The Two Biggest Challenges in Yoga Today (Part One)
Frequently I receive emails or postings from yoga teachers and students asking for an opinion about some other teacher’s statement that a certain yoga pose is really harmful for students and should never be taught, or certain movements of the body in a yoga class should be outlawed.
Dogma is dangerous! To say that something is always wrong or something should never be done feeds into fear and is, at best, unhelpful and, at worst, harmful. There are two big reasons why some teachers will render these prejudicial statements:
- A common misperception about the nature and value of stress
- Ignorance of skeletal variations
Please comment on this blog wherein a teacher claims that Pigeon Pose should be forever outlawed in yoga classes. (He says the lying forward version should be renamed “Dead Pigeon.”)
Please comment on the following statement made by a yoga teacher, “Yin Yoga is especially bad for pregnant students because it could lead to a thrombosis or an embolism leading to a stroke or heart attack!”
This is not a complete list of dogmatic assertions that you may come across in a yoga studio, but it’s a good representation of the two biggest challenges we have in yoga today. Let’s dive right in and shine a light first on “stress.”
The Value of Stress
Stress has a negative reputation in our culture: we seem to think that stress is bad but this cannot be—without stress we would all die. Problems occur when we over-stress the body and do not allow enough rest to recover from the stress.
In a yoga class we can divide stress into three types: we stretch our tissues, compress our tissues or twist them (technically referred to as “shear”)—this is basically all we do to our body in yoga. For some reason yoga teachers have decided that stretching is an okay form of stress but compression is not.
You’ll often hear even very experienced teachers warn students against compression, for example for the lower back they’ll use very negative imagery to hammer home the point: “Don’t jam into your lower back!” Another example: we’re not allowed to let our shoulders ride up towards the ears because that would mean we are compressing the neck.
If compression were bad, every massage therapist would be out of work and walking would be one of the worst forms of exercise. We need to compress tissues in order to stimulate the body at a cellular level. Compression stimulates healing.
We can take the example of bones: we’ve known for over 100 years that bones can be coaxed into growing thicker and stronger if the bones are subjected to compressive stress. If we take the stress away, the bones atrophy. Space studies have shown that astronauts who experience no stress on their bones will lose significant amount of calcium and their bones atrophy to the point that many astronauts cannot walk after coming back to earth. (This is known as “disuse osteoporosis.”)
Joints are comprised of bones, cartilage and the ligaments comprising the joint capsule—all these tissues need stress to be healthy. Usually the stress comes through compression. Stressing the ligaments causes cells called fibroblasts to be active: they secrete hyaluronic acid to help lubricate the joint’s movement and collagen to thicken and reinforce the joint capsule. Stressing the cartilage stimulates chondrocytes to secrete collagen used to strengthen and repair the cartilage.
We need to stress our joints!
But we need to stress them appropriately: being yin-like tissues, bones, cartilage and ligaments do best when stressed in a long held, static way. Repeated, rhythmic stress could damage these tissues in the same way a credit card is damaged by repeatedly bending it back and forth. Our back vertebrae and our sacroiliac joints need stress! Without it they decay.
However! We can do too much of anything. Too much stress can lead to a degeneration of tissues. As described in The Complete Guide to Yin Yoga, we need to find the Goldilocks’ position: not too much and not too little. This can be shown graphically: on the right is a classic n-shape curve that illustrates the danger of being outside the optimal bounds.
If we apply too little stress to our tissues, they atrophy. All living things require some stress to be healthy! If we apply too much stress, however, tissues degenerate. There have been many scientific studies verifying the n-shaped curve shown in the graph on the right (see Lower Back Disorders by McGill: page 32 for several references).
Some stress is good, a lot of stress can be bad—how do we know the difference?
Pain! The body will generally warn you when you’re going too deep or holding the stress for too long. Stressing tissue brings down the tolerance level of that tissue. This is what exercise is all about—we stress tissues to make them weaker, at least initially. Once we release the stress, the tissues recover and become stronger. If we apply too much stress, or hold for too long or do not allow enough rest, then we’re in danger.
The graph below on the left shows how these three variables work together. The curve at the top of the graph shows the level of tolerance the tissue can take before becoming damaged. The lower peaks show the degree of tension or stress being applied through either repetitive stresses or one prolonged steady stress. The horizontal axis represents time.
Notice how the amount of stress that our tissues can tolerate decreases with total stress and increased time. Eventually, if we continue to stress the tissues to the point where the two lines cross, damage will occur. This is known as the “last straw effect.” It’s a classic occurrence with low back injuries—you bend over at home to pick up your socks and you throw your back out. Worker’s compensation refuses to cover your injury because it occurred at home.
What actually happened was that years of a repetitive stress at work reduced the tolerance of your tissues to the point that one last little stress created a serious injury. This “last straw effect” can also show up in yoga studios: this same person who has for years been reducing the tolerance of her tissues comes into a class, does one particular pose, say Pigeon Pose, and “snap!”—her hip or knee gives her searing pain. She then decides to sue the yoga studio for the injury when it was all the other stresses she had been applying to the area over the years that set up the conditions for the injury to occur.
However, notice the next graph (right). Here we see the recuperative effect of rest.
If we stress and then rest the tissue, the tissue’s tolerance level increases above what it was before. The key then is to not over stress the tissue either by having too much stress or holding the stress for too long, but rather allow the tissue enough time to recover and grow stronger.
All tissues need stress. Let’s emphasize that! All tissues. This includes our joints, our bones, our fascia, our muscles, our nerves and so on. This means that we cannot afford to ignore some areas of the body out of fear of injury. To say as many teachers do that we should never stress our sacroiliac joint is not helpful—no stress there will cause the joint to atrophy, tighten and lose range of motion. Yes, too much stress could lead to arthritis and hyper mobility, but this does not mean that we should avoid stressing the area totally.
The two cases cited earlier of teachers warning students to “never flex your spine when you do a forward fold because you will be stressing the vertebral joints,” or “never do Pigeon Pose because you will stress the sacroiliac joint too much” betrays a misunderstanding of the nature and necessity of stress.
More helpful is to warn students to avoid stressing any area of the body if they are feeling pain—even little tweaks are to be noticed and avoided because little tweaks lead to big tweaks and big tweaks lead to expensive operations, time off work, no yoga practice, which leads to yoga studios going out of business and yoga teachers being out of work… So the moral is—don’t ignore little tweaks! This is a warning against any stress that causes pain: stretching, twisting or compression. But do not be afraid of compression! Tissues need to be compressed to stay healthy.
Now that we understand the nature of stress, in part two we’ll look at how this is applied to individuals. We need to understand the nature of skeletal variation.
Editor: Lynn Hasselberger