Yoga for Optimal Performance
Learn how yoga postures can enhance mobility, stability and balance to improve common postural deviations.
You’re a student of the body, committed to helping people improve their functional capacity and independence. Human movement is complex and uniquely individual. From a physical perspective, joint structure, neurological patterning, muscles, ligaments, tendons, fascia and skin all affect movement. Psychological and emotional factors may also cause restrictions.
Through various training methods, fitness professionals can guide clients and class participants to overcome their limitations and improve performance in everyday life and athletic endeavors. Yoga, as both a philosophy and a physical practice, is one valuable tool to consider integrating into your training programs to help clients find and release tension—and thus discover more efficient movement.
In the Western world, the most popular forms of yoga center on the physical practice of various postures (asanas) to increase strength, balance, flexibility and mindfulness. Some styles are more relaxing and meditative, others more athletic and strengthening. Either way, yoga is an exploration of self. Practicing asanas is about helping people to tune into their bodies, not about forcing their bodies into poses (Clark 2016).
Asana practice offers numerous benefits, including better control and awareness of breath; increased strength, stability and flexibility; and reduced anxiety, pain and discomfort. Results from one study revealed that therapeutic yoga, or “the application of yoga postures and practice to the treatment of health conditions,” enhanced strength and flexibility, improved cardiovascular function, promoted recovery from and treatment of addiction, reduced stress and chronic pain, and enhanced “overall well-being and quality of life” (Woodyard 2011).
Keep reading to find out how yoga can be strategically used in concert with exercise physiology tenets to identify common postural issues that cause movement limitations for clients. Learn how taking a biomechanical approach to yoga offers an understanding of the interrelationships among joint structure, muscles and movement and how yoga postures can release tension, restore mobility, enhance stability and rebalance the body.
Yoga and Posture Assessment
Yoga’s history is deep and vast. This ancient physical, philosophical and spiritual practice has many branches, including physical postures, breath work, meditation and study, among other disciplines. The Indian sage Patanjali described eight equally important and interconnected “limbs” of yoga, consisting of moral codes, self-purification and study, yoga postures, breath control, sense control, concentration, meditation, and contemplation.
In its complete form, yoga is a way of life. Life is rife with stress, which calls on us to be resilient. However, our sedentary lifestyles and type A mindsets, along with our intensive use of computers and smartphones, have set us up for physical, mental and emotional imbalances. Yoga can address all of these, but this article focuses mainly on the physical aspect.
Before you train any client, it’s important to know what the person’s starting point is, which is why all good programs start with a postural and movement assessment. Postural analysis is the science of understanding the body’s alignment in relationship to gravity and knowing the optimal structural relationship for creating good posture and harmonious movement (St. John & Puleo 2017). Assess clients first in static positions, then dynamically, to identify misalignments and patterns. A trained eye will immediately see compensations and imbalances, which will inform selection of the repertoire.
Perform a static postural assessment by viewing the body from the front, back and side. Observe alignment irregularities and asymmetries by noticing the positioning and relationship of the head, shoulders, spine, hip, legs and feet in three dimensions. If aligned optimally while standing and moving, the bones and joints are organized in a way that allows the muscles, connective tissues and nervous system to support them effectively. Taken as a whole, this alignment supports the body against gravity and external forces.
With keen observation in mind, let’s look at mountain pose, also known as tadasana or anatomical position. This “blueprint” pose is the foundation for all standing poses (Crow 2015; Kappmeier & Ambrosini 2006). It may seem like simply standing, but you can gather a lot of information about clients from viewing them in this static position. The “work” is bringing the skeleton, with its unique attributes, into neutral alignment (Crow 2015). While not an exhaustive list, here are some things to look for:
- Begin your observation with a global perspective of the body. Stand back and observe the client’s overall posture (shoes off).
- Next, examine the feet and ankles, the foundation for the rest of the body’s alignment. Notice if the feet are firmly planted. Is weight distributed equally through the entire foot, or does the foot roll out (supination) or in (pronation)? If so, is the misalignment excessive?
- Look at the knees. Is the patella facing forward, or does it turn in (genu valgum) or out (genu varum)?
- Review pelvic placement for excessive posterior or anterior tilt, tipping or rotation.
- Observe shoulder positioning. Is the humeral head sitting in the joint’s center?
- Finally, check head and neck alignment. Does the client exhibit forward-head posture? The head should be balanced over the trunk. From a side view, the ear should line up with the center of the shoulder, the rib cage, the high point of the iliac crest, and the midpoint of the lateral knee; the ear should be just forward of the lateral malleolus of the ankle.
Use this assessment as a starting point for choosing poses and sequences for the client’s program.
Next, assess movement with an eye toward existing patterns that may offer clues to physical limitations and habitual compensations. Keep in mind that each body is unique in its design and that ideal alignment is a broad definition.
“When we assume that we can generate a final and complete analysis of the unique and complex sequences of muscular action that are expressed in each person’s movement choices, we create obstacles and limit the ways that new choices can arise,” write Leslie Kaminoff and Amy Matthews in their book Yoga Anatomy (Human Kinetics 2012). “If we instead observe with a mind open to possibilities, examining each person’s pattern becomes an opportunity to witness the incredible variety of ways that we can successfully execute the simplest actions.”
When you cue a client through a set of linked moves, you can identify dysfunctional patterns. For example, a simple, modified sun salutation with an added spinal rotation will reveal some of the client’s strengths and weaknesses.
- Closely observe mobility limitations, stability vs. instability, bilateral and unilateral deviations, and overall movement capacity.
- During the initial standing forward bend, assess tightness in the back line of the body.
- When the client sits back into chair pose, determine imbalances between mobility and stability in the hips, back and shoulders.
- As the client steps back into lunge, notice any tightness in the hip flexors.
- During chaturanga (yoga pushup), identify stability, upper-body strength and full-body integration.
- In upward-facing dog and downward-facing dog, look for tightness and weakness through the entire front and back lines of the body.
All of the above checkpoints can cross over to activities other than yoga.
Observing how someone breathes during movement is another means of assessing tension and discomfort in the body. When mobility is restricted, it’s natural to hold the breath. Yoga breathing techniques can assist in reducing tightness and easing the body into movement. How well the breath connects with fluid movement in yoga says a lot about whether a client’s body systems are balanced and integrated. What is the state of the central nervous system and spine, for example? Are flexion, extension, axial rotation and lateral flexion present? The muscular system creates movement, and the muscles “work together as a matrix of potential movement choices” (Kaminoff & Matthews 2012).
Success in any movement can be measured by the quality of balance throughout the entire body, rather than by range of motion around a single joint. “This quality arises in the skeletal system from the presence of balanced joint space in each joint, the availability of clear pathways for movement through the bones and joints, and the awareness of our individual patterns in the wholeness of the systems of our body,” write Kaminoff and Matthews (2012). See “Movement Assessment Exercises” for more details.
Understanding Muscle Imbalances
Although there are many observable malalignments, the more common patterns include overpronated feet, rounded shoulders, hyperlordosis, a jutting chin, hips shifting to one side and “tech neck.” The work of Vladimir Janda, MD, has been instrumental in understanding the development of muscular imbalances and their implications for spinal alignment, function and pain. Of particular significance to the physiotherapy and fitness industries is Janda’s work in defining two groups of muscles: postural and phasic.
Postural muscles fight gravity to maintain an upright posture and are typically “on,” while phasic muscles are not involved in maintaining posture against gravity and are typically “off.” As a result, postural muscles have tremendous endurance and do not weaken or atrophy quickly; however, they tend to shorten and tighten over time. Unless specifically recruited for a task or activity, phasic muscles, on the other hand, tend to fatigue easily, be weak and atrophy over time.
According to Janda, when phasic and postural muscles are deconditioned, it places an unbalanced load on the spinal column, pelvis and shoulder complex. This can gradually lead to malalignment, abnormal wear and tear, joint dysfunction, and—eventually—pain and disability. Deconditioning allows postural muscles to pull on the spine, either because those muscles are excessively tight or because the phasic muscles opposing the pull are weak. The two major imbalances that Janda describes are lower crossed syndrome and upper crossed syndrome (Janda 1983; Page, Frank & Lardner 2010). See “Examples of Phasic and Postural Muscles”, below, for more.
LOWER CROSSED SYNDROME
Lower crossed syndrome is characterized by short, tight hip flexors and lumbar erector spinae against weak gluteals and abdominals. This imbalance promotes an anterior pelvic tilt, increased lumbar lordosis, hip flexion and limited hip extension during walking (Janda 1983; Page, Frank & Lardner 2010). This syndrome can have any number of causes; however, lifestyle and gravity play key roles. Sitting for long periods of time can exacerbate the imbalance. Some activities, such as cycling, can further increase tightness in these inherently tight muscles. Over time, tightness in the lower crossed syndrome postural muscles will pull on the lumbar spine, increasing tension in the lumbar extensors and inhibiting the gluteal and abdominal muscles, creating a greater imbalance.
Training the lower body requires a balance between tightness in the anterior hip (postural muscles) and weakness in the posterior hip (phasic muscles) for optimal movement. An imbalance in this relationship affects the ability to perform many fitness-based exercises, including squats, lunges, bent-over rows and step-ups. Continual tension in the hip flexor muscles (rectus femoris, iliopsoas) inhibits the opposing muscles of the posterior hip (gluteals). Like the shoulder girdle, the hip joint is complex, and there may be numerous observable movement deviations and imbalances.
UPPER CROSSED SYNDROME
Clients with upper crossed syndrome experience tightness in the levator scapulae, upper trapezius, pectoralis major and sternocleidomastoid and concurrently experience weakness in the lower scapular stabilizers and deep neck flexors (Janda 1983; Page, Frank & Lardner 2010) This imbalance promotes elevated scapulae, rounded shoulders, and a forward-head or “poking chin” posture.
Similar to lower crossed syndrome, this upper-body imbalance is exaggerated by sitting for long periods of time and by working in front of the body, as in texting on a phone, typing on a computer and driving a car. Tight postural muscles exert an inhibitory effect on phasic muscles, further contributing to weakness and muscular imbalances. With this understanding, fitness professionals can use yoga postures to assist with the common tight areas and to increase stability and strength.
Training the upper body requires optimizing joint stability and mobility and training functional movement patterns. The shoulder girdle is a complex structure with an extensive capacity for movement. The shoulder girdle’s joint structures need to move in harmony, and a muscular imbalance puts undue stress on the joint complex. Establishing appropriate shoulder mobility, stability and strength requires doing exercises that decrease tension in the tight anterior shoulder muscles (postural) and strengthen the weaker posterior muscles (phasic).
Yoga Poses to Address Muscle Imbalances
We’ve established that clients and participants present with various pre-existing imbalances that can impede their progress and hinder them from reaching their goals. There are numerous ways to address these challenges, and you should never hesitate to refer out to a physical therapist or other allied health professional when appropriate. However, a well-educated, experienced fitness professional can often address imbalances through intentional movement. Yoga is superb for this; it “provides an extra edge through balance, flexibility, breath and mental sharpness” and “weaves together stretching, strength-building, breathing and balance” (Cunningham 2017).
Movement occurs when a coordinated response from the nervous system creates desired action at a joint. Joint movement in response to muscle activation is a biomechanical event coupled with a physiological event. This is known as reciprocal inhibition (Long 2008). This agonist and antagonist relationship involves muscles contracting and relaxing during movement. Muscular co-contraction must also occur to create stability.
Muscles fall into two basic categories, depending on which action is occurring at a given moment. In the action of extending or strengthening the knee, for example, the quadriceps are the agonists and the hamstring muscles are the antagonists. Conversely, in knee bends the hamstrings become the agonists and the quadriceps become the antagonists. In a seated forward bend, the quadriceps are the agonists and the hamstrings are the antagonists. Contracting the quadriceps signals the hamstrings to relax via a neurological signal, resulting in an excitatory response of the quadriceps and an inhibitory response of the hamstrings (Long 2008).
By nature, many yoga poses require stability, mobility and co-contractions to occur at one time, further grounding yoga’s effectiveness as a tool for supporting optimal performance. For example, warrior I is a complex pose that targets mobility of the anterior and posterior hip, while at the same time requiring strength and stability. The quadriceps muscles of the front leg contract to support the body, while the back leg requires posterior lateral hip stability and strength through the tensor fasciae latae and gluteus. The adductors and hip flexors on both legs require mobility. At the same time, the pose calls for thoracic and shoulder extension with posterior spinal and shoulder stabilization. Warrior I strengthens the phasic muscles and lengthens the postural muscles, making warrior I an excellent yoga pose for addressing lower and upper crossed syndromes and enhancing muscular balance in the body. See sidebars for additional guidance.
An Expanded Tool Box
Although we are teachers and leaders, we are also students and followers. Continuing to learn and expand our knowledge is a lifelong commitment. There is no single training method for improving human performance. As fitness professionals, we have an obligation to be open to the many methods of training that exist and will continue to evolve.
Millions of people practice yoga today, and fitness professionals can pair this diverse practice with other fitness methodologies to enhance clients’ journeys to optimal performance.
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