November 23, 2013

Will Yoga Make Me Lose My Muscles? ~ Szymon Jarosławski


Intense yoga practice can shape musculature for a lifetime.

Large muscles are not necessary to practice yoga. You can develop your own routine that will help you achieve your athletic goals.

Yoga asana practice can benefit your gym workout in many ways, from healthier muscle growth to enhanced muscular strength and function.

So what exactly happens in your body when you practice yoga poses regularly? There are four major physical effects of yoga:

  • improved flexibility
  • increased muscle strength and endurance
  • improved balance and bodily intelligence
  • enhanced oxygen intake

These four combined will have multiple benefits on your athletic performance and general health.

Stretching demystified

You must have heard about the benefits of stretching, but let’s be honest, you’ve never really gotten into it. It’s hard to appreciate something we don’t understand or see the immediate results of.

Plus, it’s time consuming and you don’t exactly remember the moves. Your improvisation in the gym room may quickly get awkward or boring. If so, it’s time to think about yoga—the most systematic and comprehensive system of stretches known to humans.

Its first benefit may please your busy schedule. Yogic stretching is less time consuming than most passive stretching routines you were taught in your gym. This is because postures in yoga (asanas) are combined stretches which work multiple muscle groups at a time.

Take Warrior II pose. It stretches the front leg’s hip extensors, adductors and internal rotators, the back leg’s calf, knee flexors and hip adductors, as well as arms, shoulders and chest.

In case you’re bored with your passive stretching routine, yoga can offer a much more engaging practice. In Warrior II, your groins feel it as if you were doing a passive side split on the floor. But in order to hold the posture you also need to engage some of the muscles which are being stretched, as well as their antagonists (counter-acting muscles).

If you do it correctly it will make you sweat in just a few minutes. No time to get bored! You will have to constantly rotate your body awareness from your feet to shoulders to make sure you are holding/relaxing them correctly.

But what exactly happens in your muscles when you stretch? Fascia, which corresponds to 30 percent of the muscle mass, is the main structure that limits our flexibility and that can be safely stretched. A string around a ham is a simple model of what in reality resembles a dense three-dimensional network which spans across muscular fibers.

Now, imagine what happens to the ham when you loosen the string on it: it expands. So will your muscles when you stretch the fascia. Apart from the gain in length, this will give more space for new veins to grow inside the muscle, which will eventually improve the penetration of blood and boost its metabolism, growth and repair.

Because fascia spans across multiple muscles, it binds individual muscles into larger, tape-like structures which can run from the soles of our feet to our forehead.

Yes, you read that right. Our muscles are linked through fascia like beads in a rosary or mala. This means that when we stretch the fascia we also loosen the connections between individual muscles so that they can function more independently. This improves precision of movement, overall control over our body and prevents injuries, which are all crucial in any sport discipline.

On top of that, we create more space for our bones to align, which will correct our posture and lengthen the spine.

Put your ornaments into action

If you have developed your muscles working out at the gym, there are chances that they are built for appearance and not for function. Gym equipment is designed to make your muscles work in isolated groups and often in only one direction. This helps us build large, individual muscles.

Improving muscle function means using their full capacity in all movements or postures that our body is capable of doing. In real life, muscles need to cooperate in larger groups and move our body parts in all possible planes. This requires special coordination by our brain and often involves tiny, deep, auxiliary muscles we may not be aware of.

Yoga is here to help us develop these functional skills for the muscles we already have. It will improve balance and coordination of movement, as well as strengthen these invisible yet essential deep muscles.

Take the Plank or Crow poses: do you think it takes strong arms to hold them for minutes? Or the transition from the Cobra to Downward Dog, which you may do multiple times in a flow (vinyasa) yoga class. Does it work your arms?

You may be surprised to meet yoga practitioners with thin arms who are capable of doing them with ease. The secret to these poses lies in the “core,” the muscles around the gravity center of the body, including deep abdominal muscles. The more you use your core, the less you depend on your arms in these poses.

While strengthening the core, we also improve our balance and coordination of movement and avoid injuries.

Beyond the body

Awareness and control of breath are essential to yoga.

During asana practice, we are encouraged to lengthen the inhale and exhale and (almost) never hold the breath. Fluid breath means constant supply of oxygen to our muscles and uninterrupted removal of carbon dioxide.

This also changes the way we manage our effort. Forceful exhalations through the mouth as seen in the weightlifting room are replaced by silent nasal breathing.

Slower breathing allows us to relax into postures and teaches us to enhance endurance and focus through greater relaxation. This helps us go through physical discomfort with ease. The mind takes full control over the body.

Taking it to the next level

Different people hold contrasting stereotypes about yoga. To some it is a purely spiritual practice and to others, merely a system of stretches.

In reality, yoga helps us develop our mind and body in harmony. Those who have practiced it regularly know that it is an incredibly versatile practice that can be adapted to help us achieve diverse goals.

Yoga is a personalized method of change and transformation. If you adapt your practice to your fitness goal and put your heart in it, it will take your workout to the next level and beyond.


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Editor: Michelle Margaret

{Image: WikiCommons}

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Szymon Jarosławski