By Amanda Winkler
Have you heard the old adage, “no pain, no gain”? This culturally pervasive idea has made its mark on virtually everything – our jobs, our personal lives and very prominently in the way we treat and move our bodies. If you don’t wake up the morning after an intense workout or practice barely able to move, did it even happen? And if you did wake up feeling the burn from yesterday’s efforts, did it somehow make it more worthwhile? I used to believe it did.
I spent my childhood and early adulthood playing soccer and running long distances and knew what it felt like to work hard and feel it the next day. I enjoyed the feeling of soreness because it gave me validation and a sense of accomplishment. When I started yoga in 2007, I applied these same beliefs to my practice. First of all, I was incredibly discerning about the type of yoga class I participated in. It had to be sweaty, challenging and feel like an incredibly intense workout or I wasn’t interested. I also favored poses where I felt excessive stretching and sensation — pigeon, deep backbends, arm binds — you get the picture. I applied the idea of “no pain, no gain” to yoga, and after a few years of practicing this way, developed pain and injuries, particularly in my joints. Be careful what you wish for!
I do want to make one thing clear – I don’t blame yoga for my injuries, but rather the mentality that I approached yoga with. In doing so, I conceivably pushed past healthy ranges of motion in my joints due to a lack of awareness, understanding and my own sense of competition. While in hindsight I wish I knew then what I know now, my personal experience led me to investigate the hows and whys of my own injuries, setting me on a path of uncovering ways to regain joint stability and overall function of my musculoskeletal system.
In my opinion, flexibility is not about being able to touch your toes or bring your head to your foot in a backbend. For most people, the latter is an expression of hyper flexibility, or going past a “normal” range of motion (normal hip flexion is in the range of 0-120 degrees). You can have tight or constricted muscles and still do the aforementioned movements by pulling your body into them. If your muscles and connective tissues aren’t allowing these movements to happen, then somewhere else in your body is going to.
Often times, these are your joint ligaments, whose major function is to stabilize your joints by disallowing excessive ranges of motion. Unlike muscle, which has the ability to stretch and then return to its resting length (due to its elasticity and rich supply of blood), your ligaments are collagenous and avascular (poor blood supply). Once they are overstretched they cannot easily return to a length necessary to best support the joints.
In my personal practice, I began to add static strengthening moves that addressed my body as a wholly integrated system. I found that the incorporating the practice of Yoga Tune Up helped uncover and relieve my holding patterns, overall weakness, and created strength and resilience in their place. In the continued process of healing a shoulder injury, I have used the information and scope of this practice to gradually increase strength and stability in my shoulders and core. My favorite pose for building totally body strength and stability is Megaplank with Active Serratus. This pose is a full body strengthener with an emphasis on engaging the serratus anterior muscle, which stabilizes the scapula while the arms bear weight (like in Downdog, chaturanga and plank). See how to do it in the video below!
The next really important piece of advice I can offer is to move in as many different ways as possible. There is no holy grail of movement, except of course to move in all the ways that humans are meant to move, as much as you can. Doing any one thing all the time – running, yoga, weight lifting, biking – leads to imbalances in the body. In an effort to move our bodies vigorously in as short a time as possible we have come up with our own quick fixes in movement and exercise. As we all know quick fixes don’t work!
Start noticing the way you are holding your body when sitting, standing, texting, talking, walking. Based on your observations, make changes to improve your body’s alignment. Myofascial release or self-massage with therapy balls can be helpful to relieve tension and uncover your body’s blind spots (areas that your brain and body do not sense well). Move Your DNA by Katy Bowman is a wonderful resource in determining what to look for when embarking on a journey to improve your body’s alignment.
Finally, it takes honesty and work to move through pain, create strength, and improve your relationship to your body. Unfortunately (or fortunately), there is no magic pill to be pain or injury free. The proof is in the work. The results are in the work. And if you take a deep interest in your health and your healing, there is fun to be had in the work as well!
Amanda Winkler, ERYT-200 is a NYC based yoga teacher, whose style is greatly influenced by her personal experience with yoga as a tool for self-discovery, personal growth, and empowerment. As she found strength in movement, her fascination with the human body led her to study yoga anatomy extensively, and to become a certified Yoga Tune Up teacher under the tutelage of international movement specialist and renowned yoga teacher, Jill Miller. www.winkyoga.com