Next time your yoga teacher asks you to “rest” in that Down Dog for just a few more breaths, look around you – no two Down Dogs are quite the same.
Excepting severe injury, genetic anomaly or deformity, we all have the same muscles pulling on the same bones to create the hip and shoulder flexion needed to assume the Downward Dog position. What then, makes one person’s movement so different from another? Or what makes the same movement different when done with a different orientation to gravity with a different point of contact (think of Half-Forward Fold, Staff Pose, Boat Pose or Legs-up-Wall, Half Handstand), or at a different speed (Iyengar vs. Power Vinyasa)? The quality of our movement is determined by the various forces created by a muscle across a joint. How a body part moves in response to these forces is different in each body and depends on a variety of factors.
Flexibility is Relative
The only difference between flexible and inflexible people is that they have to go further to get to the same place. ~ Aadil Palkhivala, founder Purna Yoga
When it comes to performance in yoga, relative flexibility is the factor that most readily comes to mind. If you have ample length in your hamstrings, you will easily be able to press your heels to the floor with straight knees when your hips rise and you fold into that 90 degree angle at the hip. However, this is only half the battle. What remains of the pose is the 180 degree flexion at the shoulder allowing for a well-balanced and centered spine. If you are blessed with open and long hamstrings, you are also likely to hyper-extend your shoulders and collapse the shoulder blades into retraction or downward rotation as you push your heels down. What follows is a potential injury to the shoulder and a loss in the sense of balance in the pose. It is a common misconception that yoga is easier or even better suited for those who are more flexible. According to the principles of Length-Tension, muscles which are too short will pull harder on a structure, muscles which are too-long will not be able to pull effectively. Flexibility is, therefore, important for both mobility and strength – there is such a thing as too much flexibility. In fact, individuals who tend to hyper-extend their joints tend to lack adequate proprioception or kinesthesia (the internal sensing of movement and positioning of the joints).
Muscle Recruitment – Building the YOUR Quality Team
Postures should be stable and comfortable. ~Patanjali, Yoga Sutra 2.46
In order for our Downward-Facing Dog pose to be both stable and comfortable, we need more than flexibility – we need strength. The strength to balance a yoga posture is often very different from the strength we identify in other recreational activities. Rather than shortening a muscle to move a weight, muscle strength in yoga is usually static & stabilizing (isometric) and / or lengthening and controlling the pull of gravity into a position (eccentric) and the weight is that of our own body coupled with gravity. Quality for this type of movement is derived from muscles working in teams to align, stabilize and open a joint simultaneously. To build a balanced posture, we often need to recruit muscles on the opposite side of the body from the muscle we are stretching (antagonists) as well as muscles which perform the same action as that of the posture and, often, additional aligning actions (synergists). As with a work team, recruiting everyone in the area all at the same time leaves us with all “effort” and no “ease”. Individuals who tend to be more flexible can gain stability in their vulnerable joints from enlisting the help of the synergist muscles. In our example of sunken Down Dog, these are muscles which flex the knee (Gastrocnemius), flex the spine (Abdominals) and extend and retract the shoulders (the rhomboids and the long head of the triceps). On the other hand, individuals who are looking to gain flexibility can recruit antagonist muscles to perform reciprocol inhibition – a reflexive decrease in the tone in one muscle when the opposing muscle is activated. In the example of our stiff, squared or rounded Down Dog, these are the muscles which extend the knee (Quadraceps), flex the hip (Iliopsoas, Tensor Fascia Latae and Rectus Femoris) and flex, protract and upwardly rotate the shoulders (Serratus Anterior, upper Pecs and Anterior Deltoid).
Why easier is sometimes better for all levels
Simplicity is a prerequisite for reliability ~ Edsger Dijkstra
Sometimes, regardless of the appropriate cueing, an individual is just not able to assume this triangle shape or is unable to maintain the safe positioning of the hips and shoulders. It is helpful in these cases to reduce the degrees of difficulty (anatomically, Degrees of Freedom). Softening in the knees or even releasing them to the floor (often called Puppy Dog Pose) frees the hamstrings to allow for a deepening in the hips, a lengthening of the spine and a softening in the shoulders. Likewise, we can keep our legs strong without worrying about potential instability in the shoulders, elbows or wrists by performing this pose with the forearms to the floor (as in Dolphin Pose). By decreasing the degrees of freedom, it is now possible to work on flexibility or stability in a similar manner as that suggested above. One reason for this is that we have shortened the lever arm and therefore the overall resistance to overcome. The other reason for this is that many of our hip, knee, shoulder and arm muscles are multi-joint muscles controlling movement at two or more joints. When the hips are flexed and the knees are extended the hamstrings are subject to passive insufficiency – the limiting of the ability of a muscle which crosses two joints to be stretched enough so as to allow for full range of motion in both joints at the same time. Shoulder flexion coupled with elbow extension weakens the long head of the triceps as it is subject to active insufficiency – the limiting of the ability of a 2-joint muscle to shorten sufficiently so as to allow for action in both joints. When limited by active insufficiency, we can decrease the degrees of freedom or we can call upon synergists to stabilize one joint while the muscle works on the other. Both passive and active insufficiency play out in Boat Pose as we attempt to maintain or increase hip flexion while straightening the knees. A soft bend in the knee will shorten the hamstrings at the knee allowing length enough as they cross the hip for a forward pelvic tilt as well as an increase in the ability for the rectus femoris to pull the thighs up towards the abdomen.
It’s all about your Contacts and Connections
Like a tree, you need to find your roots and then you can bend in the wind. ~ Angela Farmer, yogi
We can also change the area of focus and intention by changing the pose’s orientation to gravity and the individual’s point of contact with a supporting structure such as the floor, the wall or a prop. In almost all modifications and alignment of Down Dog discussed thus far, both the upper extremities and the lower extremities are grounded and therefore all movement is closed-chained. Closed-chained exercise is excellent because it allows us to work multiple joints at the same time. Most yoga poses, like functional activity, contain some element of close-chain muscle work. Along with the isometric and eccentric muscle work described above, this aspect of yoga exercise makes uniquely effective for healing, aligning and balancing the body. Compare the experience in Down Dog to that of Half Forward Fold where the legs are in a closed-chain position and the shoulders and arms are now flexing in an open-chained movement or Staff Pose or Boat Pose with raised arms in which both the upper and lower extremities are working in an open-chain. If the pose is essentially the same, 90 degree hip flexion and 180 degree shoulder flexion with extended knees and elbows, why are these experiences so different?
The reason is that in open-chained movement, the point where the muscle begins, the origin, must stabilize in order to draw the end where the muscle attaches, the insertion, closer as it shortens. We will need to stabilize the torso through the acromian process of the scapula, the clavicle and the sternum so that the pecs major and anterior deltoids can can shorten and lift the humerus. In closed-chain movement, where the insertion site is fixed, the origin and insertion often switch roles with the insertion pulling the origin closer. In our example, the humerus is stabilized through the elbow and wrist in the full expression of Down Dog or through forearms in Dolphin Pose. The muscles’ origins on the anterior chest and shoulder will, therefore, move toward the fixed arms. Likewise, in Staff Pose, the quads are actively pulling the shins up to straighten the legs. In a closed-chain version like Forward Fold, the quads pull the thigh to a fixed shin.
The Weight of Gravity
Because there is a law such as gravity, the universe can and will create itself from nothing. ~ Stephen Hawking, physicist
As we change our relationship to gravity by doing Down Dog against the wall or by lifting into a Handstand with flexed hips or simply laying on or back with our Legs-Up-the-Wall we change the weight of gravity through our joints or the resistance needed for the muscle to overcome to assume the position. Although strength can become more important with increased weight, flexibility and alignment remain critical, as to muscle function and quality of movement. We can try, but we cannot power ourselves into a handstand or simply relax in a Down Dog against the wall without compromising our commitment to effort and ease as well as risking injury to the body. When we conscientiously change our relationship to gravity, we change our area of focus and attention. Rather than allowing our weaknesses to decide what we will get out of a pose, we adapt the pose to focus on our chosen intention. For a person with very tight hamstrings, placing the hands against the wall in Down Dog can shift the resistance away from the neck and shoulders towards the hips and spine allowing for a direct experience of the full expression of the pose. For those who are hyper-flexible, placing the hands against the wall can help create correct alignment and facilitate proprioception and kinesthesia for better joint stability.
Are you Built for Speed?
Whether one moves slowly or with speed, the one who is a seeker will be a finder. ~ Rumi, poet and Sufi master
Finally, consider the experience of a Vinyasa flow beginning in Mountain and moving through a Sun Salutation which includes rapid flows in and out of Down Dog compared to that of a static Iyengar practice or even a slowly-flowing ViniYoga class. The practices feel different in many ways. The faster flow can challenge our aerobic capacity and endurance while the static practice can challenge our strength as well as our flexibility. Both practices challenge the mind-body connection in different ways. Like people, certain muscles prefer one kind of movement to another. A tonic muscle has slow-twitch fibers and tends to shorten and tighten when stressed whereas a phasic muscle has fast-twitch fibers and tends to lengthen and weaken when stressed. Tonic muscles produce lower forces for longer without fatigue and are therefore very good for posture and stability. Phasic muscles produces greater force but are very susceptible to fatigue. When our bodies lose anatomical alignment, tonic postural muscles like the upper trapezius and levator scapulae as well as the hamstrings are stretched and respond by shortening and even locking in a muscle spasm. Phasic muscles, like the gluteus maximus and medius, begin to weaken over time when rapidly stretched. With proper alignment and recruitment of antagonists and synergists, movement both fast and slow can be achieved safely and with focused intention.
Moving Forward from the Inside-Out
The variety of tools available to teach or assume a pose is almost endless. It is important to understand why you choose a certain tool over another and in what circumstances and for what bodies certain tools are most appropriate.
Sometimes the most important use of our tools is to empower the individual to learn more about the experience of their own body. While we may often employ our tools in the “correction” of asana, it is important to use our tools to encourage the individual to feel what determines the quality of the pose for his or her intention. This is the Awareness-Response factor. It comes from the Nervous System and the Subtle Body (Chakras, Nadis, Koshas, Vayus). When working with awareness, we cue a person to feel how one pose is different than another, to seek ease and to find improved breath. We can use repetition, props, voice, music and many other tools to enhance awareness. Learn more about the Awareness-Response Factor and about using your knowledge of anatomy to direct Prana and energy in Part II of this post, Moving from the Inside, Out: Experiencing Energy through the Anatomy.
Moving from the Inside, Out: Experiential Anatomy will be offered as a CE course at YogaFest NC on April 7th, 2018.
For more information on Continuing Education Opportunities, group classes and private sessions with Melissa, please visit Discover Yoga & Physical Therapy online.