By Simon Borg-Olivier MSc BAppSc (Physiotherapy)
Most people in the world of modern yoga are not actually doing yoga while they are engaged in the activities of posture, movement, and breathing, but instead, they are doing exercise or having a workout, which is often painful, or at least uncomfortable, and after which they are often tired, and hungry.
This is not wrong as such, and this type of practice, if you can persist with it, can make you stronger and more flexible fairly rapidly, but it can also put a lot of people off yoga as it tends to increase stress levels, pain, and the chances of injury.
Are you doing yoga, or are you doing exercise?
In my youth, this was the type of practice that I often did. When you are young, in your teens and early twenties, many people have a healthy body and lots of energy to spare. But when you are over thirty, and especially when you enter you forties, fifties and beyond, it is not so important to do exercise that makes you stronger and more flexible, but more important to do yoga that keeps your muscles and bones healthy, decreases stress levels while increasing your energy levels and enhancing the health of your internal organs.
I am now in my fifties, and for me, yoga in the last 15 years has become a blissful activity that feels amazing while practicing it. After finishing my practice, I feel calmer, more peaceful and grounded, yet I have more energy, I am less hungry, and feel like I have had a good rest. This may sound silly to some people, but my practice usually feels like I am in a warm bath being massaged by someone who loves me. After my practice I feel more flexible without having done any intense stretching exercises, I feel like I have made myself stronger without feeling any tension, and I feel like I have improved my circulation without making my heart work much harder.
Most people block their yoga
Things that people mostly associate with yoga are also the things that actually stop your yoga. On a global level, one could say that yoga is ‘the realisation that your individual consciousness is one with universal consciousness.’ This is the idea perhaps that we are all connected as one family, and that the universe is one integrated whole. But on a physical level, individual and personal yoga is to do with realising that the mind and the whole body are connected as one integrated and functional unit. The best way to achieve this physical connection and truly realise it is to enhance the flow of energy and information through the body. This on a practical level means, amongst other things, improving the flow of blood to the blood vessels. In other words, enhancing circulation within the body. The contemporary Chines Master Zhen Hua Yang says that there are only three things you have to do to get yoga in your body:
- Unblock the blockages (that prevent the movement of energy in the body)
- Make the energy move
- Just sit back and enjoy the natural state of paradise inside us that is our natural state.
There are five main things that block the flow of energy and information in the body. These are:
- Too much tension
- Too much stretching or bad posture
- Too much breathing
- Too much thinking
- Too much eating
There are 12 methods that our body uses to move energy and information through it:
The details of these 12 methods, which are referred to as the 12 circulatory pumps, are explained in detail in our online courses ‘Applied Anatomy and Physiology of Yoga’ and ‘Teacher Training Essentials: Yoga Fundamentals’. These 12 methods include:
- The Gravitational Pump (using the force of gravity)
- The Respiratory Pump (using the muscles of breathing)
- The Musculoskeletal Pump (turning muscles on and off)
- The Postural Pump (active movements and postures, i.e. doing postures and movements using the volition of your muscles, and not external forces such as gravity, momentum, or one or more limbs moving other parts of the body)
- The Co-activation Pump (co-activation of opposing muscles around a joint complex (bandhas))
- The Centripetal Pump (smooth, circular movements moving with momentum around the main joint complexes)
- The Carbon Dioxide Pump (reduced breathing to raise the carbon dioxide level in the blood)
- The External Temperature Pump (e.g. when one, warmer part of the body draws blood to the cooler parts)
- The External Pressure Pump (e.g. when one part of the body exerts pressure on another part and it ‘pushes the blood away from that region)
- The Antigravity Pump (a system in the body similar to the one in trees which brings water from the roots to the leaves)
- The Thought Pump (the power of the mind; wherever you think of in your body, blood goes there)
- The Cardiovascular Pump (aka the heart – the least effective of all the pumps!)
The ideal outcomes of a good yoga practice
When one has mastered the ability to unblock the blockages of energy and information flowing through the body by tensing less, stretching less, breathing less and thinking less; while at the same time enhancing the flow of energy and information through the body using the 12 circulatory pumps, two main outcomes result:
- The body feels connected. As the energy moves easily through the body and blood circulates without restriction, the heart-rate stays low, and you have lots of energy. This is associated with what most people call cardiovascular fitness, but in this case, it is also associated with reduced breathing in the state of total calmness.
- The body becomes stronger and more flexible. Here strength comes by using your own muscles to move into postures while focusing on keeping as relaxed as possible in the parts of your body you are not using. Flexibility comes without feeling any strong stretching by moving actively into the postures. If you use muscles to move actively into a posture, this causes the opposite muscles, those that you are trying to lengthen, to relax via the ‘reciprocal reflex’. Relax and lengthened muscles do not feel like they are stretching so much as muscles that are lengthened and tense. If you are pulled into a posture using an external force such as gravity, momentum, or one or more limbs pulling on another part of the body, this causes ‘stretch reflex’ activation of the lengthened muscles. And if you feel a stretch, it is important to acknowledge that you are one step closer to pain, which is one step closer to being injured. So if you can move into a posture without feeling stretched, this reflects more natural flexibility. The best way to facilitate flexibility without feeling like you are stretching is move actively (i.e. using your own muscles) into a position. This relates to the methods of traditional Indian yoga by which yogis can do very difficult postures without having to force their bodies in any way. For example, bringing one leg behind their head slowly without using their hands to help, or putting their legs slowly into lotus posture (padmasana) without using their hands to help.
The usual outcome of most modern yoga practice
For most ‘normal’ people, however, to obtain the physiological benefits of a low heart rate and a calm nervous system while also getting the physical benefits of increased strength and flexibility is very difficult, and in most cases unlikely to happen. Although many people attempt this type of practice, most people do not get true energy from their practice.
If the practice involves deep stretching but is too passive (most muscles relaxed), and includes joint movements that you cannot achieve without the help of external forces such as gravity, then blood flow will not be impeded by muscle tension but it will be impeded by overstretching joints, and these overstretched joints can easily be damaged as the body will usually ‘bend’ at its weakest point if you allow it to bend with an external force such as gravity.
If you practice includes deep stretching but you are using muscle co-activations to protect your joints from damage, then you will probably either get totally exhausted after your ‘workout’, or you may feel energised for a period of time due to the over-stimulation of the sympathetic nervous system (the ‘flight or fight’ response) and the typical release of stimulating hormones such as adrenaline, cortisol and endorphins. These stress hormones can make the body feel like it has had caffeine, cocaine and heroin at the same time, and so people practicing like this may feel good for a while. But it is not true energy they are feeling, but the body’s drug-like method of dealing with the stress that it has been put through.
TWO TYPES OF ‘YOGA’ PRACTICE
Therefore, one possibility for beginner and intermediate students is to do two types of exercise and/or yoga practice that we can distinguish by the words ‘physiological’ (or energetic), and ‘anatomical’ (or physical):
- A physiological (energetic) practice to enhance the flow of energy and information, and improve circulation, while staying as calm as possible in the nervous system.
- An anatomical (physical) practice to enhance the strength and flexibility of the musculoskeletal system.
1. The physiological (energetic practice) for yoga in the ‘here and now’
In this first type of practice, which is primarily to enhance the flow of energy and information through the body, you should tense less, stretch less, breathe less, and think less. But you should try to do more activities (mainly moving smoothly from one posture to the another) while staying as calm as possible. One of the best ways of achieving this is moving into positions actively. In other words, go only as far into each position as you can go using your own muscles, and without using external forces to the body such as the force of gravity, momentum, or using the assistance of one limb pulling another part of the body. In this type of practice – which many people may say looks a little bit more like tai chi or qigong – especially if a person is relatively stiff and/or weak, it may seem that there is no way this practice could create any form of real strength or flexibility. Surprisingly, however, this type of practice will actually increase strength and flexibility even more than the second type of practice described below, but at a slower rate. What’s more, this type of physiological practice has a significantly lower risk of injury for the musculoskeletal system while the sympathetic nervous system (‘flight or fight response’) is not being stimulated, so the body feels safe. With the body feeling safe, the immune system, the reproductive system, the digestive system and the other main body systems can all function optimally. In terms of overall wellbeing and longevity, the health of the internal organs and the main body systems is far more important than the strength and flexibility of the musculoskeletal system.
This type of ‘physiological’ practice enhances a feeling of oneness; your body feels more connected and ‘in the zone’; blood circulation is enhanced; energy and information flow easily through the body; the internal organ function is high. And because of all this connection and enhanced internal energy and health, the body feels happiness, love, peace and safety. These feelings give you a sense of oneness that we can call yoga for the here and now.
You can read more about how to work with this type of practice in our recent blog on how to develop strength, flexibility and fitness without tension, stretching or heart racing.
The following video gives an example of a type of physiological (energetic) practice. Note how in this sequence never once does any one part of the body touch any other part of the body. All of the movements are active and none use forces that are external to the body.
2. The anatomical (physical practice) for a stronger, more flexible body:
The aim of this second type of practice is to enhance the strength and flexibility of the musculoskeletal system. When doing this, you can actually move deeper into each posture with the assistance of external forces (such as gravity, momentum and one or more limbs moving other parts of your body) to increase the feeling of stretching muscles, joints, and ligaments. However, since you are taking the body into places it cannot safely go by itself, there is a potential risk of causing damage to the muscles and joints. Hence, to protect the body, it is important to co-activate (simultaneously tense) all the opposing muscles around each of the nine main joint complexes (especially around those joints under threat of potential damages from over-stretching). In this type of practice muscles and joints are moved to their maximum range, and rapid increases in flexibility can be obtained. Also, because of the co-activation (simultaneous tensing) of opposing muscles around each joint complex (known in yoga as bandha) rapid increases in strength can also be obtained.
The drawbacks and dangers of this type of practice are as follows:
- Increased risk of injuring the musculoskeletal system
- Increased physical pain and discomfort
- Reduced blood flow due to excess muscle tension
- Increased heart rate and strain on the heart
- Breathing tends to increase and the negative effects of hyperventilation (breathing more than normal) such as reduced blood to the brain, increased nerve stimulation, and reduced oxygen entry into the body cells become more prevalent.
- The sympathetic nervous system (‘flight or fight response’) is usually activated by this type of practice
- The ‘flight or fight response’ causes the main body systems – including the reproductive system, immune system, and the digestive system – to function on a lower level, or to switch off completely
- Because of the ‘flight or fight response, the dominant emotions this type of practice arouses are fear, anger, aggression, and lack of safety
This type of practice does not give you a feeling of yoga in the here and now and does not induce feelings that are usually associated with yoga including love, peace, and safety. In fact, it appears to give you the exact opposite of yoga by reducing circulation and putting you into a state of ‘flight or fight’. However, it will promote a type of musculoskeletal therapy which many people need, as they have musculoskeletal problems due to the activities of modern daily life, including spending significant periods seated in chairs. This type of practice will also allow the practitioner to access yoga with a stronger and more flexible body at some future time. For many people who always exercise like this, yoga – or a sense of connection due to the circulation of energy and information through the body – is only actually felt in a seated meditation, or supine relaxation usually done at the end of practice.
In our experience as exercise-based physiotherapists over the last 25 years, Bianca Machliss and I have seen many people who practice ‘yoga’ in a purely physical way end up with many anatomical problems including knee damage, back pain, neck pain, wrist damage, shoulder strains, hip problems and hamstring tears (to name but a few). These type of problems tend to be increased when postures are done passively. However, if postures are done actively, with co-activation (simultaneous tension) of opposing muscles around each joint complex that is being compromised with tension or stretching, then the anatomical dangers are reduced, but physiological problems tend to increase. (see the above-mentioned dangers and drawbacks)
Only natural bodies with good strength and flexibility can do both a physical and an energetic practice at the same time
It is possible for an intelligent and experienced practitioner, especially someone who has natural flexibility and strength perhaps coming from a natural lifestyle, to incorporate both types of practice (energetic and physical) into one at the same time. For most ‘normal’ people, however, it is almost impossible. The more you tense your muscles, the more it blocks the flow of energy and the circulation of blood. The more you relax your muscles while moving deeply into difficult positions (using the assistance of external forces other than your own muscles), the greater the risk of damaging muscles, tendons, ligaments, and joints.
Breathing to help, or breathing to hinder your practice
For many people in the modern world today, yoga practice is made worse by focusing excessively on breathing without understanding the anatomy and physiology of breathing. When most people focus on breathing, especially if the focus is on breathing into the chest, the most common result in the world of modern yoga is over-breathing (hyperventilation), over-tensing muscles, and overstimulation of the sympathetic nervous system (the ‘flight or fight response’). In advanced practices of breath-control (true pranayama) only very small amounts of air are inhaled and exhaled over a long period. This amounts to essentially breathing less than normal, which is referred to as hypoventilation. Hypoventilation (breathing less than normal) causes:
*** increased blood-flow to the brain
*** increased flow of oxygen from the lungs to the blood
*** increased calming of the nervous system (including calming the mind, and stimulation of the internal organ systems), and
*** increased entry of oxygen into the cells (via the Bohr-effect) leading to increased energy output.
This type of breathing is much easier to do in a physiological (energetic) practice and much harder to maintain in an anatomical (physical) practice.
The ideal practice for most people most of the time
Since it is not possible for most people to do get the full benefits of both types of practice at the same time, it is suggested that the two practices be done separately. The first practice, the physiological (energetic) practice that can move energy and information through the body in a relaxed way, is recommended to be the primary practice and the one which is to be practiced mostly. The second practice, the anatomical (physical) practice that can increase the strength and flexibility of the musculoskeletal system, should only be done a small percentage of the time you practice.
How to exercise according to exercise physiologists
For the health of the immune system, as recent studies in exercise physiology suggest, you should be able to talk in a normal relaxed voice for 80% of your exercise time. For 10% of your exercise time your talking can be a bit laboured, and for only the remaining 10% should you not be able to talk comfortably, or talk at all. Therefore, we suggest that the average person should only do the anatomical (physical) practice once out of every four or five practices, or in each practice only spend between 10-20% of their time doing a physical practice, and 80-90% of practice time should be doing a physiological (energetic practice). In this way, the practice you do will mostly be yoga for the here and now, as opposed to just doing a series of stretching and strengthening exercises to be able to do yoga in more difficult positions at some future as yet undefined time.
Many commonly practiced postures do not give yoga for the here and now but work instead to increase strength and flexibility
The shocking thing about this is that most yoga postures that most people in the western world practice fall into the anatomical (physical) practice category. This means that even simple forward bends such as hamstring stretches, simple standing postures such as the ‘Triangle posture’ (Trikonasana), or the ‘Salute to the sun’ (and pretty much every posture when one limb touches another) are part of a purely anatomical (physical) practice. And this type of practice will not really help to move energy and information through the body and give the feeling of yoga in the here and now.
If you wish to teach yourself or others how to do a practice that a is a good balance between an Anatomical (physical) practice a Physiological (energetic) practice, then please join our 120 hour Online Course ‘Teacher Training Essentials: Yoga Fundamentals’.
If you wish to understand more about the differences between an Anatomical (physical) practice a Physiological (energetic) practice and how to create them, then please join our 120 hour Online Course ‘Applied Anatomy and Physiology of Yoga’.
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