Sometime within the last year, a friend of mind asked about a nagging ankle injury. He had just recently gotten into yoga but wasn’t sure if yoga was helping or hurting his ankle recovery. Specifically, he wanted to know how you know when you need to strengthen, stretch, or rest.
It’s a great question, and one I’ve thought about for awhile now. Today, I want to share with you my thoughts on the yogic perspective to this question, as I’m sure you may have wondered the same thing at some point.
My upfront disclaimer is that I’m not a doctor, I have no right to diagnose anything for anyone, and my intention in writing this post today is simply to help you think about your own practices and body with a heightened, and perhaps more intelligent, awareness.
Using yoga to heal
First, let’s talk about using yoga as a practice to heal.
There are many benefits of yoga, so many of which have become verified by scientific research in the last decade or so. There is also still a lot of folklore and unsubstantiated claims made as well.
As I like to remind my blog readers, there are many different styles of yoga. That idea you have in your head of what yoga is may be limited because yoga is not just one thing.
Some people I know don’t want to practice yoga because they don’t think it will give them a good enough workout, while other people I know are afraid yoga is too hard and they won’t be able to do it! Both statements have the potential to be true, it just depends on what yoga class you find yourself in.
Just because there are many types of yoga, doesn’t mean one type is better at healing then the other.
A practice doesn’t heal people. People heal themselves utilizing the appropriate practice for their condition.
This is partly why yoga is so awesome. Someone can have an amazing healing story through yoga after practicing Ashtanga (a very intense practice) for a year and someone else can have an incredible healing yoga journey after practicing restorative (a very gentle practice) for a year. The healing happened because the practice chosen matched the person who wanted healing.
A student was talking to me lately about her Crossfit practice. She mentioned offhand that she does Crossfit to focus on cardio instead of focusing on strength. This conversation reminded me that any practice can be adapted to meet your needs, but you have to be clear about what your needs are in the first place!
Yoga and strength
I know there may be some of you out there who don’t believe yoga can help you gain strength.
Let me tell you that if you (or someone you know) believes this, they have not been to the right yoga class.
Yoga posture (asana) is actually very, very challenging when the muscles are engaged in a specific, exacting way. Anyone can stand up straight with their arms overhead, but when you start to engage every major muscle from the bottom of your feet to the tip of your fingers as you stand up straight with your arms overhead, your Mountain Pose becomes a different story.
Using a combination of body weight, planes of movement, gravity, and specific muscle activation, yoga can indeed help you build strength in your body. Understanding the relationship between agonists (muscles doing most of the work in any movement) and antagonists (the muscles releasing to help the agonists do their thing) helps you not only better understand your body but build incredibly efficient strength.
I’ve seen it myself with my private clients who before working with me were unable to hold a Plank Pose, but after working on the core, surprised themselves when they could hold Plank for more then a few seconds, hold good posture, and breathe after just a couple months.
Will you become bodybuilder strong in yoga? No, but you can absolutely tone muscle through yoga practice and maintain strength.
A few words on “tight” muscles
A common pitfall when it comes to the vocabulary of strength and yoga is the word tight.
People come to yoga and tell me they are tight in their hamstrings or hips or shoulders. Most people automatically assume that when they are tight they need to stretch. This is not always the case!
Our muscles have mechanoreceptors that send information back to the brain so that the brain can determine whether or not the muscle needs to contract or not. If the mechanoreceptors are sending information back to the brain that the muscles is at its maximum length before it will tear, then the brain is going to go into protective mode and start telling that muscle to contract, making you feel “tight.”
Unless you are putting constant stress on your muscles from poor posture and daily movement patterns or from following a specific workout plan, you may need to build strength rather then stretch to work through that “tight” feeling.
Strength loves flexibility and flexibility loves strength
I’ve said it so many times before and I’ll say it again. I can’t tell you how many times I hear people say “I can’t do yoga because I’m not flexible.”
To that I respond, “Do you want to be flexible?” You will absolutely gain flexibility practicing yoga. I don’t think anyone has every disputed that. Yoga is most widely accepted as a stretching practice!
So isn’t that exactly where you need to be if you’re not flexible but flexibility is a goal?
Finding the balance between strength and flexibility is really important to overall good health.
Just like it’s important that I’m strong enough to lift heavy things in the case of an emergency, it’s equally important to be flexible to get yourself out of tight, squirrelly situations quickly. If you need to bend over and wind your way through tight spaces, you better be able to move your spine easily in all seven directions.
The opposite is true as well. It’s no good being all flexible with no strength. We have to find the middle ground.
This is even more important to embrace if you are hypermobile. Flowy, stretchy yoga classes are probably the last place a hypermobile yogi needs to be. Of course, the hypermobile yogi will be drawn to such classes because he or she will feel good in those classes. Rather, his or her ego will feel good. The body? Not so much.
The best cure for hypermobility? Strength.
In yoga, there are many opportunities where this balance between strength and flexibility are highlighted. To be grounded and strong in your legs in a standing posture will give you freedom and more mobility in your upper body. Having a strong core will give you more opportunity to move your appendages in a healthy, productive way.
There really is no good reason to keep all your eggs in one basket.
So if you ask me do I need flexibility or strength?, I’m first going to say “it depends,” and then I’m going to say, “you need both.”
The Ayurvedic perspective
This leads me to my next teaching point.
In Ayurveda there is a saying that goes like this:
Like attracts like and opposites heal
Remember my hypermobile yogi from above? She loves yoga because she’s already flexible. She’s naturally attracted to things she’s good at. However, that’s not what she needs. She needs strength to balance out all her excess mobility.
Consider your typical Type Aer. Your typical Type Aer is most likely to be found in a Bikram, Vinyasa Flow, Power, or Ashtanga class. This person needs to move and move fast with intensity. They need to sweat it all out because this person likes to push. This person likes to feel like something is happening yesterday because now is too late. This person feels exhausted at the end of practice and yet somehow that is oddly rejuvenating. This is the life of Type A. Everything in Type A’s life is structured this way. This is how Type A lives.
And that’s great. Until Type A has a nervous breakdown. I won’t get into the reasons why Type A just had a nervous breakdown, but I can tell you from personal experience that if Type A wants to use yoga to heal, she best be getting herself into a restorative class or start some meditation. And yes, this will be excruciating because it’s so boring, and you feel like you’re not accomplishing anything, and that’s exactly the point.
Now, don’t think Type B gets off the hook. The very opposite is true for Type B. Type Bers will be found in the restorative, gentle flow classes where the rules aren’t so strict, you don’t have to work that hard, and you get to lounge around all class with a mixed bag of nice stretches. Which is all great and dandy until Type B feels stuck and stagnant and depressed. Type B needs some motivation. Type B needs to move! Type B doesn’t want to move, but that’s exactly what she needs to snap out of the funk.
Like attracts like and opposites heal.
How do you identify with your personal tendencies and what yoga classes do you frequent most often? Are you in the right place if you’re looking to heal?
I know it’s hard. Believe me, I know.
The importance of rest
Back in my P90X days I remember Tony Horton “scolding” me not to do AbRipperX every day. He knew we all wanted to, and he also understood the importance of letting our body rest.
Savasana for three minutes at the end of class is not enough rest.
When I say rest I mean real, meaningful rest.
Like, take a restorative class kind of rest.
Do nothing. Be still. Just breathe. That kind.
I am the worst rule-breaker in this category. I don’t get enough meaningful rest.
Sleep is a whole different blog post. Get enough sleep, but prioritize time for constructive rest as well.
Rest your body and your mind with play. Do something creative. Something you don’t or wouldn’t normally do.
Spend time with people you love. Turn off the technology.
Give your body and your mind a break for a bit.
And make this a non-negotiable practice in your life.
I’ll keep blogging about it because I struggle with it too and I’m still experimenting with ways to make sure I’m resting in my own life. I’m right there on the journey with you.
So, should you strengthen, stretch, or rest? It depends. AND, you should do all of it.