How much yoga practice should I do?
One reason, which I’ve mentioned in previous articles, that I see yoga practitioners get injured, is simply too much yoga practice too soon. But what does that mean? And how do you know if it’s too much yoga practice too soon? Like a lot of questions about yoga, it doesn’t have just one answer. In this post, I’ll share both an anatomical answer and a broader yoga answer to that question.
First of all, what do I mean by too much yoga practice too soon? I mean too many postures for your body/mind/emotions to absorb and integrate at this point in your practice life. Physically, the endurance for moving through a series of yoga postures takes time to develop. Similarly, it takes time to acquire the physical strength to do many yoga poses back to back. It also takes time to mentally and emotionally adjust to doing a yoga practice. If you practice regularly (which I define as 4 or more days per week), then this adjustment may happen more quickly, but it will still take time. So, how much then, is too much yoga practice too soon?
What is muscle fatigue?
Muscle fatigue is the reduced ability of a muscle or muscles to produce force. It’s one of the cues from our felt sense that we’re approaching our physical edge. There are multiple different reasons why muscles fatigue and researchers are still learning what exactly is happening at the level of the muscle cell when we experience muscle fatigue. Anything that gets in the way of muscle cells contracting can contribute to the feeling of muscle fatigue.
Contributing factors on a cellular level include things like a buildup of metabolic waste products and insufficient glycogen, which is used for ATP production, and which is then used to fuel muscular work. If you’ve read my book, Functional Anatomy of Yoga, then you remember that to do “work” muscles use energy in the form of ATP. The body can also send signals from the nervous system itself to resist further muscle contractions. This might happen if you were doing far more exercise than you were accustomed to. This is one way that the body tries to keep us from doing too much.
What happens when we push through muscle fatigue?
If muscles are fatigued and we keep trying to use them anyway, several things could happen. If we’re using the fatigued muscles to do something weight-bearing, the muscles could “give up” and we could fall out of the pose. For example, you’ve probably seen long-distance endurance athletes, like Iron-man competitors or marathon runners, collapse as they are making their way toward the finish line. Their muscles are fatigued past their limit. They are no longer able to contract and produce force. Maybe you’ve experienced a less dramatic version of muscle fatigue after many repetitions of chaturanga in a vinyasa practice. If your shoulders simply can’t hold you in the posture one more minute and you fall through to the floor, then probably you are experiencing some amount of muscle fatigue.
Another possibility when muscles are fatigued and we try to create a particular action anyway, is that the body could recruit other muscles to try to do the same action as the fatigued muscles. These other muscles may be less than ideally suited to the action, and as a result of trying to “make” something happen in a non-ideal way, we could strain something.
How do muscles get stronger?
If we move more slowly through the process of doing our practice and don’t push through overly-fatigued muscles, then we will get stronger. So yes, you do need to tax your muscles in order to stimulate the muscles to get stronger. Exactly what is happening in our body that creates the additional strength that we feel is still being debated. What has been suggested so far is that there is both a muscle cell component and a nervous system component. When we use our muscles, the muscle cells get larger and are able then to produce more force. We also develop a pattern of muscle use if we use muscles in a particular way regularly. Our nervous system responds to these patterns of muscle-use by getting more muscle cells to fire together, which also produces more force.
Flexibility versus strength
Of course practice is not just about building strength. The practice is also working on our flexibility, and hopefully taking our body toward a balance of strength and flexibility over time. Whatever our converging histories are, unless we start yoga very young, we will come to yoga practice with patterns in our bodies. Maybe one shoulder has developed strength differently because we pitched for a baseball team for years. Maybe we have a difference in right side and left side of the upper body because we play the violin. Maybe we were in an accident that left some imbalance in the body.
Whatever those patterns are, our yoga practice will start to work with them, hopefully leading to a more balanced structure over time. But, that process can take a long time and there is no speeding it up just because we feel impatient. The various patterns in the body that we are working with may mean that we don’t yet have access to the flexibility and/or strength in a particular area yet. We need to allow that process to unfold in its own time. Trying to do more practice than our body is available for can lead to injury.
The yoga part
And then there’s the yoga answer to the question: How much is too much yoga practice too soon? When we’re considering the answer to this question from a yogic perspective, it’s worth considering why each of us individually is doing a yoga practice in the first place. There are many reasons why we might be doing a yoga practice and it’s likely that our reasons for practice will evolve somewhat as we continue to practice. If one of our reasons for practicing yoga is to cultivate a greater degree of mindfulness, then we have a lot to gain by getting curious about the process of our yoga practice as it unfolds.
If we take the perspective that some part of our asana practice is about developing mindfulness and equanimity, then we won’t get anywhere sooner by trying to take on more practice than we are ready for, because there isn’t anywhere to get to. It’s an unending, always moving process. Cultivating an interest in the present moment is a skill that has immeasurable value when we can translate it into practice off the mat.
What are the cues that you (or a student) might be doing too much yoga practice too soon?
- You’re finding that you usually have no energy left for the rest of the day
- You are getting over-use type injuries
- You can’t maintain concentration for the length of your practice on most days
- You can’t maintain control of your breathing during most of your practice
Andrews, M.A.W. How does exercise make your muscles stronger? Scientific American. Accessed: https://www.scientificamerican.com/article/how-does-exercise-make-yo/
Wan, J., Z. Qin, P-y. Wang, Y. Sun, and X. Liu. 2017. Muscle fatigue: general understanding and treatment. Experimental and Molecular Medicine. 49(10):384. Accessed: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC5668469/
Westerblad, H., D.G. Allen, and J. Lannergren. 2002. Muscle fatigue: lactic acid or inorganic phosphate the major cause. News In Physiological Sciences. 17(1):17-21. Accessed: https://www.physiology.org/doi/full/10.1152/physiologyonline.2002.17.1.17
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David explains why stabilization and depression of the scapulae is as important as squeezing the shoulder blades together in upward dog.