Smarter Fitness—A Farewell to Yoga

I might ruffle some feathers here. But please don’t take this as a personal affront against your yoga. This has been building for me for some time and I thought that before I talk about my current fitness endeavors this week, it would make sense to first talk about what I’m not doing.

YogaPoseI was an avid student of yoga for ten years, entering into it via the philosophical and Eastern religion aspects. I was not unaware of the physical benefits, but I always thought it rather silly that anyone would undertake it without understanding the larger philosophical foundations. I once took a friend to a yoga class and she called it “stretching.” Any hardcore yogis out there will understand how that description comes across as insanely limited, bordering on insulting.

But to let you know how much of an apostate I’m being here, I got serious about it back in 2004, even considering a teacher certification. I found many capable teachers during my years of practice, but finally found one that resonated with me deep down when we moved to our current location. She and I developed a friendship and I continue to learn from her wise and challenging teachings. I continued my mat practice with her during my pregnancy through private lessons. I’m absolutely certain that my yoga involvement helped me give birth to my daughter drug-free and peacefully.

But let me back up a bit. In October of 2005, I was stretching before a run, bent over in a wide-legged forward bend, and I started to rock back and forth with my hips to loosen them up. Before I knew what had happened, my right hip popped out of socket and back in. This is not a normal occurrence for a perfectly healthy 28 year old. I didn’t even have time to react before tears welled up in my eyes, my body knowing that something really funky had just happened. There was no pain—yet—so I went on my run. The next day, my overstretched hamstring was incredibly painful and had a burning sensation that would be with me for the next two years.

It wasn’t until this past year that I finally put 2 + 2 together. Why? Because we’ve been sold on flexibility as a fitness marker for far too long.

Maybe I’m more sensitive to everyone’s New Year’s resolutions this year, or maybe social media just makes them more prevalent, but everyone is trying to get more yoga in their lives. I’m not necessarily against it, but I’m here to tell you that there are some serious potential problems with it. Don’t believe me? Check out this page on the New York Times about yoga injuries. I’m now struck through with fear when I hear someone bemoan the fact that they’re not flexible enough: “I wish I could bend like that!” I remember failing that portion of the Presidential Fitness Test in 6th grade because you had to stretch 6 inches past the end of your toes in a sitting-V position. Resisting this tide is difficult because it’s the dominant paradigm, but that’s nothing any of us Paleos aren’t already used to, is it?

Eureka!

My lightbulb moment came when I was reading Frank Forencich‘s book Exuberant Animal, specifically the chapter called “Joint Efforts.” I’ll excerpt some of it here since he’s smarter than me. Sorry for the info dump, but stay with me here, because it’s all important:

  • “The performance and perceived length of a particular muscle is a product of muscle tissue and the nervous system control circuits that regulate contractions. A muscle without nervous system wiring is just dumb, contractile tissue…Normal muscle tissue that’s coupled with a hyperactive control system may feel tight even though the muscle itself is of normal length. The problem is not that the muscle is short; the problem is that the nervous system is driving it too hard. In cases like this, stretching may not be the solution at all.”
  • “Joints are not simply places where two bones come together; when we start looking closely, we find some incredibly sophisticated structure…skeletal joints are wrapped with layers of connective tissue and bathed with nourishing synovial fluid…If we look closely, we find that skeletal joints have a surprising amount of neurological wiring…Why would they have so much neurological circuitry? Clearly, a lot of this capability exists to help us coordinate movement, but much of it has a protective function as well…to maintain skeletal integrity—in other words, to prevent dislocation.”
  • “For all vertebrates, skeletal integrity is an urgent priority. If a joint dislocates, movement is seriously compromised. If you live in a wild environment, this can be catastrophic.”
  • “Given the importance of skeletal integration, it seems likely that joints would have some neurological ‘knowledge’ of the condition of their associated muscles…if muscle tone is low, the joint is likely to compensate by tightening things up…A tired muscle is simply less capable of maintaining joint integrity than a well-rested muscle.”
  • “[L]et’s say we’re diligent about stretching a particular muscle that spans a particular joint. Over the course of a few weeks, we lengthen the muscle and connective tissue around the joint, thus allowing a few degrees of movement. But are we any better off? The joint is looser now, but unless we have done some strengthening work, our ability to control the movement has not increased. In fact, the joint may be more vulnerable to injury than it was before the stretching program.”
  • “[W]e can make a good case for strength training as an effective means of promoting flexibility. This may seem counter-intuitive, but when we think about the needs of skeletal joints, it becomes obvious that joints love strong, fast muscles. If the surrounding muscles are strong and fast, the joint can relax. It no longer needs to send urgent signals to the spinal cord; since the muscles are capable of of powerful contractions, joint integrity is assured and all is well.”

Hmm. Yes. So you feel “tight” which is really just your joint’s way of protecting its integrity when your muscles are tired or weak. Then you respond by stretching, which counteracts that protection. Then you pop out a hip. I see.

From this perspective, the aggressive stretching of yoga is potentially disastrous, especially as we age and the integrity of those joints can make the difference between independence into old age or a decade spent stuck in a wheelchair.

MeditationStatueNow, don’t let me throw out the baby with the bathwater. There are many, many other fantastic benefits to yoga. The mind-body connection is hard to beat, and I have yet to find a proper replacement, though when done masterfully, MovNat should come close. In many disciplines, such as Ashtanga and Vinyasa, there is great movement and strength building. All yoga practices concentrate on good form and posture, helping to stack the body in ways that will serve you through other activities. And there’s always the amazing feeling of showing up to a class, getting to check your brain at the door, and carving out some time for yourself away from the concerns of your day.

But in every class I’ve ever taken, the emphasis on stretching is dominant. Instructors walk around the room, “adjusting” people deeper into poses. If someone can’t get their heels down on the mat during Downward-Facing Dog pose, they feel like a failure. People considered “good” at yoga are the ones who can pretzel-twist their way into all the crazy configurations invented by out-of-their-minds yogis who had renounced the world to meditate in the woods. That’s right. Yoga was invented to counteract the ills of SITTING ALL DAY.

I’ve participated in some esoteric practices that have proven to me partly why yoga values deep stretching. In a nutshell, it helps to activate our fight-or-flight system when part of an aggressive, deep, and fearless practice. I say “fearless” because you have to override your body’s intuitive protection response—the very thing Forencich spoke about up there—to “access” the energetic response we all hear about, that mystic-y stuff that sounds way out there. And let me tell you, only experience can properly capture it and, yes, it is out there.

I would argue that if you’re interested in the benefits but wary of the damage, you can cobble together a few things and reap most of the same awesomeness. Cultivate a meditation practice and after a sitting session, counteract it with a walk and some nice yoga poses that won’t scare the daylights out of your joints like Cat/Cow, Malasana (aka Garland Pose, simply a deep squat), rock back and forth between Child’s Pose and Cobra. If you’re into the out-there stuff in yoga, look into the various pranayama exercises. Those alone can help access some of that fight-or-flight response.

If you just can’t quit the yoga, promise yourself you won’t push it. Especially if you do hot/Bikram yoga, or if your instructor likes to keep the room warm, back off. Warm/hot conditions will artificially allow you to go deeper than you should, and injury is bound to follow. (Besides, has anyone ever qualified exactly what “toxins” are being purged by sweating? I’ve never heard the specifics, so I’ve always considered it hogwash—akin to “cleansing” a colon with juice.) You can facilitate the backing off by explaining to your teacher before class that you won’t be going as deep as usual. You have my permission to fib and say you have an injury, if you must. But if you have nagging aches and pains from yoga, I urge you to reconsider your devotion to the practice.

And whatever you do, whether you stick with it or not, begin the brain deprogramming necessary to stop seeing flexibility as a benefit. Stretching does not, as we’ve been told for decades, prevent injury (for more, click here and go to #5), and it may, in fact, weaken your athletic output.

DoggieStretching isn’t always a horrible thing. We’ve all seen animals stretch after napping, and we feel the urge to do it too after periods of inactivity like sleeping or working at our desks. Perfectly natural, feel free to give into that. In fact, I’m finding that I still have to pay some attention to stretching my calves, especially with the new regimen I’ve been doing (will talk more about that later this week). If you have a trouble spot too, research some new ways to get in there and explore some dynamic stretching that combines movement. Or check out foam rolling, which according to initial research, looks like it might actually be useful.

But that ritualized, aggressive, static stretching? That’ll do you in. Don’t do it. Your body needs its framework strong and properly articulated for everything in life, now and in the years to come.

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22 Responses to “Smarter Fitness—A Farewell to Yoga”

  1. The ability to move easily, properly, and be in control is something that’s important to me. Flexibility for the sake of flexibility has never had an appeal, really.

    I’ve been told that I’m “very flexible” and that I should do yoga because “I’d be good at it.” (I don’t think I would). But what ever ability to be flexible that I’ve got has come from simply exerting a full range-of-motion when weightlifting, jumping, running, playing, etc.

    If somebody doesn’t have great neuromuscular control, or the ability to move properly, then I think it might be helpful to do some stability-style yoga poses, as long as they’re done in an intelligent way. But I don’t really see the point in over-stretching just to obtain the ability to over-stretch.

    Strength and control of movement should help to prevent and/or fix the injuries that stretching has been purported to solve.

    “Functional flexibility” (whatever that may mean) can be useful; but I don’t see the purpose in being super flexible to the detriment of strength and motor control unless you want to be really good at yoga.

    • It should be said that truly wise yoga teachers also recognize when someone is too flexible. My teacher likes to remind us that there is an equal balance of will and surrender, engagement and release. She often points out when someone is overstretching and needs to engage muscles. That being said, I’m skeptical that it would be possible to take a yoga class without overstretching anything.

      I wonder if the attention on flexibility is something we women hear more than you guys. We have several disciplines that value it: cheerleading, gymnastics, dance. For men in these disciplines, strength and power are more valuable. Hmm…

  2. I think that over stretching and injury are much easier to do than proper moves. I agree that the crazier poses, like shoulderstand, are very easy to mess up and injure.

  3. I agree with you both, great article.

    I have had similar experiences in my journey as well. Back in 2004 I dove deep into Ashtanga, learned plenty (which I am grateful for) and eventually continued sporadically until over the past few years I learned how to combine yoga and strength training for me. It’s important that I mention that this is what I found to work for my body because we are all different.

    One thing that helped me was a dedication to the gymnastics movements, bodyweight exercises and flowing flexibility sequences. This combined with kettlebell strength and conditioning seems to have bring body much closer to homeostasis than when I was deep into my yoga practice (including the ‘out there stuff’).

    This does not mean that I have abandoned yoga completely. As you mentioned the hot yoga, I agree with you that any over stretching stimulus can be damaging, just look at what happens to gymnasts who have been forced into deep stretches for years. My approach to hot yoga is controlled, based on my breathing and I do not push past what my body will allow…I learned the hard way:(

    Bodyweight sequences such as in what we see with MOVNAT or CST have been extremely helpful as it allows for effective range of motion in a dynamic, controlled manner. Full, pain free range of motion is also my focus in the strength drills such as in Kettlebell Front squats or windmills. One yoga class a week to stay open enough seems to have done the trick for me and I am quite pleased with the combination of strength/dynamic range of motion that I now have. Here is an an example:

    Coaches like Scott Sonnon, Steve Ilg, Paul Chek, Frank Forenchich and others have all successfully incorporated yoga, strength training and other forms of dynamic conditioning as well. I think that when we find this balance we will see more benefit from including the yoga practice with most of the focus on the strength & conditioning. The last thing the super bendy person needs to do regularly is yoga, and I think you (and James) would agree that their focus should be with increasing strength through controlled range of motion as they already have very mobile joints/muscle tissues.

    Lastly, there is also opportunity to include meditation immediately after workouts and in my experience, this is when I have the most focus on relaxing/breathing and it generally leads to similar benefits as did post yoga shivasana practice.

    • Thanks for such a thoughtful comment!

      I agree, there is much good to take from yoga. I’ll talk about this more later this week in terms of what I’m doing now.

      I’m glad to see that you’re incorporating what you’ve learned while respecting your body. I could see kettlebells and strength-training working quite well together with yoga, though many yogis would disagree since they still ascribe to the “muscle shortening” view of strength training.

      But would you agree that your discovery of balance is a rare trait? I think it is. :) As I mentioned, if you come to yoga from the philosophy, you will not come to it with a goal-oriented mindset. Unfortunately, most Americans come from that “go for the burn,” “no pain no gain” mentality, and that’s where folks are really getting into trouble. I mean, what is the purpose of being competitive about flexibility? There isn’t any.

      Thank you for the tip about meditation! I’ve been struggling to reintegrate meditation into my life since leaving yoga, and a few minutes after a workout seems like the perfect time when the body is already oxygenated and full of breath. Will consider lengthening my “workouts” by ten minutes to make it happen.

  4. I am really sorry now…I think I just figured out the issue…this should be the video I was going to share. You can delete the last post.

  5. Excellent writing as always Karen.

    Here’s a video on the mechanical science of stretching. Links to an outside site, sorry bout that. (the embed is flash, didn’t think it proper)

    http://ww3.tvo.org/video/182216/doug-richards-stretching-truth

  6. Very interesting. I have never really questioned the societal push to be flexible. You give some great info to ponder.

  7. I appreciate a lot of the things you have to say here. But I hope that if you had ever come to one of my yoga classes you would find something different. I mostly taught beginners so there isn’t really room for all that overstretching. Yoga can be great for strength and mobility, not to mention stress relief. I was lucky to have a teacher who was a doctor of biomechanics and taught that there is an inverse relationship between flexibility and stability. I am finding it hard to fit into the paleo community when it comes to yoga, especially since YogaAndBirth is my handle on pretty much every social media site. It is my belief that if you leave your ego at the door and don’t worry about how ‘pretty’ or advanced your post looks you can do a lot of great movements and it is a great practice to rotate into a fitness schedule. I’m not saying anything you don’t already know, just felt like I had to defend yoga a little. And I will always love a good downward facing dog.

    • I’m sorry to hear that Paleo feels less than welcoming for you and yoga. Many people eat Paleo-style nutrition and continue their favorite pursuits despite the tide against it, distance running comes to mind for me. Do what you love and be unapologetic! From my perspective, I see plenty of support for yoga around Paleo circles. I don’t think there is any organized rejection of yoga from Paleo per se, but many people, once they’ve questioned their diet, begin to question their fitness. And I think there are some fair questions to ask of yoga.
      Of course, a proper teacher will make all the difference in the world. Sounds like you were lucky on that front! It’s unfortunately easy to get certified these days. And I completely agree with you about the ego bit. It should be all about the practitioner and their mat. But I don’t know many people who actually approach it that way. Ashtanga classes were horrifying for me in that aspect—so much competition!—and I was always so grateful for my grounding in the philosophy which talks constantly about reaching-not reaching and checking our goal-oriented behavior at the door. That isn’t something we’re taught in American Life 101.
      But yes, I still use a “Walking Dog” to stretch my calves. :)

  8. Good post all around. There is no doubt that there is benefit with a yoga practice, and just like overdoing it with strength & conditioning, we can see issues when we step outside our physical and mental boundaries. A good yoga teacher, one who teaches more than just poses, is a great asset to have, I have been luck y enough to learn from a few great coaches in the yoga and strength/conditioning arenas…I suppose that helped to shape my balance.
    Having said that, I am human and once in a while I lose myself in the desire for more:( What inevitably happens in those weak moments is injury/illness occur because things are not aligned. Experience (many injuries) have taught me to find balance and I am grateful for such experiences.
    Unfortunately, any group that requires a label to define themselves (insert religious, political, nutritional, fitness preference here) can have a group of people who are closed to anything that is outside the norm of what is accepted. Fortunately for me, and many others, I have learned over time to lose the label, and try to appreciate everything for the benefits it may have for me. As an example, look at my plate and you can call it paleo, watch me train and it would resemble Crossfit, and follow me to the forest and you can find my spiritual preference. This doesn’t mean that I am solely a Paleo Crossfitter that prefers spirituality over religion:) I have taken positive from the areas that I see beneficial for me and my health…yoga has certainly been one area so long as I maintain balance over competition. This I also found in the Ashtanga community, but I suppose I could be blame for taking that mentality with me to the mat as well.

    Thanks for the conversation:)

  9. I love my yoga practice and can’t see ever giving it up…but that’s just me. ;)

  10. Excellent post. I’m so happy your wrote something like this. People don’t talk about this aspect of Yoga much.

  11. You may already read his blog, but you are speaking the same language with my doc’s “only bozos stretch” campaign. (He even has t-shirts.) sock-doc.com

  12. You have to let your own body be the guide. “You do yoga to get into your body/mind, not to get into a pose.” In my opinion a downward facing dog can look like a child’s pose. How? If you’re not feeling it, go to child’s pose. It reminds me of the old joke, “Doctor, it hurts when I do this. (patient moves arm) Doctor: Well, then don’t do that.” An edge should never be painful.

    Check out Paul Grilley’s DVD on yoga anatomy. He’ll show you that some poses are IMPOSSIBLE to do given a person’s bone structure/joint structure/proportions. To force yourself to go into a pose that your body isn’t made for can lead to injury.

    There are two factors in all this: Lack of Knowledge and Ego. Many people, yoga teachers and students, believe that any healthy-ish person can get into any pose given enough time. Wrong. Then fueled with that false-knowledge, that almost everyone can do all the poses given enough time and effort, they let their ego fuel them into hurting themselves. Yoga didn’t hurt you, your ego did. It’s hard to accept. It’s the fine print of yoga and should be in bold letters.

    Proceed with caution in yoga– just like crossing the street.

    I do like the information on the counter-intuitive effect of strength training on joints, but I would hate someone to miss out on the mind body benefits of yoga because they’re afraid they’ll get hurt. Go into a quiet room. Focus on your breath. Notice and observe it. You’re doing yoga. No harm done!

    All offered with great love.

    Namaste

  13. Interesting article. I was a gymnast as a young girl and I enjoy stretching and have thought about learning Yoga for some time now. The one thing that stops me is that I have too much energy to sit still most of the time, which is why I enjoy power walking. The more I learn about the Paleo Lifestyle the more I realize that Tabata Sprints are where it’s at for me personally. It does the job when it comes to burning off excess energy and getting calm. Our ancestors didn’t go jogging and neither should we. Long distance runners rarely have the beautiful muscles you see in sprinters like Usain Bolt.

  14. Very intersting article. Not that I agree with everything ;-), but it is brilliant as it points out many behaviours I see all week long as a yoga teacher.
    I try to teach and practice yoga philosophy as a whole, i-e 8 limbs of Yoga. I notice many teachers never heard of Patanjali, yamas and niyamas, neither heard of Ahimsa principle. (difficult to learn all those things in their 4 weeks training ;-).
    What is Ahimsa ? It’s part of the Yamas and means ‘non violence’. If you’ve studied and integrated non-violence (with others but also with yourself), you won’t let your teacher overstretch you, put his weight on your back to go farther, make you work hard on stretching because it’s this and that.
    I think It is too the responsability of yoga teachers to let people know yoga doesnt mean doing something perfect but rather feeling !
    On a physical level, yoga is a mix of balance, strength and flexibility. I’m stiff, very stiff, I spent
    10 years rowing in competition at a national level. Stiffness is a good thing for some people, it protects their joints, they have strong muscles, etc . Some studients sometimes ask me : can you touch your toes ? Sometime I can, sometimes not, but if I have to, I bend my knees :-)

    I just discovered Paleo and I see many similarities with yoga. To me, hot, competitive or bikram yoga are like Weight lifting, marathon and treadmills compared to Paleo.
    I’m not focused on past but I think yoga should be taught and practiced on traditionnel bases.

    At last, students often ask me If it’s ok to practice yoga only to keep fit. I have no generic answer, but I often ask them questions like : “Is yoga will help you catch a train if you have to run after it ?” “Is yoga will help you if you want to try surfing this summer” ?

    Kisses from France

    Guillaume

  15. Hello,
    I’ve been doing yoga for almost twenty years. I delved so deep into the lifestyle I was vegan from 1995 until 2013. I noticed I was never gaining any weight and skinny fat, I got every illness that went around and had major tooth decay. So I started gradually eating raw milk and pastured eggs then organ meats as I began my paleo journey. Now I am finally eating healthy enough to gain weight and muscle! I felt so rejected for switching from a vegetarian diet to a normal one that many of my friends who did yoga kept trying to persuade me to switch back. I thought many of these people were my true friends but I noticed once I stopped following their trend they began to exclude me from events, I mean just because I eat meat doesn’t mean I’m going to bring a roast to their vegan cookout! Anyways now I just do yoga at home to relax and have switched my focus to body weight training and gaining mass. Despite only doing yoga once or twice a month now I can still get into and hold the advanced ashtanga poses that used to make me popular in that circle of friends.

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