my pelvis (tucking my tail), thus thrusting my pubic symphysis further forward than my pelvic bones (anterior superior iliac spines) and unwittingly flexing my standing knee, I am now using my back to do the work of my leg – in this case flexing my hip.
The third picture shows the most optimal posture, in that I am training active range of motion and keeping a neutral pelvis (you can tell by the bubbleness of my bottom and my lordodic lumbar curve), but look how
low high my leg is now!??!
And finally, I hack Ray Long’s excellent cuing and mash it up with Jules Mitchell’s love of eccentric, concentric, and isometric muscle action for strengthening at end range in one of my favorite asanas – parsvottonasana. In this pose, the front leg’s hamstring is eccentrically contracting (generating force while lengthening). Cue lifting the front heel, while keeping the knee straight, to contract the calf muscle. You have just added a concentric contraction (generated force) to a stretching muscle. Try slowly lifting and lowering the heel a few times. Next, with just the slightest bend of your knee, firmly press the heel of the front foot into the floor and isometrically “drag” the front foot towards the back foot (don’t actually move the foot). Because the heel is fixed in place, this action of trying to press the heel into the floor and play drag it backwards is the same muscular action that would be taken if you were trying to flex your knee and results in a contraction of your stretching hamstring – the exact recipe for increasing strength at your end range of motion.
I would be honored and humbled to receive critical comments from any of these teachers or anyone familiar with their work. Or anyone, really.