Sunday 24 November 2013

Will Yoga Make Me Lose My Muscles?

Anyone who has seen a picture of T. Krishnamacharya practicing yoga at the age of 50 will be assured that intense yoga practice can shape musculature for a lifetime. 

Whereas large muscles are not necessary to practice yoga, you can develop your own routine that will help you achieve your athletic goals.

Yoga asana practice can benefit your gym workout in many ways, from healthier muscle growth to enhanced muscular strength and function.
So what exactly happens in your body when you practice yoga poses regularly? There are four major physical effects of yoga:

  • improved flexibility
  • increased muscle strength/endurance
  • improved balance and bodily intelligence 
  • enhanced oxygen intake

These four combined will have multiple benefits on your athletic performance and general health.

Stretching demystified

You must have heard about the benefits of stretching, but let’s be honest, you have never really gotten into it. It’s hard to appreciate something we don’t really understand or see the immediate results of. Plus, it’s time consuming and you don’t exactly remember the moves. Your improvisation in the gym room may quickly get awkward or boring. If so, it’s time to think about yoga - the most systematic and comprehensive system of stretches known to humans. 

Its first benefit may please your busy schedule - yogic stretching is less time consuming than most passive stretching routines you were taught in your gym. This is because postures in yoga (asanas) are combined stretches which work multiple muscle groups at a time. Take the Warrior II pose: it stretches the front leg’s hip extensors, adductors and internal rotators, the back leg’s calf, knee flexors and hip adductors, as well as arms, shoulders and chest.

And in case you were bored with your passive stretching routine, yoga can offer a much more engaging practice. In the Warrior II pose above, your groins feel it as if you were doing a passive side split on the floor. But in order to hold the posture you also need to engage some of the muscles which are being stretched, as well as their antagonists (counter-acting muscles). If you do it correctly it will make you sweat in just a few minutes. No time to get bored! You will have to constantly rotate your body awareness from your feet to shoulders to make sure you are holding/relaxing them correctly.

But what exactly happens in your muscles when you stretch? Fascia, which corresponds to 30% of the muscle mass, is the main structure that limits our flexibility and that can be safely stretched. A string around a ham is a simple model of what in reality resembles a dense three-dimensional network which spans across muscular fibres. Now, imagine what happens to the ham when you loosen the string on it: it expands. So will expand your muscles when you stretch the fascia. Apart from the gain in length, this will give more space for new veins to grow inside the muscle, which will eventually improve the penetration of blood and boost its metabolism, growth and repair. 

Because fascia spans across multiple muscles, it binds individual muscles into larger, tape-like structures which can run from the bottom of your feet to your forehead. Yes, you read it well. Your muscles are linked through fascia like beads in a rosary or mala. This means that when you stretch the fascia you also loosen the connections between individual muscles, so that they can function more independently. This improves the precision of movement, overall control over your body and prevents injuries, which are all crucial in any sport discipline. On top of that, you create more space for your bones to align, which will correct your posture and lengthen the spine.

Put your ornaments into action

If you have developed your muscles working out on gym equipment, there are chances that they are built for good appearance and not for function. Gym equipment is designed to make your muscles work in isolated groups and often in only one direction. This helps you build large, individual muscles. 

Improving muscle function means using their full capacity in all movements or postures that our body is capable of doing. In real life, muscles need to cooperate in larger groups, and move your body parts in all possible planes. This requires special coordination by your brain and often involves tiny, deep, auxiliary muscles you may not be aware of.

Yoga is here to help you develop these functional skills for the muscles you already have. It will improve your balance and coordination of movement, as well as strengthen these “invisible” yet essential deep muscles.

For example, take the Plank or Crow poses: do you think it takes strong arms to hold them for minutes? Or the transition from the Cobra to Downward Dog, which you may do multiple times in a flow (vinyasa) yoga class. Does it work your arms? You may be surprised to meet yoga practitioners with thin arms who are capable of doing them with ease. The secret to these poses lies in the “core”, or the muscles around the gravity centre of your body, including deep abdominal muscles. The more you use your core, the less you depend on your tights or arms in these poses.
While strengthening the core, you also improve your balance and coordination of movement between your legs and arms and avoid injuries. This means you will be able to better use the quads, biceps and lats which are already proudly have.

Beyond the body

Awareness and control of breath are essential to yoga. During asana practice, you are encouraged to lengthen your inhale and exhale, and (almost) never hold the breath. Fluid breath means constant supply of oxygen to your muscles and uninterrupted removal of carbon dioxide. 

This also changes the way you manage your effort. Forceful exhalations through the mouth which you may know from the weight lifting room are replaced by silent nasal breathing. Slower breath allows you to relax into postures and teaches you how to enhance your endurance and focus through greater relaxation.  This helps you go through physical discomfort with ease. The mind takes full control over the body.

Taking it to the next level

Different people hold contrasting stereotypes about yoga. To some it appears as a purely spiritual practice and to others as merely a system a stretches. In reality, yoga helps you develop your mind and body in harmony. Those who have practiced it regularly know that this is an incredibly versatile practice and can be adapted to help you achieve diverse goals. 

Yoga is a personalised method of change, transformation and reaching where you have not been before. If you adapt your practice to your fitness goal and put your hearth to it, it will take your workout to the next level and beyond.

First published here.

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