Originally published at FigureAthlete.com
Yoga is Overrated
by Mike Robertson
Yoga is overrated.
Yep, you heard that right. I don’t care what your GP, best friend’s niece, or US magazine told you. It just isn’t all it’s cracked up to be.
Is it bad? Absolutely not. In fact, I’ve done yoga myself in the past and there are definitely benefits to performing it. However, as you’ll see, there are pros and cons to this fitness trend that you may not be aware of.
Yoga: The Good
Yoga is not inherently bad. In fact, there are several aspects that make yoga training quite rewarding.
While you may have heard of this term in Muscle and Fitness, there’s a lot more to the mind-muscle connection than understanding how to isolate your pecs or trapezoids!
Instead, yoga does a great job of teaching you to feel specific muscles — what’s working, what’s lengthening, etc. In the sedentary society of today, it’s rare to find people who are truly in tune with their bodies. Yoga can definitely increase your body awareness.
The only thing that may be worse than how sedentary our society has become is how stressed out we all are. And let’s be honest, we guys don’t really like it when you come home and rage on us after a hard day!
In all seriousness, yoga is an absolutely kick-ass way to decrease stress. There’s something therapeutic about stretching and exercising. You don’t need to talk to your inner child or align your chakras, either; a class that focuses on proper movement and progressive relaxation at the end can make your worst day a little bit more bearable.
The final reason why yoga can be beneficial is its training of balance. Balance may not sound sexy, but especially in older women who are osteopenic or osteoporotic a big fall could lead to some serious time on the disabled list.
The feet are very proprioceptively rich, which gives you feedback on where your body is in space. The problem? We put our feet in the spongiest shoes imaginable to make them more comfortable! This dampens our proprioceptive ability, and over time decreases proprioceptive function to a high degree.
Yoga practitioners have known this for years, which is why yoga is typically performed in socks or bare feet. Smart trainers and strength coaches often have their clients perform (at minimum) their warm-ups in socks to kick on the proprioceptors in the feet and get them back in the game.
It may not sound sexy, but proprioception and balance are very important with regards to your movement quality. Don’t forget about them!
Yoga: The Bad
Time and again when we evaluate clients in our gym who perform yoga, they’re unstable in their lumbar spines. The question isn’t if they will have back pain, the real question is when.
How can this be? When it comes to a GP’s recommendation for your lower back pain, yoga is the flavor-of-the-month treatment. The problem here is two-fold:
1. Your GP probably doesn’t know squat about exercise
2. Most yoga practitioners don’t have a thorough understanding of biomechanics
In the case of our lumbar spine, recent research and anecdotal evidence lead us to believe we should be training for lumbar stability vs. lumbar flexibility or mobility. Quite simply, instead of stretching your lower back we should be focused on stabilizing it!
When we compare the lumbar spine to the joints above and below it (the hips and thoracic spine), the total mobility of the lumbar spine pales in comparison.
The thoracic spine has anywhere from seven to nine degrees of rotation at each segment. In contrast, your lumbar spine only has zero to two degrees of rotation per segment! That’s not very much.
Your hips are built for a high degree of mobility as well. Like the shoulder joint, the hips are a ball and socket joint. While it doesn’t have the same degree of mobility as the shoulder, the hip still has large ranges of motion in all planes of movement.
The problem with most yoga classes and practitioners is that they don’t discriminate which joints they get their movements from. Instead of focusing mobility around the joints which need it most, the goal is to improve total range of motion. It’s the epitome of quantity over quality.
The hips and thoracic spine are built for mobility. Make sure that your training reinforces that fact.
“Tightness” Does NOT Equal “Needs to be Stretched”
One of the most common fallacies in exercise today is that if a muscle is tight, it needs to be stretched. We’ve learned that since the days of grade school PE.
But is it really true?
Think about it conversely: What if that muscle is tight for a reason? What if your hamstrings feel tight, in fact, because they are constantly being stretched out?
Hopefully you’ll see where I’m going with this.
The most obvious example is the hamstrings. Quite often, people claim that their hamstrings are tight, and therefore believe they should stretch them. The problem is that the hamstrings aren’t the problem!
I’m going to ask you to bear with me for a moment while we discuss your posture. Quite often women fall into a position of anterior pelvic tilt; in layman’s terms, the front of your pelvis tips forward. Your hamstrings, which attach to the back, are therefore pulled into a stretched position.
That pose may look good, but her hamstrings are suffering — and no amount of stretching will alleviate the tightness.
Do they feel tight? Sure, they’re already being stretched! But, and here’s the kicker, if they’re already stretched do you need to stretch them further?
It’s counterintuitive at first, but in the long haul it makes sense. Instead of stretching your hamstrings, you need fix the truly problematic areas. Generally, this is a combination of tight hip flexors and weak glutes/abs.
The final drawback of most group exercise courses like yoga is the lack of individualization. We all grew up with our mom’s telling us how special we are, and that we’re unique.
Well, maybe your mom did, anyway. But I digress.
When it comes to group exercise, it’s rare to find an instructor who individualizes content based on the individuals in the class. Sure, there might be “Beginner,” “Intermediate,” and “Advanced” levels, but that doesn’t really differentiate people well. That’s more based on their skill level than their individual bodies.
In this case, everyone has different postures, alignments, movement patterns, etc. In a perfect world, the instructor would know this and programming would cater to the individuals in that given course. However, this is extremely difficult to do, especially when working with large groups.
Getting the Most out of Yoga
You’ve seen the pros and cons, so now let’s discuss what you should look for if you want to add yoga into your exercise routine.
1. Find an educated instructor
This may be your first priority. Make sure the instructor has some sort of degree, and has a basic understanding of the human body and its biomechanics.
It may even help to take a class or two to determine the skill level of the instructor. If all your work is focused on bending and contorting your lumbar spine into the shape of a human pretzel, you’d be best served to go elsewhere.
2. Smaller classes
If possible, try and get into a small or semi-private class where you’ll get the individual instruction you need and deserve. It’s simply too hard to coach and make sure execution is sound when you’re working with twenty or more clients in a given class.
3. Focus on quality versus quantity
While this is true for most things in life, yoga is no different. Too often, we have a preconceived notion of how much mobility or movement we should have. Instead, focus on getting your movement from the appropriate areas and really developing your body’s movement foundation.
I may be living in a dream world, but I believe that there will be a revolution in the yoga world in the coming years that puts a serious emphasis on moving in a biomechanically efficient manner. I’ve already coached and spoken to yoga instructors who were simply following the party line, and now they’re starting to question their methods and look for more intelligent ways to train.
Yoga is a great medium when properly applied. Find a great instructor, follow the basic rules I’ve outlined above, and enjoy!