How Much Muscular Engagement Do I Need?

July 14, 2015

Transcript below of: How much muscular engagement we should use in our practice?

The Question:

Doreen’s question reads, “My question has to do with muscular engagement. Different yoga lineages ask for different physical actions. The most obvious being yin, where from what I understand, the goal is limited or very minimal engagement for ‘deep tissue stretching’. Personally, when I have tried to practice yin, my joints often hurt, most notably being the ischial tuberosity area with forward folding.”

“I can only assume.” [DK: got to be careful with those assumptions Doreen] “I can only assume I am creating small tears in the ligaments and/or tendons. And, I have read several articles about this topic and they all do mention a level of engagement is necessary for yang practices. But they never really described why or how much.”

“My question for you is how much engagement should we strive for in strong standing asanas such as the warriors. Does stronger engagement lead to a deeper and even a more potentially safer stretch in the belly of the muscle as opposed to the ligaments and tendons? Thank you and please come to California.”

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The Answer:

I’m going to get on a plane right now Doreen. And, I’m going to come to California. I’m not sure if it’s going to help you because you won’t know where I’m at when I land. Just kidding. Okay, a lot of pieces to this question Doreen. Let’s start with: different lineages ask for different physical actions. Sure, and then you do this sort of comparison between yin and yang. It’s one way of dividing up types of practices. I’m not sure it’s the best way to divide up types of yoga practices. I know it’s done. We’ll follow that a little bit.

Generally, as you say, yin is limited to very minimal engagement and supposedly for deep tissue stretching. Regardless of the type of practice you do, whether it’s yin or not, you’re going to have to stretch the more superficial tissues first to get to the deeper stuff. I kind of agree, the more you relax the tissue the deeper it should go.

Is it tendon, ligament, or muscle belly?

Whether or not that leads to more or less stretching in the tendon, ligament, or muscle belly, I’ve never seen any good research on it. Nobody has ever given me some scientific proof or reasoning behind that. I lean more in the direction that whether you’re doing a yin practice or yang practice, when you lengthen tissue, you’re lengthening all aspects of it. The idea that you can separate the muscle belly from the tendon, I’m not sure how true that really is even if the sensation is such. I’m not sure that it’s necessarily exactly what’s happening.

I do believe you can emphasize one end of the muscle more than another depending on how you position the joints. But to say that you are stretching the tendon and not stretching the muscle itself is disingenuous, or the opposite, stretching muscle without stretching the tendon. I just don’t see it. It’s not my understanding of anatomy, how that happens. But again, anybody out there, if you see this and you have some kind of scientific reasoning for that, not just because somebody else said so, let me know. I genuinely want to see it. Go ahead and send it my way.

Identifying the source of pain

Going back to your questions here, your joints hurt after you were doing paschimottanasana without engagement is what you’re saying. Your assumption was that you’re creating small tears in the ligaments or tendons. That’s a big assumption. I wouldn’t assume that. Maybe you inflamed the attachment area but that doesn’t necessarily equate to tearing. Alright? If you pull on it a little more than it’s used to, it might just get bothered by that. It could be that simple Doreen.

What kind of engagement should we strive for?

Let’s get to the final question. The big question is about what engagement should we strive for in standing asanas such as warriors. Keep in mind, every yoga posture is a combination of lengthening, engaging, and body positioning technique or alignment however you want to say that part of it. I definitely don’t think stronger engagement necessarily leads to a deeper or even safer stretch into the belly of muscles. As far as I know, that’s not true. And, I don’t know that it’s false either. I don’t know where that idea comes from. I can’t really say more about that.

From a personal point of view, you’re trying to create balance between strength and flexibility. Some postures are going to require more engagement. In a posture like warrior, for instance, you’re going to have to engage more because you’re putting let’s say your front leg at a position of muscular disadvantage. The quadriceps are going to have to engage more than average.

Keep that part in mind whether or not that translates into stretching muscle belly versus tendon ligament. I would say no just because I don’t have any proof of that. It would be disingenuous for me to say that it’s true. Go for the balance. Don’t over-engage. If you over-engage, you’re exhausting the muscle. You’re working harder than you might need to. Don’t go too strong with it.

Anyway, I hope that helps unpack this a little bit and maybe gives you some food for thought if nothing else, even if it’s not a very specific answer to your very specific question there. Alright everybody, again, if you have a question If you don’t have a copy yet, get your own answers. Alright everybody, have a good one.

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