Saturday, October 26, 2013

What's your stiffness to flexibility ratio?

There’s a simple fact of physics which applies to the human body: motion occurs where motion is available.  Ignoring this fact gets people into trouble in all walks of life from couch potatoes to elite athletes.  Relative stiffness and flexibility are especially important in yoga where we are looking for a balance between the two.  This concept was very simply and effectively explained to me by Shirley Sahrmann, one of the greats in the world of Physical Therapy.  She took two metal springs.  One was less stiff (a smaller spring to make it obvious) and the other was more stiff (a larger spring).  She linked the 2 springs together in series (end to end) and pulls on both ends.  Which spring deformed a greater distance?  Well it was the less stiff spring, of course!  Because it took less force to deform or stretch the less stiff spring, that is the one that moved first and most.

Let’s apply this concept in the human body.  Imagine a person entering into a forward bend (uttanasana).  Imagine that the hips are very stiff, and the spine quite flexible.  It should be no surprise that in this instance, just like the springs, the spine will move and stretch more than the stiffer hips.  Now imagine another person who has a very stiff spine, and extremely flexible hips.  This person’s forward bend would look quite different!  

Although a well-rounded yoga practice includes contorting the body in all different directions, yogis are just as prone to imbalance in stiffness and flexibility as the rest of the population.  Practicing unaware of those imbalances will lead to the relatively less stiff areas becoming even more flexible, with little if any change to the stiffer areas.  The trick is figuring out where your individual body’s imbalances lie and staying mindful of them during your yoga practice.  This is something that often necessitates a trained, outside observer to help you sort through.  A physical therapist is a great choice for this.  I will be completely honest that even though I am a physical therapist, I have a difficult time sorting through some of my own imbalances.  Although I look at these things all day long with my patients and yoga clients, I cannot appropriately assess myself from an outside perspective.  So, from time to time, I work with a trusted colleague to help me tease out those imbalances. That way I can bring more internal body awareness (proprioception, kinesthesia) to them in my daily life and yoga practice.  

The example of the hips mentioned above is quite common in people with low back pain.  Most often, the hips are stiff and don’t want to move into flexion (forward bending motion) as easily as the spine wants to flex.  In this instance, a yogi with lower back pain can try a preparatory posture before yoga class and/or at home.  This movement begins with a flat back on hands and knees (table top position), taking his/her bottom toward the heels – but only so far that the spine doesn’t curl up (like cat pose).  This helps to teach the hips how to flex with the spine in neutral.  We often use this as a therapeutic exercise.  Be aware, as with any exercise, it is not for everybody.  There are some folks whose hips are too flexible toward the back of the joint for which this exercise would be contraindicated.  

Another common finding shows different areas of the spine to be relatively stiffer or more flexible.  In yoga this is particularly important due to the amount of back bending (spinal extension) we do.  In the clinic I often see people with very flexible joints at the base of the spine (L4-5, L5-S1) with quite a bit of stiffness further up in the spine.  Visualize a yogi in bhujangasana (cobra), ustrasana (camel), or urdvha dhanurasana (full wheel pose).  If, for instance, the mid thoracic spine (just below the shoulder blades) is much stiffer than the base of the spine, the majority of the back bending motion will happen as a hinge at the base.  While for some people initially this can relieve pain (the McKenzie approach uses movements that look very similar to yogic back bends), over time, this leads to exploitation of those more flexible areas, and possibly increased pain down the road.
My number one recommendation for investigating relative flexibility in yourself is to get another set of eyes on you.  At a minimum, make a private yoga lesson appointment with an experienced teacher.  If you are injured or in pain, see a physical therapist.  Some medical professionals are friendlier toward the practice of yoga than others.  There’s a growing community of us who merge yoga and medicine.  You can search for one of these combo PT yogis in your area at – and if you don’t find one in the directory, likely one will be added soon!

Stefanie Foster is a physical therapist, fellowship trained in orthopedic manual therapy (pop your joints if you need it, look at the root movement cause of your pain/dysfunction). She is a Registered Yoga Teacher at the 200 hour level and is a knowledge sponge (formally and informally) for all things yoga, Ayurveda, physical therapy, movement, nutrition, psychology, endocrinology, immunology and holistic healing. She has a passion for merging the ancient wisdom of yoga and current intuitive intelligence of the yoga teaching community with her medical knowledge. She does this both with her patients and through collaboration with yoga teachers to increase their capacity to optimize the physical system of their students and keep their risk for injury low so they can keep up a lifelong practice. She also brings that merging back to the medical community, speaking to healthcare providers on the benefits of yoga and how to help their patients choose an appropriate yoga teacher for their medical needs. She is the founder of Asana with Intelligence yoga, physical therapy and education.  You can follow Stefanie on Facebook and Twitter. This article originally appeared on Stefanie's blog and is re-posted here with her permission. 

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