“I want to become more flexible”

This is a common response to the question “What attracts you to doing a yoga class?”  I don’t think anyone has ever told me they want to come to yoga to get stronger.  However, you might be in for a surprise!  Sadly, our muscular strength declines as we age and personally I don’t think our modern lifestyle helps a great deal.  So many more of us have sedentary jobs these days and exercise becomes another thing to be fitted into the week, rather than happening as a matter of course.

It’s been suggested that building strength should actually take priority over becoming more flexible.  Improving muscle tone helps us to maintain our body weight as muscles consume more calories than fat, even when resting (Yay!).  Muscle strength helps us to improve our posture.  We have greater endurance and are less prone to falls because we have better balance.  Ideally we should focus initially on building core strength and then look to develop the major muscles in the body i.e. arm and leg muscles.  This stops us from relying on smaller weaker muscles that are not up to the job.

A physical yoga practice helps us to build muscle strength in all the key muscle groups.  Our arms and shoulders are worked with weight-bearing postures such as bowing cat or downward-facing dog.  The standing postures build leg strength and balancing postures help develop the core.   By making slow movements we can exercise all the fibres in the muscle, whilst by maintaining a posture we use isometric contraction of the muscles to stay in position.  Another benefit of weight bearing postures (i.e. any posture that uses the body’s weight) is that is strengthens the muscles around the joints, helping to protect them from arthritis in later life.

What’s not to like?!

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Find your freedom…of movement

Many prospective students contact me in the hope that yoga will improve their flexibility, or in other words increase the range of movement they have in their joints.  Restrictions to joint freedom are often due to the muscles, ligaments and tendons that surround, support and work on those joints, not the joint itself.  Each joint has a medically recognised range of movement and it is possible for our movement to be restricted so that it is less than the typical range, or in the case of hypermobility, it may be more than is typical.

Under anaesthesia, muscles relax and the stiff patient regains their full range of movement.  However, once the patient wakes up from the anaesthetic, the old limitations resurface.  While this is not necessary helpful to potential yoga students with stiff joints(!), it does have a medical application as some conditions of stiffness in joints, such as a frozen shoulder, may be treated by manipulation under anaesthesia, allowing the therapist to move the joint in ways that would not be possible under normal circumstances.

Sometimes it is only during the yoga class that we notice that stiffness exists.  You might notice it when working in asymmetric postures that allow you to compare one side of the body to the other, or perhaps feel stiffness in a muscle when attempting a particular stretch.  These revelations only serve to remind me how little of our possible range of movement we use as a part of our normal daily lives.  And the old saying ‘Use it or lose it’ is so very true in this context.

All our muscles have a certain resting tone and a length that they comfortably stretch to.  Unfortunately, when we only use part of our range of movement in a joint, the connective tissue or fascia will ‘set’ that length within the muscles surrounding it and the signals sent by the nervous system serve to ensure we then stay within the new accepted range of movement.  Ever decreasing circles come to mind…

In order to stretch the muscle further, and thus gain greater movement in the joint, we need to increase the maximum length by working to ease out restrictions in the connective tissue or fascia that supports the muscle.  The Joint Freeing Series or Pavanmuktasana in yoga helps us to become familiar with the flexibility we have at each joint and if practised regularly, attempts to move all the joints through their full range of movement.  Enhancing joint mobility can relieve pain and stiffness, moving the joint helps to circulate the synovial fluid.

Easing tension in muscles around the joint also helps to create more space within the joint so its movement can be smoother and more comfortable.  Although I never do the whole series in any one class, most classes include some parts of the series that are relevant to that session.  This means that each class has an underlying theme of joint mobility and I would hope that through regular practice you would see improvements in how you can use your body.  So tell me, has it worked for you?

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Yoga to exercise your body…

We’ve all heard about 5-a-day; in fact it’s become quite the modern mantra.

But what about your 150 a week?  Eh?

Standard advice at the moment seems to be that we aim for 150 minutes of moderate exercise a week.  Apparently you can do this however you choose; in one gruelling 2 ½ hr session, or 22 mins a day.  I did also read that doing a really intense 3mins a day can take the place of your 150…but that sounds like seriously hard work!

Sadly for keen yogis, our practice doesn’t count towards this goal at all (sighs).  Moderate activity is defined as that which raises the heart rate and speeds up your breathing.  As we aim to keep the breath rhythmic and even during the class that is not really part of our yoga practice.  We might find it happening for brief periods during the class, but certainly not for the whole hour.  I wonder how many vigorous sun salutations you would have to do to check off 150 mins a week?

As a result, yoga is not that effective at burning calories either (scientists found that you use only 144 calories in a typical session) and even dynamic forms of yoga fall short of being classed as an aerobic exercise.  So, keep taking the stairs and running for the bus!

However, the aspect of our weekly recommended dose of exercise that seems to be less frequently mentioned is muscle strengthening, and the good news is that this is where yoga can help.  According to the NHS, you should do muscle strengthening exercise on 2 days each week.  In fact, the NHS actually recommends yoga as one way of boosting muscle strength.

Most classes support muscle strengthening by working with our own body weight in postures that challenge the lower body, upper body, back and core muscles.  Strengthening is an important aspect of the class, helping to support joints and contributing towards our ability to move the body gracefully and with control.  The variety of postures in each class makes sure that all of our muscles get a work out.

So here’s to stronger muscles! However, if you want to build in some government-approved moderate exercise perhaps it’s time to leave the car at home and take a brisk walk to class.  Just a thought!

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Movement and breath

A characteristic of many yoga practices is the co-ordination of movement and breath.  We can use the breath to help us to move in and out of postures and to work more deeply whilst we maintain a posture.  Breathing involves the movement of the spine as well as the ribcage and diaphragm and it is this movement that we can enlist to help us with our posture work.

Inhalation involves a lifting and opening of the ribcage and is associated with a straightening of the thoracic spine.  Conscious use of the inhalation during movements that require these changes will allow the breath to help our movement and the movement to help our breath.  For example, we might inhale as we move into a backbend, as we lift the arms or as we straighten the spine from a forward bend.  Conversely, during exhalation the ribcage lowers and the thoracic spine becomes more curvy, as in spinal flexion.  The exhalation can, therefore, help us to move out of a backbend or into a forward bend and links naturally with a lowering of the arms.

During the exhalation the pelvic floor lifts and the abdominal region contracts.  This can be used effectively to move us into a spinal rotation or a side bend.  Whilst in the side bend, we can focus on breathing onto the uppermost side of the ribcage, helping to open out this area.  During a spinal rotation, you may notice how the exhalation can help you to move deeper into the posture, whilst the twist tends to unravel slightly as you inhale.

Co-ordinating the movement with the breath into short sequences helps us to slow our movements down, fitting in with our own natural rhythm, and the concentration needed to co-ordinate movement and breath in this way also focuses our attention on what we are doing at that moment in time. By becoming more aware of how we breathe, we soon begin to notice more subtle changes in our breathing pattern which could be indicative of working too hard or in an inappropriate way. By responding to these signals we can learn to work in a way that is healthier for both body and mind.

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