This is Article #3 in a Series on Yoga Injury Prevention
(For Part I on Joint Compression, Please Click Here)
Does Yoga Compress the Joints?
PART II on Joint Compression
Many reports are, too many people suffer from yoga injury, and we’re even told, by the New York Times no less, that yoga can wreck the body!
How Yoga Compresses Your Joints
And I have significant doubts as to how necessary many of those surgeries were, nor how much of that pain was inevitable.
You might have heard of Ida P. Rolf, founder of Rolfing,® AKA Structural Integration. Ida was in many ways Grandmother of modern bodywork therapies, especially those involving posture and fascia. Ida had built much of her life and therapeutic career around physical & mental yoga. Yet after many years working with people, Ida began warning clients about dangers of physical yoga postures, mostly, she said, due to joint compression. Ida eventually advised against doing yoga postures all together, and stopped using it in her therapy practice.
You can read more about the Ida Rolf on Dangers of Yoga practice here.
It is the compression of joints that might well have led to those unnecessary surgeries and chronic pain.
Yet it’s also well known, many people (myself included) receive tremendous benefits from physical yoga.
So, does joint compression actually happen in yoga? Are we really at risk of yoga injury? And if so, why? Was Ida correct to advise against it? Or, as importantly, why is this increasingly common result happening for some people and not others? Should we keep doing postural yoga? Or should we stop, just in case? Or, is there anything we can do to decrease the likelihood of this injury?
PHYSIOLOGY OF JOINT COMPRESSION IN YOGA INJURY
Joints are well designed to withstand moments, even long moments, of reasonably strong compression. They’re actually quite strong & resilient. However, anytime pairs of muscles begin over-shortening, and for any length of time, space within the joint capsule, between those muscle pairs, must decrease. This will indeed cause compression within joints.
If your muscles are chronically over-shortened, you’ll have chronic joint compression. It’s a simple fact, with the degree of compression being the only major variable. And yoga injury can certainly arise from yoga postures performed and held too aggressively.
If that compression is too strong, or less strong but constant, the joint capsule will soon begin dehydrating. Pressure within the joint builds up, synovial fluid (the joint lubricant & shock absorber) will be lost. Simultaneously, local soft tissues are stressed and more prone to injury. Over time, degeneration begins.
And if you think your muscles are perfectly relaxed most of the time, just because you’re very flexible, please keep reading.
Please Take A Look At This illustration:
When muscles A & B are Relaxed & Lengthened, there is little or no pressure on the joint. It can work fluidly & smoothly. When muscles A & B are over-contracted & over-shortened, excess pressure is constantly applied to the joint, dehydration starts. Motion is interfered with. Eventually, the joint degenerates.
Now, what causes this over-shortening of muscles? Are any of us doing something, anything, to make this happen?
PHYSIOLOGY OF CHRONIC MUSCLE CONTRACTION
ANY repetitive action of a neuromuscular unit done often enough, UNLESS sufficiently counter-balanced, WILL increase chronic nerve tonus (nerve charge) to the involved muscle(s). This is, in part, the physiology of neuromuscular habit formation. And the more force used (even if gentle force), the more habitual will contraction and shortening be. If the nerve tonus is not soon brought back down to a more neutral level, the muscle(s) WILL become more chronically contracted. The joints WILL be compressed and compromised.
This becomes a foundation for yoga injury and “wrecking the body” as described in the near infamous New York Times article.
You would think most yoga teachers would be handing this well, because they usually stretch symmetrically, are quite flexible, and supposedly know how to relax. We are also told neuro-phenomena such as “reciprocal inhibition” handles much of this problem. Yet I have worked with many yoga teachers, dancers, gymnasts and others who were VERY flexible, appearing and moving in a very relaxed, fluid way. But press into the muscles of some of them with your fingers, and what do you find? Rocks & knots, ropes & cables. … Too much tension.
Many people with VERY flexible muscles are under an illusion. They are externally flexible, but internally “tight.”
Paradoxically, and ironically, even if we are getting more flexible, we can still build up excess neuro-musculo-fascial tension in the background. (That potentially confusing topic is a whole article in itself.) Your muscles might be getting more flexible or bendable in relative terms with each other, but still over-contracting in overall terms. Your muscles can lengthen, for the moment, while you are in the stretch. But as soon as you come out of the stretch, they tighten back down, often too much.
(It’s that Too Much part that gets your joints compressed, eventually leading to yoga injury.)
Those “too tight” areas within the muscles are from what I call C.E.M.&.N.T. (Chronic, Excess Muscle & Nerve Tension). This is also called the chronic accumulation of Resting Tonus. Increasing resting tonus causes your body to gradually tighten & compress, interfering with your posture, making your movements slower and less fluid, producing aches & pains, and many of the effects we mistakenly call “aging.” … And resting tonus interferes with the ability of reciprocal inhibition to perform efficiently.
So, C.E.M.&.N.T. is the source of much pain & dysfunction in our bodies.
INTENTIONALLY (but UN-Consciously)
CREATING C.E.M.&.N.T. ==> Yoga Injury
Now, if your conscious intention is primarily on subtly pulling or forcing yourself deeper into a particular posture, much or most of your nerve energy flow will be toward contraction of the muscles that pull you deeper into the posture. This causes those muscles to shorten as much as your body allows. The more you activate those neuromuscular units, the more resting tonus, C.E.M.&.N.T., builds up.
In the illustration to the right, you can see that MF + G (that’s muscle force plus gravity) pulling down on the fronts and backs of the hips and thighs, and up at the knees, will directly compress the hip and knee joints. They might also IN-directly compress the lumbar vertebrae and discs, too.
If the opposing muscles (the ones resisting going deeper into the stretch) do not relax & lengthen AT LEAST at the same rate as the shortening muscles shorten, there CAN be an increase in the C.E.M.&.N.T. of the resisting muscle too, especially if a stretch reflex is triggered. And most stretch reflexes happen well below the conscious level; so that is VERY likely.
So, again, in the illustration at right, if moving into a bend, the hip flexors (crossing the fronts of the hip joints) pull the pelvis and torso downward toward the front. The hip extensors (hamstrings, gluteals and lateral rotators at backs of hip and thighs), if not relaxing fully and easily, will resist that action.
The resisting muscles (hamstrings & gluteals) might be lengthening, but not fast enough. The force of resistance is transferred into the areas of least resistance, the joints, until those muscles Relax & Lengthen sufficiently IF they ever do.
And if you are waiting for discomfort or pain to show up, signaling a problem, you are, most likely, already WAY too deep into the posture. The joint compression is already underway.
To top it all off, if you are not investing at least as much mental energy in sufficiently relaxing & lengthening the resisting muscles, you will most likely trigger a counter-force (stretch reflex), in those resisting muscles. As soon as you come out of the stretch, the muscles tighten back down, sometimes more than before you started the stretch! (This is all very minutely incremental over time.)
Another factor is the conscious part of the mind is surprisingly limited as to how much data it can actually process. Research estimates are, for every 100,000 bits of data going through your nervous system at any moment, your conscious mind is only capable of handling somewhere between FOUR and NINE of those 100,000 bits of data. That’s about .00007 or so on average.
So much for being fully conscious of ourselves and our internal processes. … You very likely won’t even feel most of the stretch reflexes happening, let alone their results.
You must, therefore, be very careful if aggressively pulling or pushing yourself deeper into a posture. You must be fully monitoring tension levels in the resisting muscles, making sure they’re relaxing & lengthening at least as much as the initiating muscles are shortening, preferably more so.
This does NOT mean you should never do exercise or yoga that compresses your joints. You should, however, practice joint DE-Compression and TSRS (Tension & Stress Reduction Strategies) on a frequent basis, at least as often as you do your more aggressive practices.
Problem is, too many people are SO focused on getting deeper into the so-called Perfect Posture, or Proper Alignment, their ambitions are over-riding the VERY subtle sensations and messages attempting to let them know they are going too far, too deep, too fast, into the posture or stretch.
INCREASED TENSION LEADS TO COMPRESSION
To reiterate, with both muscle pairs shortening, or one shortening and the other not lengthening out at a faster rate, there WILL be at least some compression in the respective joint(s). Or there will until the opposing muscle relaxes & lengthens enough, assuming it ever does. … And it might not.
And, if you are walking around holding various muscles “tight” because someone told you that would “support your CORE” or “stabilize your posture” or “protect your spine,” you are already holding WAY too much C.E.M.&.N.T. in your body as it is. And unnecessarily so.
You are, in all likelihood, never fully relaxing your bodymind sufficiently. (Various forms of Yoga, Pilates, Tai Chi and Ballet are especially prone to this chronic holding of postural habits.) It might take months or years for the negative results to show up, but you are gradually and “intentionally,” but unnecessarily, adding more C.E.M.&.N.T. to your bodymind.
Of course, you are not “intentionally” compressing your joints. But you are intentionally doing various actions that inadvertently result in joint compression. … Nature pays attention to what you actually do, not what you think you’re doing or hope you’re doing.
To compound the problem, if you are really into the intense, and sometimes blissful, sensations yoga can generate, those sensations can easily over-ride the far more subtle and less conscious sensations telling your body your joints are compressing (or other signs of stress). In fact, most of the proprioceptive nerves — those informing your body of where your joints are in space and what they’re doing — terminate in the lower brain. That information does not make it to your cerebral cortex, the conscious brain. So they do not directly generate conscious pain or discomfort at all.
And, if you’re into Hot Yoga, too much HEAT can mask your subtler sensations, as well. That’s due to thermal expansion of muscles. There’s a very BIG difference between a muscle that’s relaxing versus one that’s lengthening from extra heat.
So, you have to be VERY careful to be cognizant of very subtle secondary sensations and signals, quietly informing you of what’s going on in your joints. Or they’re trying to, anyway. If you make a practice of in-the-moment, meditative awareness, you might also have observed how willpower very easily over-rides more subtle sensations & signals from your life, your body and our mind.
SO … If you’re always pulling or pushing yourself deeper into an intense stretch, and/or using willpower too much, and “holding on” to or gripping all those “postural” or “core” muscles, you will most likely not notice that you are building C.E.M.&.N.T. in the background, sometimes a LOT of it, and therefore compressing the respective joints. And it does not take much to turn those subtle pressures into much bigger problems.
There is always the Straw that Broke the Camel’s Back factor.
Joint Compression ==> Joint Dehydration ==> Joint Degeneration
Many people are fine for years while slowly, quietly, incrementally compressing their joints. Joint dehydration can be a long, gradual, slow process. Yet there are a number of yoga teachers (and a lot of others disciplines) that are walking, talking stacks of C.E.M.&.N.T. and slowly compressing joints, and have no idea … until the pain and/or dysfunction sets in. Even then, they are unlikely to perceive or understand the real cause.
And many of them around the world have ended up with various joint replacements or other surgeries in attempts to relive their pains and restore their function.
So What’s The Solution? … Joel Kramer Yoga
What Joel Kramer used to teach was to focus not so much on getting deeper into the posture. He used the posture as more of an exploratory process, rather than a goal to get to. …
First, get yourself set up for the pose. Then, have your meditative focus be the psycho-neuro-musculo-fascial sensations & tensions that are resisting your sinking deeper into the posture. Do not try to overpower your tight muscles, but have relaxation or DE-contraction of C.E.M.&.N.T. in your resisting muscles become your Meditative Focus in the posture.
If you’re into yoga philosophy, embrace NON-Violence to its fullest extent. Do NOT attempt to force or coerce your body to move too deep, too far, too fast, for too long. The short-term result might be gratifying, but many years or decades down the road? You risk an UN-happy result.
Joel also taught Lines of Energy. This is the lengthening of each body segment, DE-Compressing the joint on each inhale, relaxing and maintaining the length on each exhale. (This can sometimes be reversed depending on the posture you’re doing.) One key to joint DE-compression is to every step of the way, as you go deeper into the posture, lengthen each body segment before you bend the joint. Even if only tiny, barely perceptible increments, create a least a little space in each involved joint before you bend the joint. A tiny bit of decompression goes a long way.
I would add, keep looking for EVERY muscle, every muscle fiber, you can relax. Learn how to DE-Contract, to Relax & Lengthen, each muscle fiber, each muscle, each muscle group. Discover the possibility that CORE Stability & Postural Balance can emerge from Radical Relaxation & Structural Balance, rather than holding or contracting all your muscles tight all the time.
(Radical, in Latin, means to get to the Root. One opportunity in physical/mental yoga is getting to the roots of your psycho-neuro-musculo-fascial tensions & stresses.)
If you are a beginner, or are older, feeling stiff or tight, or if injured, or in any way therapeutically challenged, take it all REALLY slow and easy at first. Take some time to focus on doing postures very gently, with very low-intensity, with maximum focus on relaxation & lengthening of your body, learning to feel your body and joint pressures, and meditatively focus on the resistance, learning to DE-Contract and RE-Lax, before getting too deep into or aggressive with your yoga practice.
Let Radical Relaxation & Resistance Resolution be your Meditation. …
(Resolution, in Latin, is to Loosen, to Release.)
And that’s at least one good reason to do yoga:
To loosen, to release, our psycho-neuro-musculo-fascial tensions, stresses & habit patterns.
LEARN MORE ABOUT C.E.M.&.N.T.
(Chronic, Excess Muscle & Nerve Tension)
Thank You for Reading,
David Scott Lynn (DSL)
DSL: Your Hi-Touch Up-Link to the Inner-Net
InnerNet: Your Psycho-Neuro-Musculo-Fascial System