Anytime we exercise, correctly positioning our bodies is an essential aspect of preventing injury and obtaining optimal benefits from the movement. Mostly referred to as alignment, we hear plenty of these cues in yoga to reposition our bodies into proper form. It’s important to know that all prompts are not created equal, however. Some only apply to a specific pose or individual, since what is right for someone may be different for another. That said, regardless of what pose we are doing or our body’s ability, certain principles remain universal.
Knowing which cues are essential can help tremendously in improving flexibility and keeping muscles safe. Below are four alignment principles that should be at the root of your yoga practice/flexibility training.
Secure your foundation.
Your foundation is going to be whichever part of your body touches the earth/ground. My brother, Chet, is also a personal trainer and a cue we use often is: “Feel the energy of the earth coming up through your feet into your entire body” (my favorite), and, “Secure your toes as if you’re trying to bury them in the sand.” Incorporating both of these cues will create a push-pull effect in which you stabilize the body, protect the joints, and increase strength through balance.
Engage the opposing muscle.
Whenever you stretch a muscle (agonist), the antagonist muscle group will make the opposite move to keep it safe. Essentially, opposing muscles are dependent on each other. The ability of a muscle to shorten is directly proportional to its ability to lengthen. Therefore, limited flexibility translates into limited shortening capacity which is an obstacle to achieving excellence in performance.
Consider the first minute a warm-up.
We want to move quickly — but fascia and tissue? Not so much. Forcing the body into movements you want to master is not going to increase your flexibility. When a muscle stretches, the muscle spindles record the change in length and how fast, then send a signal to the spine conveying this information. The stretch reflex is triggered, which resists by contracting the stretched muscle. The more sudden the change in muscle length, the stronger the muscle contractions will be. This primary function of the muscle spindle helps protect the body from injury, but it can also be how an injury happens if you push your body to overstretch. Instead, hold the muscle in a stretched position for longer than one minute. After that first 60 seconds or so, the tissue becomes accustomed to the new length. Over time, you train your receptors to allow further lengthening of the muscles, i.e., you become more flexible.
The key to improving flexibility is breathing through it. Our muscles require oxygen. As we breathe, oxygen enters the lungs and absorbs into the bloodstream. The heart pumps this oxygenated blood to the working muscles so that the muscles can move. We tend to hold our breath most when transitioning between movements, but this is where oxygen is meant to help us most. When we stop breathing, we create tension in our bodies which can lead to injury. Contrastingly, when you fully inhale and exhale evenly, you allow energy to flow freely, quite literally breathing life into your cells and building strength.