To Lengthen and Strengthen in Yoga

My journey in yoga lately has been leading me to throughly analyze the way postures work. In other words, alignment.

Lately I’ve been asking myself: what is the balance between strength and flexibility? Does a body party or muscle group need to be strong in order to be flexible?

Pincha Mayurasana Peakock Pose Yoga Costa Rica Blue Osa

You guessed it, I am more strong than flexible. It’s a work in progress! 🙂 Photocred: Jonathan Hokklo Pants by: Black Milk Clothing

1. Are you strong or flexible?

While we all ideally strive to become both strong and flexible in our yoga practice, I’ve often found that we are born with either one or the other. People who are flexible are lacking in strength and vice versa.

Without getting too much into it, there is a lot more than genetics that determine your level of flexibility. Tendons, ligaments and muscle fascia also play a great part in the flexibility game.

Tendons transmit force by connecting bones to muscle. They are relatively stiff, and they need to be to facilitate fine motor coordination. They have very little tolerance to stretching.

Ligaments can safely stretch a bit more than tendons—but not much. Ligaments bind bone to bone inside joint capsules. It is generally recommended that you avoid stretching them.  That’s why you hear instructors in class say to flex your knees slightly—rather than hyperextending them.

Muscle fascia is the third connective tissue that affects flexibility, and by far the most important. Fascia makes up as much as 30 percent of a muscle’s total mass. Fascia is the stuff that separates individual muscle fibers and bundles them into working units, providing structure and transmitting force.

So because of genetics, conditioning and other factors, we all find ourselves needing to work on either strengthening or lengthening a good deal in our yoga practice.

2. A tight muscle is not necessarily a strong muscle

But then there’s also tightness. Tightness is different than strength.  Muscle tension is caused when a muscle contracts and does not release, which is not a healthy condition. Muscle tension can be caused by overuse or stress. One can (and should) have a strong, lean muscle without it being tense.

3. Reciprocal inhibition (they work the opposite)

It’s important to know that strength is about engaging just as much as it is about extending; it’s a yin and yang relationship. When you engage your bicep your triceps loosens and when you extend your arm your triceps activates. In forward folds you engage your quadriceps to release your hamstrings. Whenever one set of muscles (the agonists) contracts, this built-in feature of the autonomic nervous system causes the opposing muscles (the antagonists) to release. If done correctly in yoga, when you strengthen one part of your body, you automatically lengthen its counterpart.

4. You can’t have one without the other

In conclusion, there should be equal emphasis on both strength and flexibility. If we only have flexibility in our practice we might not have enough stability to keep our joints safe. On the other hand, being only strong means we have short muscles that can’t fully expand in postures.

“Sthira Sukham Asanam” is a popular quote from the Yoga Sutras of Patanjali. It means a yoga posture should be steady, firm and stable, yet also comfortable and light.

Sthira refers to stability and strength. Sukha refers to comfort, ease and openness.

If you have too much sukha in your body, you are mostly flexible and open, in which case you should improve your strength to balance your flexibility .If you have more sthira, you will probably be stiffer and you will have to work on your flexibility for a well rounded practice.

On our yoga mat, as in our lives, we are looking to balance flexibility (freedom and ease) with strength (stability).

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