Some people believe that stretching before exercise lowers your injury risk. However, research has found that mild stretching can cause damage at the cytoskeletal level of the muscle (Bracko 2002). Static stretching has an analgesic effect; the body uses this protective mechanism to increase tolerance for pain during stretching. Once this effect is triggered, it’s not a good idea to add more challenge to the anesthetized muscle.
With the above in mind, what does belong in a yoga warm-up? A warm-up should prepare the body for the activities to follow. Many people view yoga as an extreme-range-of-motion activity in which you push yourself deeper and deeper into poses, trying to achieve a goal that could be impossible for your body and might lead to injury. However, hatha yoga uses the isometric principle, which basically means that an isometric contraction in a specific joint position will increase the joint’s range of motion 15 degrees above and below that position. We can use this technique to safely “teach” the body to allow for increased range. If we taught yoga as isometric strength training rather than passive stretching, the analgesic effects of stretching would not be an issue.
Many yoga teachers believe that standing poses belong in a warm-up and that seated postures belong at the end of class. What about doing the opposite? For functional reasons, why not address individual joint motions separately before integrating them into standing poses? For instance, if your goal is to address warrior I, warrior II, triangle, side-angle pose and warrior III, why not break down the joint components for those poses in your warm-up?
Start with hip flexion. From a supine position, actively draw the knee to the chest (don’t pull with the arms). Mildly contract the hip flexor area and hold for 5 seconds, pressing the pelvis into the ground equally on both right and left sides. Now extend the knee and straighten the leg upward. Isometrically tighten the hip flexors and quadriceps group. Slowly lower the leg to the ground, keeping the spine in neutral (avoid excessively arching the back) to stimulate the spinal muscles.
Next, address hip extension. Bend the knees and place the feet flat on the floor, hip distance apart. Gently press the arms and shoulders into the ground to keep the cervical spine in neutral and stimulate the scapular-retractor group needed for the postural aspects of many standing positions. Raise the hips gently toward the ceiling. By isometrically pushing the feet toward the hips, you address the gluteals, hamstrings and spinal extensors.
Draw the knees to the chest and gently roll up to sitting. Come to your hands and knees and practice cat/cow, engaging the abdominal muscles to flex and extend the spine. Move in sequence with breathing patterns (exhale cat, inhale cow). From here, try lifting the knees off the floor to plank position, engaging the upper extremities and performing ankle dorsiflexion.
Next, step one foot at a time up to the hands in a lunge position. With your body weight now pushing you into hip flexion, practice isometric hip adduction by pushing the feet into the mat and toward each other. Repeat on the opposite side, then slowly move into downward-facing dog and lift the hips toward the ceiling by engaging the hip flexors and knee extensors. Engage the calf muscles to come to plantar flexion, and engage the shins for ankle dorsiflexion. Gently walk the feet up to the hands. With feet hip distance apart, bend the knees, shift the hips back and the torso forward, and come into chair pose. Shift your weight anteriorly and posteriorly to load the foot. When standing, shift the weight right and left by carefully lifting one leg at a time. This stimulates joint proprioception (which is used in balance), as well as hip abduction and adduction (which support normal gait). Now you are ready for your workout!
Lauren Eirk is a certified yoga instructor, a master Resistance Training Specialist®, a Muscle Activation Techniques™ certified specialist and the fitness director for Louisville Athletic Clubs.
Bracko, M. 2002. Can stretching prior to exercise and sports improve performance and prevent injury? ACSM’s Health & Fitness Journal, 6 , 17–22.