Yoga: Breath Regulation through Dynamic Resistance Training
Core strengthening is a constant theme in the fitness industry. However core strength has a practical application. Sure you might be able to do multiple sit ups and crunches but ultimately the work you do in the gym or studio needs to have some meaning in your daily routine. Is your core successfully supporting you through the daily movements of life? Are you able to lift groceries up and down or bend over and pick up your toddler without straining your lower back? Can you hold an atheletic position for sustained periods in order to play defence on the basketball court or return a serve on the tennis court? With interest? What does it mean to be able to touch your toes in a class if you suffer from pain in the back and hamstrings because your posterior chain muscles are compromised and your anterior muscles are undertrained?
The major difference between the daily scenarios outlined and performing abdominal crunches in the gym is the addition of dynamic movement where the core is not working purely in isolation but now having to effectively engage and support other parts of the body throughout the entire kinetic chain of movement. This is living! And this is where yoga and in particular Vinyasa Yoga can play a crucial core strengthening role through dynamic resistance in motion. Very simply, core muscle memory is being developed through the repetition of movement into multiple postures that challenge key muscles of the torso whilst bending, twisting, folding and squatting. These are all the normal movements of daily life of course.
This month we are paying particular attention to the core muscles of the transverse and rectus abdominus and the pelvic floor in relation to flexion or forward folding motion. I have chosen to focus on this particular movement because lower back strain is a common complaint that I see a lot of in my practice and reduction of exposure to this type of injury can happen through greater awareness, activation, strenghtening and engagement of the core muscles mentioned earlier. The breadth of postures offered through yoga makes this an easy area to explore as forward folding is one of the key areas of the discipline along with back bending, hip-opening, leg and arm balancing as well as inversions. However the key word that I must emphasise here is “resistance” and herein lies the secret to building physical strength.
Dynamic Resistance Training in Vinyasa Yoga
The secret to building physical strength, muscular definition and toning through yoga lies in the “unseen” part of the phrase “Dynamic Resistance”. That unseen word is “resistance”. What do I mean by this? Vinyasa Yoga is that school of yoga as most of you are aware which involves constant flow of motion through the connection of breath. This is the dynamic aspect of Vinyasa Yoga – a meditation in movement. Vinyasa Yoga is often characterised in mainstream media as a practice of graceful flowing motion and as such it is unsurprising that that it is seen as an exercise discipline known more for it “effortlessness” rather than “effort”. However on the flip side yoga has also been known to produce incredibly strong, enduring bodies capable of extraordinary feats of strength. How does once reconcile these two images? What exactly are these yoga practitioners doing that you’re also doing but somehow getting different results? You are moving through the postures, faithfully practising those Warriors and Chatturangas yet a handstand press still feels like a dream lifetime away? Specifically in relation to handstands there are of course many other variables including technique and mental aptitude but all those things being equal, the secret sauce here is in the “unseen” word “resistance” in the phrase “resistance training”.
Resistance: The Unseen Element of the Practice
Why do i mean by this? Stated simply Hatha Vinyasa is characterised by two things – movement and resistance. The movement part is easy to understand because we see it. But the resistance factor is much harder to teach and learn. The resistance part is the activity that takes place underneath the skin. It’s the recruitment of a muscle, muscle groups and the synchronising of these muscles groups throughout the movement in and out of postures. It’s the tensing of a muscle group and movement in all directions against or with the muscle group in question.
Dynamic resistance training has old roots too in yoga. Ashtanga is the school of yoga most commonly associated with the vinyasa style of practice. One of the key pillars of movement in this style of yoga is the contraction of specific muscle groups through movement. Ashtanga students know this form of internal practice as the engagement of bandhas. The constant activation of key muscles through motion help build muscular awareness and strength as well as provide balance to the flexibility element within yoga.
To illustrate the significance of muscle recruitment in order to provide balance to flexibility poses, let’s take the standing forward fold for instance. When coming into a full forward fold where the palms of the hands aspire to lay flat on the floor, key muscle groups have to come into play in order to protect the lower back. Quadriceps need to engage and through the frontal kinetic chain lower core muscles have to kick in to prevent lower back from straining and taking the weight of the folding torso.
Poses are easy to follow because all that is needed is a visual reference point. However the recruitment of key muscle groups and the consistent activation of these muscles require both an understanding of what muscle groups need engaging and a focused attention to the consistent engagement of these muscle groups for a sustained period of time. One other obvious example of where a pose can easily be done without the internal muscular activation is the high plank prior to lowering down into a chatturanga.
A high plank that is lacking muscular engagement is typically characterised by anterior pelvic tilt, retracted scapulas and sagging pectorals. Constant practice is unlikely to yield strength gains and most likely will result in lower back and joint strain as a result of cumulative trauma. It is so important for any practitioner engaging in vinyasa yoga to pay particular attention to the “unseen” part of the practice – the resistance aspect – and prioritise familiarity with what muscles require activation and recruitment through basic Sun Salutation sequences.
Building Core Stability through Forward Flexion Poses in Vinyasa Yoga
All this August in my practise we are paying particular attention to building greater core stability with reference to postures involving forward flexion. I have chosen forward flexion as the framework for core stabilisation for two reasons: one, because bending forward is the movement that exposes the lower back most to injuries and two, because forward folding poses naturally bring the core into compression and this is where we can naturally connect with the transverse abdominus and pelvic floor through specific breathing patterns in order to activate and then build strength.
****Addition of new 90 min class on Sundays at Next Generation Club, Parnell at 3pm from 1st September****. Regular schedule for Vinyasa classes include Fridays 10:30 am Beginners and Sundays 9:30am at Bodyneed and Mondays 6am at Next Generation Club, Parnell.