An expression that I often see written and hear discussed in reference to the physical practice of yoga is that it "brings balance to the body." The suggestion seems to be that if you practice yoga regularly, it will naturally result in a more balanced body. But is this really true? What is a balanced body, anyway?
Structural vs. Functional Balance
All of us likely have a variety of imbalances in our bodies, some of which are structural/skeletal and not within our ability to change, and some of which are functional/muscular and within our ability to change. Structural imbalances might include flat feet, leg-length discrepancy, scoliosis, genu varum (bow-legs), excessive carrying angle, excessive femoral anteversion (pigeon toes), etc. There isn't much that we can do to change these conditions, but there are many strategies that we can employ to ameliorate the negative effects of them. And our yoga practice can also help us to find peace with these conditions, embracing our bodies as beautiful and capable bodies even with its imperfections.
Functional imbalances, on the other hand, are usually related to myofascial imbalances (muscle & connective tissue) and might lead to such things as fallen arches, IT-band friction syndrome, patellofemoral tracking dysfunction, shoulder impingement syndrome, etc. These conditions can all result from muscular imbalances in the body, and there is a lot that we can do to prevent them from occurring, or rehabilitating them if they have already occurred, so as to help alleviate the pain and dysfunction that is often associated with them.
The Serenity Prayer comes to mind:
God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change,
Cultivating Functional Balance
From a functional perspective, a "balanced" body could be described as one in which there is an optimal degree of strength, flexibility and resting muscle tone within all of the major muscle groups in the body -- at every major joint in the body. Most of us probably don't have a functionally balanced body, but we could work toward creating such balance by making sure that the practice we do consists of postures and exercises that routinely strengthen and stretch every major muscle group in the body on a rotating basis, in a balanced way. Conversely, we would want to make sure that we weren't strengthening or stretching some muscle groups excessively, while neglecting others (or even just addressing them much less frequently). Do you have any idea which muscles you've strengthened and stretched this week, and which you've neglected? Do your teachers? Most likely not! And beyond that, are the asanas found in yoga even capable of strengthening every muscle in the body?
Yoga Asana Was Not Created to Bring Balance to the Physical Body
From everything I've read, I never got the impression that the ancient yogis were very interested in developing musculo-skeletal balance in their bodies. Rather, they seemed primarily concerned with transcending the small, ego-self and realizing the big, transcendental Self -- in merging the atman, or individual soul, with Brahman, or universal Spirit. There were and are many paths a yogi could take to accomplish this, but the physical path of hatha yoga traditionally included strict ethical conduct, various mental/physical/spiritual purification practices, breathing practices, meditation practices... as well as yoga asana. Yogis of old were mostly renunciates, and didn't have day jobs or children to flip up into the air upon arriving home from the office. They didn't go hiking or swimming or play basketball with college friends on weekends. They wanted to detach from their bodies, not build them up to look good in a pair of shorts or a bikini at the beach. They spent most of their time sitting in the lotus position, doing japa meditation on their mala, chanting verses from the vedas, and meditating on the supreme Ultimate!
The point I'm leading up to is that when the early yogis started developing and practicing yoga postures, it wasn't their goal to ensure that the postures brought musculo-skeletal balance to the body. Not only that, but even if they had such a goal it would have been difficult to accomplish without the use of external props -- like free weights or resistance bands. Because there are many muscles groups that are hard to strengthen without the use of external props -- including many of the "pulling" muscles of the body.
Pushing Muscles vs. Pulling Muscles
Chaturanga Dandasana In yoga, we contract our pushing muscles a lot. For example, when we lower ourselves toward the floor in chaturanga dandasana, we push just hard enough so slow down the movement of our body (an eccentric contraction of the front deltoids, pecs and triceps muscles). Then perhaps we push just hard enough to completely stop the movement of the body toward the floor (an isometric contraction of these same muscles). And then we push with more force in order to start rising away from the floor into upward-facing-dog (a concentric contraction of these same muscles). At all three moments, we were using the exact same muscles, the pushing muscles.
Can We Strengthen the Pulling Muscles in Yoga?
While is possible to strengthen many of the pulling muscles in yoga, it isn't easy. There just aren't as many postures that strengthen the pulling muscles as there are that strengthen the pushing muscles -- and the ones that do exist don't seem to get practiced as much. For example, you can strengthen your rhomboids and rear-deltoids (two of the major pulling muscles) by doing table-top and upward plank. However, in order to really maintain balance in the shoulder, you'd have to do as many table-tops as you do chaturangas every week. And how likely is that? If you practice vinyasa yoga, you probably perform hundreds of chaturangas every week -- and maybe you might do a handful of table-tops. Furthermore, table-top also strengthens the triceps (a pushing muscle), and not the biceps (a pulling muscle). There are hardly any postures in yoga that strengthen the biceps. Many yoga teachers believe that chaturanga strengthens the biceps, and I've seen article saying that it does, but it doesn't. The triceps contract eccentrically on the way into chaturanga, isometrically if you hold chaturanga, and concentrically when you press up out of chaturanga (either back to plank or into upward facing dog). I often do the "flabby biceps" experiment to demonstrate this to the students in my anatomy courses -- I have them come into chaturanga and then I bounce their biceps around to show how relaxed it is.
Here's a little graphic that I made for the Anatomy Studies for Yoga Studies course the I teach:
Repetitive Strain Injury (RSI)
There are several types of repetitive strain injuries that can occur in yoga. A very common one is shoulder impingement syndrome, one possible cause of which is the over-development of the anterior shoulder (mainly the front deltoids) relative to the posterior shoulder (the rear deltoids) by doing too much pushing and not enough pulling. This can lead to a forward displacement of the humerus in the shoulder joint, which in turn could decrease the subacromial space during shoulder flexion -- leading to impingement of the soft tissues between the acromion process and the head of the humerus. Another possible cause of shoulder impingement syndrome is weakness in the subscapularis or infraspinatus, the two rotator cuff muscles most responsible for stabilizing the head of the humerus in the shoulder joint during flexion and abduction of the arm. It's difficult to strengthen these two muscles through yoga alone -- one of the best ways is to use a resistance band and perform lateral rotation exercises (see pic, below right).
Cross-Training for Yoga
Seated Rowing with a Resistance Band It was during massage school from 2002-2005 that I really started to think about all of the things I've mentioned above. I had been teaching vinyasa yoga for years, but started to question it a little bit as a result of several injuries I experienced, as well as the anatomy and exercise science classes I was taking. After graduating from the Swedish Institute in 2005, teaching vinyasa yoga the way that I had been for the previous five years just didn't feel right anymore. I began incorporating some non-traditional yoga exercises into my practice, mostly using free weights and resistance bands to perform "pulling" exercises.
Eventually I started bringing some of these exercises into my classes at Yoga Works and Reebok Sports Club. I lugged around a big bag of resistance bands so that everyone could use them for seated rowing, rear-delt flys and rotator cuff work, all of which are excellent pulling exercises that can help balance out all of the pushing that we do in yoga (i.e., chaturanga, plank, downdog, and arm balances). At first my students were a little bit hesitant, but they gradually came to really appreciate the work we were doing. This was the beginning of what eventually became Zenyasa Yoga®.
Zenyasa Yoga®: A Mindful Blend of East &West
In Zenyasa® there are five main class themes, named after the five elements, each of which consists of a variety of postures and exercises meant to collectively strengthen and stretch every major muscle group in the body. In addition to classic yoga postures, the practice includes several non-traditional, functional strengthening exercises that are meant to target those muscles that are difficult to strengthen through yoga asana alone. For example, in the Metal element we practice an entire series of exercises using resistance bands that strengthen the pulling muscles of the shoulder girdle (many of these are pictured, right). In the Water element, we practice "gliding bridges" to more effectively strengthen the hamstrings than what is possible through yoga asana alone. In the Earth element, we do a series called Touching the Earth that strengthens the glutes and quads through a full range of motion. In the Fire element, we do a big core strengthening routine that helps balance out all of the erector spinae strengthening that is so abundant in yoga. In the Wood element, we include a lot of strengthening work for the inner thighs, including the "Jane Fonda's" and variations on side-arm balance, to balance out all of the outer hip strengthening that is so common in yoga. The way we attempt to create musculo-skeletal balance in Zenyasa® is to pay attention to what is being strengthened and how often it's being strengthened, to stretch whatever we strengthen, and to strengthen whatever we stretch, and to have some kind of system so that students know what to expect. We post a theme calendar so that students can plan out there practice in a way that is balanced.
If you're looking for ideas of how to incorporate some cross-training moves into your own practice or teaching, come take a few classes with us. Or if that's not possible, maybe consult with a personal trainer and ask him or her to show your some "pulling" exercises for the upper body that you could incorporate into your yoga practice. They should know exactly what you're talking about. And don't forget, it's not the kind of exercise or posture that you're doing that makes it yoga. It's what you're doing with your mind when you are practicing. When your mind and your breath and your body are all together in the same place at the same time, yoga is happening. Union is happening.
Om Shanti, Om Peace
P.S. Your comments are welcome.
15 COMMENTS (transferred by my original blog post):
Speedball steve said... What I've been explaining to yoga students for YEARS.....well done, my friend--
August 30, 2011 at 12:28 PM
Connie said... It's true, you brought up some great truths. I am glad yoga brings balance to the mind. Congratulations on the new studio, looks great!
August 30, 2011 at 4:23 PM
Anonymous said... So much appreciate this wonderful article!
August 30, 2011 at 6:55 PM
Mary Aranas said... This is a wonderfully written, engaging, and super clear article, Jason!
August 31, 2011 at 8:03 PM
Jason Brown (www.zenyasastudio.com) said... Hi Steve, Connie, Mary... thanks for leaving your comments. Happy that you enjoyed this blog post ;-)
September 3, 2011 at 8:24 AM
Alicia said... Hi Jason, just wondering what makes a pushing muscle a pushing muscle, or a pulling muscle a pulling muscle? Why are triceps pushing or pulling muscles? They can do either action.
September 4, 2011 at 7:44 AM
Jason Brown (www.zenyasastudio.com) said... Hi Alicia, thanks for seeking clarification.
When speaking of pushing and pulling muscles, I’m not really talking about muscles per se… but about actions performed by the body, and which muscles contract in support of those actions. A pushing action is one in which we are pushing something away from ourselves, or attempting to. A pulling action is one in which we are pulling something toward ourselves. Because the triceps always attempt to extend the elbow when they contract, they would always support pushing actions… and never pulling actions. If they contract and actually do extend the elbow, then the arm moves toward straight – which is an obvious pushing action.
However, perhaps your confusion comes from what happens if the triceps contract in an attempt to straighten the elbow, but the elbow never-the-less begins to flex slowly (as when lowering into a push-up). In this case, they are still acting in support of pushing, but the force of the pushing is less than the force of gravity, and therefore the elbow flexes. Conversely, the biceps always contract in support of pulling actions, and never in support of pushing actions.
To perform a pulling action, you really need something to pull on… such as a free weight, a bar on a machine, a door handle, a resistance band, etc. Seated rowing on a machine or with a resistance band, or bent-over rows using free-weights, are the best ways to strengthen the upper body muscles that act in support of pulling.
So to clarify, the upper body muscles that act in support of pushing are the front deltoids, pecs, triceps (and trapezius for overhead press)… and the upper body muscles that act in support of pulling actions are the rear deltoids, biceps, rhomboids (and trapezius for rear-delt flys). I hope this helps. Best, Jason
September 5, 2011 at 5:52 PM
Jessica Bonnema said... I love this. You are such a great teacher.
September 5, 2011 at 9:20 PM
Jason Brown (www.zenyasastudio.com) said... Thanks Jessica! Please come by and take a class with me sometime, as my guest. Would be great to see you again ;-)
September 5, 2011 at 9:30 PM
creyogini25 said... This is a great, clear article Jason. Thanks so much for sharing! And congrats on the studio and the wonderful things you are sharing in the yoga world.
September 6, 2011 at 3:41 PM
ariana said... What an excellent post. I will be coming back to this one again and again - great content!
September 6, 2011 at 9:31 PM
Sharon said... Fabulous article, thank you Jason for your insight and knowlege. As both a Pilates and Yoga instructor, I believe this information makes a strong case for the two methods being quite complementary in nature. Many Pilates exercises address the muscular actions that are not executed in a traditional Hatha/Vinyasa yoga practice, and vice-versa. What a gift it is to have two such full and beautiful methods at our fingertips to increase our functional strength as well as our mental and spiritual clarity. Thanks again, looking forward to Anatomy class! Namaste
September 7, 2011 at 2:19 PM
Jason Brown (www.zenyasastudio.com) said... Creyogini25, Ariana & Sharon -- thanks so much for your comments. I'm happy that you all enjoyed the article. I'm hoping to start writing more regularly ;-)
September 7, 2011 at 3:02 PM
Tiger Yogini said... As always, a brilliant article Jason!!
Jason Ray Brown
Is Yoga an Inherently Balanced Practice?, by Jason Brown