How Do I Advance my Yoga Practice to get Stronger and More Flexible?

Yoga is a centuries old practice but oftentimes, teachers have not adapted the style of teaching to reflect the demands of modern day life. If we take a critical lens to the demands of the modern worker, we see more sitting, phone use, and overall sedentary lifestyle than ever before. These prolonged postures have an effect on our muscles and posture in a way that we may not be aware of when we walk into a yoga class.

When we enter the yoga class, we are entering with the imbalances in our body that I refer to as our physical baggage. We might be moving our neck side to side trying to get some relief from “tightness”, folding forward in a desperate attempt to stretch out hamstrings that have been shortened over the course of a sedentary workday. Does any of this sound familiar?

Then the yoga class begins by starting in child’s pose or a seated position. You then move through postures that point out the imbalances you know are there. Maybe it doesn’t feel great; you don’t feel the “lengthening” of the muscles, but rather perceive something straining or resume a child’s pose because the current pose is reserved for the “flexible few”. Here is where people can get frustrated and may force themselves into postures that do not feel great. Well, here is me giving you permission to stop if something does not feel ok. Movement should be non-painful. If there is pain, the movement is dysfunctional in some way and needs to be assessed by a trained eye.

The Need for Dynamic Movement

Given how most of us move about daily life, when we start a yoga practice, it is counterintuitive to start in a seated posture. The majority of people have been sitting throughout the day, the glutes and muscles of the core have not been working and have become shortened the longer we sit and the closer our heads drift toward the computer or phone screen. An easy remedy is to integrate poses such as bridge, quadruped and low lunge to the start of a yoga practice so that the nervous system begins to recognize which muscles should be firing and when. Modern lifestyle has primed our bodies for neuromuscular deactivation - the process by which the brain loses the capacity to send signals to the small muscles that stabilize our joints. Our body adapts to this process and larger muscles take over the execution of movement. Unfortunately, this results in poor alignment and places the person at higher risk of pain and injury. Moreover, without being aware and addressing these imbalances, the ability of a yoga practice to advance is limited.

Then how do I get stronger? More flexible?

One party of yoga practitioners may be seeking to move toward the “more advanced” poses in a practice: forearm balance, arm balances, and handstand are the poses that reflect pinnacle integration and coordination of muscle firing. If coordinated firing of the core musculature (scapular stabilizers, multifidi, pelvic floor, and transverse abdominus) does not occur, it will be difficult to train toward achievement of these poses. A strong foundation in the ability to recognize what muscle firing needs to occur to execute a pose and alignment for optimization of muscle recruitment will change a practice. Once this foundation is set, the path toward more stability and strength in more demanding poses is a matter of time and practice.

Another party may seek out yoga with the goal of improving flexibility. Many classical yoga poses rely on static stretching at the end range of motion. Although this may give the participant the sensation of stretch in the short term, what is the benefit of long hold stretches at the available end of a motion? In this physical therapist’s opinion, the drawbacks/potential for injury of some of these stretches outweigh the benefits. This is not to say that at the end of an hour long practice, a pigeon stretch can’t feel great, but the question becomes whether or not the movements done in the practice have prepared the body to move and stretch into a new range of motion. The physical practice of yoga needs to reflect dynamic movement and strengthening to change how we move in the long-term. Ideally the practice also contains functional patterns and adaptations for common musculoskeletal imbalances so that the practice becomes more of an antidote for a sedentary lifestyle.

So what do I do now? I still want to practice yoga but do it safely and effectively.

First off, listen to your body. There are some yoga poses that are especially challenging for different parts of the body (i.e. triangle and warrior 1 can be difficult if sacroiliac joint dysfunction needs to be considered) and I will be reviewing these later in this yoga blog series. If a movement feels anything besides fantastic, ask for a modification or try quadruped/bridging to practice integrating your breath and core musculature. Ultimately, neuromuscular activation of the core musculature is the basis of a strong yoga practice.

The Physical Therapy Approach

At Activcore, our physical therapists provide 1:1 individualized care in order to establish the root cause of muscle imbalances and pain. Our physical therapists are familiar with the practice of yoga and some have received additional certification in yoga instruction. We will break down yoga sequences and work with you to develop optimal movement patterns so that your yoga practice is pain-free, sustainable, and has room for advancement and progression.

You can learn more about this topic by visiting our Yoga PT page.

Disclaimer:  The views expressed in this article are based on the opinion of the author, unless otherwise noted, and should not be taken as personal medical advice. The information provided is intended to help readers make their own informed health and wellness decisions.

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Dr. Ashley Newton

Physical Therapist | Doctor of Physical Therapy
Ashley Newton is a Doctor of Physical Therapy and Evidence In Motion Pelvic Health Certified (PHC) practitioner with a special interest in adult pelvic floor issues and yoga-related injuries. She works at Activcore in Princeton, NJ, located just 2 miles from Princeton University.
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