We are used to thinking of bodybuilders as weight-lifting, protein-shake pounding, oversized musclemen (or women).
But in a sense, we are all bodybuilders, says Iyengar yoga teacher and PT Julie Gudmestad in this free download. Our daily habits slowly and inexorably shape the soft tissues of our body – for better and for worse.
And what most people don’t realize is that that negative reshaping often will often lay the foundation for long term issues like chronic back pain, neck or shoulder tightness, and loss of mobility and functionality.
You may have noticed the positive benefits of yoga in shaping our body, by e.g. creating greater muscle tone, opening chest and shoulders, and subtly improving our posture.
Unfortunately, for most of us, there is another factor that also shapes our body slowly and inexorably. We are talking about the long hours of sitting hunched over at a computer, driving a car, or watching TV that for most people is a large component of our daily routine.
These long-standing daily habits also affect our body, inadvertently causing the soft tissues (i.e. the muscles, fascia, tendons and ligaments) to tighten. Hours spent sitting with our hips flexed to 90°–at our desks, in the car, on the couch, sleeping in a fetal position–without offsetting that flexion with movement in the opposite direction will cause the tissue around the hip flexors and abdominals to shorten and tighten. Julie refers to this as the ‘shrink-to-fit’ phenomenon – our body literally shortens to adapt to the hunched over position.
The result? Dysfunctional movement, loss of strength and support in important muscle groups. Weak, short muscles also produce tightness, which is often a precursor to back pain and other pain issues. Sitting or standing in a slumped position also affects circulation around the heart and lungs, movement of the diaphragm, and efficiency of the digestive organs, Julie notes.
And Julie should know. She has spent the past 40+ years adapting yoga practices to work with people of all body types and abilities, in the process developing a lot of firsthand experience with how our habits affect our bodies at a structural level.
How Can Yoga Help Reshape the Soft Tissues? 4 Guidelines for Restoring Length, Mobility, and Function with Yoga
The good news, says Julie, is that a regular yoga asana practice is a great counterpoint to the shrink-to-fit phenomena. But she cautions that a long-term issue cannot be resolved overnight. Before new postural habits can be formed, the old ones must be broken. Otherwise, we risk bringing them into our yoga practices.
“When people with structural misalignments go straight into a vigorous practice, they actually reinforce the issues in their yoga poses. Yoga becomes yet another avenue by which they injure themselves,” she advises.
In this download, Julie offers four key guidelines to get the best results for restoring length and function with yoga.
1. Work incrementally. Movement patterns are best broken in bite-sized increments that address misalignments at the source. Breaking the practice into small steps paves the way for gradually building up to more challenging–and injury-free–poses.
2. Customize your practice. Julie observes that students often make the counterproductive mistake of eschewing props or preliminary poses that would help them maintain better structural alignment. Rather than a sign of weakness, adaptation to suit the needs of our bodies is a smarter strategy, she advises.
3. Be patient. While it’s possible to re-lengthen tissue and improve tone and balance in the body, It takes time. Undoing years of postural imbalances can it takes months of focused effort. But the key takeaway is that it can be done. Drawing on yoga’s other tools to cultivate patience is key.
4. Balance your practice. Julie describes the other side of the shrink-to-fit coin as a loss of strength, particularly in the muscles of the back body, such as the erector spinae. We may tend to gravitate more toward forward bending postures because they feel more familiar. But while forward bends are useful, they do nothing to strengthen the essential muscles of the back body. For that backbends are a must.
She also talks about the importance of backbends as a way to help reshape the body, but notes that backbends are particularly challenging for yoga students once the muscles in front are tight and short. In fact, many people shy away from doing backbends for this reason, Julie notes.
Julie points out that when we approach backbends incrementally, with patience and appropriate props, we can not only rebalance our muscles, but eventually back bending can bring a lot of relief to aching bodies. “We need to approach the body in segments,” she advises. “It doesn’t happen in just one session. Like all other things yogic, it takes practice!”
You may also be interested in Julie’s online course: Making Friends with Backbends – How to Overcome Common Challenges.