Updated: Sep 28
"I bend so I don't break" Author Unknown
Maybe? Are you sure about that? The research says otherwise...
Yoga memes and instagram posts of hyper-flexible women their bodies contorted in shapes that seem unachievable to the average human primate LOVE to use this quote as a caption.
While I understand the sentiment and how it lends itself so beautifully to a metaphor for flowing with the volatile tides of life, this statement from a physiological perspective is simply not true.
There is in fact zero evidence that bendable human tissues are less prone to injury.
Moreover there is growing research that stretching before completing athletic feats can increase the risk of injury (Dr. Andrea Spinea 2018; Thacker et. al 2004; Weldon & Hill 2003; Herbert and Gabriel 2002; Amako et. al 2003; Malliaropoulos et. al 2004).
Yup. It is true. Stretching before you head out for a run or before you hike a mountain, or hit the weights can increase your risk of injury.
I am so glad you asked. Injury is not caused because of tissue being unable to bend under force or load.
Injuries happen when the force that a tissue sustains exceeds that tissue's capacity to bear that load (Greg Lehman 2017; Dr. Andre Spinea 2018).
How do we prevent injuries then?
Well you can't.
Here's the deal, there's no such thing as a perfect movement. And no matter who you are, how good you are, how excellent your teacher is, your movement will always falter at one point or another and you will sustain an injury.
We can however mitigate injury by getting strong in the ranges of motion that we have.
How do we do that? It is simple really.
We mitigate injury by progressively loading our tissues and allowing them to adapt to the new loads over time and with consistency. This is proper training. And the best way to lessen the healing time and to mitigate damage to tissues when your movement inevitably falters.
This is so important.
Modern yoga circles are obsessed with so called "alignment." The argument being that if you arrange the bones in just the right way that you can prevent injury and you will be moving "correctly."
Well I have some more news for you.
There is no such thing as a correct or right movement.
Dynamic Systems Theory teaches us that good movers execute movements differently EVERY. SINGLE. TIME.
The most common feature of human movement is variability.
In fact variability in the chain of muscles that fire and the kinematics of movement is a sign of skilled motor performance!
Each time an athlete completes "a movement" the chain of muscles that fire and the way the movement is executed is done completely differently.
Stop trying to make yourself or your students move in a way that you think they should based on some outside appearance or form.
Why? Well because of simple facts like the infinite variability of hip joints and this very cool knowledge brought to us by Dynamic Systems Theory (Bernstein 1967; ) that no movement is executed the same way twice.
This puts our obsession with "alignment" in yoga into serious question, but that's a discussion for another time...
For now back to stretching. We want to stretch and get flexible right?
Flexibility vs. Mobility
First, let's break some terms down. What is flexibility anyway? The supposed holy grail of yoga asana practice?
Flexibility is the ability to passively achieve a range of motion.
"But I'm working when I stretch in yoga! I feel my muscles working!"
Yes. Correct. It is still passive.
When you "stretch" to achieve flexibility you are using forces that are external to your body such as gravity to pull yourself into a stretch and to contort your body into a shape. This is different than executing a movement via internal forces using neurological drive.
Flexibility gained from stretching is not useful.
Why is it not useful? Because you have no control over it. You can't apply it anywhere else.
This friends is because of something called the Principle of Specificity.
Whatever you train for is what you can do. The Law of Specificity states that the adaptation is specific to the demand.
Therefore if you train statically all you are adapted for is statically held "poses."
If you train statically held postures like the front splits (hanumanasana) and you achieve a static splits that is the only application of that training.
It will not translate into for example a high kick. It is not a range of motion that you "own." Ranges of motion you achieve through flexibility alone are completely useless ranges of motion.
Flexibility in and of itself is not a worthwhile goal and in fact can lead to joint degradation, injury, and a total lack of longevity in your practice.
Hello hip replacement at age 45.
Which is by the way super common in female yoga asana practitioners.
So what about mobility? Mobility Latin "moveve" meaning to move
Mobility is active control over your ranges of motion. Mobility is movement you "own."
Mobility unlike flexibility is not a passive pursuit.
A mover with mobility is someone that can control their flexibility.
It is joint (articular) strength and neurological control working in conjunction.
It is improving the ranges of motion that we can actually use.
Mobility is active control within an entire range of motion with strength.
Flexibility will not make you move well. It will only train you statically.
Mobility trains you for a position you want to be able to move in.
So do we get mobile by stretching.
More bad news. That's a big fat no.
Stretching does not change the viscoelasticity of muscles permanently.
That increased range of motion you get during a hot yoga class? Sorry it is not an owned and increased range of motion.
You become more "flexible" from stretching because you alter something called your Stretch Tolerance. Basically over time the more you do a statically held stretch your central nervous system starts to trust you and allows your stretch threshold to expand.
It is based on your previous ability to function at a particular range. You are simply convincing your central nervous system that you have control over a range of motion so that it will allow you more access to that range.
But stretching doesn't permanently alter the structure. And it does not mean that you have control within that range of motion. And where you lack control you are prone to injury and articular degradation.
With proper mobility training (which implies equal building of strength and flexibility) we can teach the central nervous system to control progressively larger ranges of motion. We can own our flexibility and take useless ranges and make them something we can harness safely and powerfully.
So what am I saying? Stretching and flexibility are bad and and we should quit doing yoga asana?
But what I am saying is that we need to not confuse mobility with flexibility and moreover yoga practitioners perhaps more than any other movement practitioners are in dire need of true mobility training.
The number of yoga practitioners I meet and hear from via social media and email that suffer from SI Joint disfunction, hip pain, lower back pain and other issues is astounding.
Worst of all they continue to teach the very practices that are harming their own bodies while silently seeking out physiotherapy and chiropractors to undo the damage they're causing their bodies with their practices.
It is irresponsible. And certainly not a practice of ahimsa.
Flexibility training alone will get you a pretty instagram photo and will knock the longevity off of your practice.
Mobility training isn't sexy. It's doing uncomfortable training in awkward shapes consistently and with dedication.
Mobility training involves many basic drills to really get solid "hardware" in place in the body before attempting more neurologically complex movements.
It is being willing to put the bendy sexy stuff aside and really focusing on building articular (joint) health and owned ranges of motion.
As you build true mobility you will find greater ease and stability in your yoga asana practice. Potentially (depending on the cause) you will say goodbye to chronic hip and lower back pain and hello to a strong and supple body. You will own the ranges of motion you have and get stronger throughout those ranges.
You will age better.
Yoga practitioners and teachers will benefit tremendously from adding strength and conditioning training and mobility training to their repertoire.
It is time to take back the health of our joints and practice yoga asana in a way that supports longevity.