All of us likely have a variety of imbalances in our physical bodies, some of which are structural and not readily within our ability to change to any significant degree, while others are functional and within our ability to change quite substantially.
- Structural imbalances are often skeletal and might include conditions like flat feet, leg-length discrepancy, scoliosis, genu varum (bow-legs), excessive carrying angle, excessive femoral anteversion (pigeon toes), etc. There isn’t a lot that we can do to change these conditions, but there are many strategies that we can employ to ameliorate the negative effects of them. And our yoga practice can also help us to find peace with these conditions, embracing our bodies as beautiful and capable bodies even with its imperfections.
- Functional imbalances, on the other hand, are often muscular and/or fascial and could include conditions like fallen arches, IT-band friction syndrome, patellofemoral tracking dysfunction, shoulder impingement syndrome, etc. These conditions can be addressed by first assessing the imbalances that exist and then prescribing a specific strengthening and stretching protocol designed to restore balance and optimal function
Holy Spirit, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change,
the courage to change the things I can,
and the wisdom to know the difference.
From a functional perspective, a balanced body could be described as one in which there is an optimal degree of strength, flexibility and resting muscle tone within all of the major muscle groups in the body — at every major joint in the body. Most of us probably don’t have a functionally balanced body, but we could work toward creating such balance by making sure that the practice we do consists of postures and exercises that routinely strengthen and stretch every major muscle group in the body on a rotating basis, in a balanced way (easier said than done!). Conversely, we would want to make sure that we weren’t strengthening or stretching some muscle groups excessively, while neglecting others (or even just addressing them much less frequently).
Do you have any idea which muscles you’ve strengthened and stretched this week, and which you’ve neglected? Do your teachers? Most likely not! And beyond that, are the asanas found in yoga even capable of strengthening every muscle in the body?
Yoga Asana Was Not Developed to Bring Balance to the Physical Body
From everything I’ve read, I never got the impression that the ancient yogis were very interested in developing musculo-skeletal balance in their bodies. Rather, they primarily seemed concerned with transcending the small, ego-self and realizing the big, transcendental Self — in merging the Atman, or individual soul, with Brahman, or universal Spirit. There were and are many paths a yogi could take to accomplish this, but the physical path of hatha yoga traditionally included strict ethical conduct, various mental/physical/spiritual purification practices, breathing practices, meditation practices… as well as yoga asana.
Yogis of old were mostly renunciates, and didn’t have day jobs or children to flip up into the air upon arriving home from the office. They didn’t go hiking or swimming or play basketball with college friends on weekends. They wanted to detach from their bodies, not balance them or build them up or slim them down. They spent most of their time sitting in lotus, practicing japa on their mala, chanting verses from the vedas, and merging with the supreme Ultimate! The point I’m leading up to is that when the early yogis started developing and practicing yoga postures, it didn’t seem to be their goal to ensure that the postures brought musculo-skeletal balance to their bodies. Some traditional yogis even hold one of their arms overhead for months or years at a time to practice detachment from the physical body (see image, right).
Traditional yogis sought liberation
from the physical body
Sadhu Amar Bharati has kept his arm raised since 1973 as a form of protest against violence in the world
Sometime around 2001, after about 5 years of intensive asana practice, I was having pain on the anterior side of my right shoulder (not from holding my arm up, I promise!). When it didn’t go away after several months I eventually decided to seek some help from a physical therapist that one of my clients recommended. He performed some assessment exercises and had me describe my yoga practice to him, as well as any other exercise that I did (not much, other than walking). He then told me that I seemed to have a shoulder impingement syndrome, which he felt was probably caused by all the daily chaturangas without rest and without doing any complementary “cross-training” exercises like rotator cuff strengthening and seated rowing to strengthen the posterior shoulders. The awesome anatomy lesson he gave me, and the advice about how I needed to spend some time focusing on strengthening my rotator cuff and "pulling" muscles, was not only eye-opening but perhaps the precise moment when I decided that I wanted to dive more deeply into the study of musculoskeletal anatomy (it was shortly after this experience that I enrolled in the Swedish Institute).
The Pushing Muscles
The pushing muscles of the upper body include:
Photography by Steward Noack, House of Indulgence. All rights reserved.
The pulling muscles of the upper body include:
- Deltoids (posterior fibers): extend the arms at the shoulder joints during pulling exercises
- Rhomboids: retract and downwardly rotate the scapulae at the scapulocostal joints during pulling exercises
- Brachialis: flexes the arm and/or forearm at the elbow joints during pulling exercises
Can We Strengthen Any of the Pulling Muscles in Yoga Asana?
We can strengthen the rhomboids and rear-deltoids (two of the major pulling muscles) by doing table-tops, upward planks, and active bridge pose… but in order to maintain balance in the shoulders you’d have to do as many of these as you do chaturangas every week. And how likely is that? If you practice vinyasa yoga, you might perform around 100 chaturangas per week — while perhaps only doing a handful of table-tops. Furthermore, table-top also strengthens the triceps (a pushing muscle), and not the biceps (a pulling muscle). There are hardly any postures in yoga that strengthen the biceps… unless you count those moments when we occasionally pull on our big toes or pull ourselves more deeply into postures, but this kind of work isn’t enough to balance out the more heavily loaded pushing exercises that we’re doing.
Here’s a little graphic that I made for the ASFYT-2 course to illustrate this:
There seems to be some confusion out there in yoga land that chaturanga strengthens the biceps, and I’ve seen a few yoga articles saying that it does (like this one and this one). However, the biceps muscles (biceps brachii and brachialis) cannot contract in chaturanga because they are reciprocally inhibited by the triceps, which contract eccentrically on the way into chaturanga, isometrically when holding chaturanga, and concentrically when pressing up out of chaturanga (either back to plank or into upward facing dog). If you aren’t convinced, a fun experiment to do is the “flabby biceps” challenge. Find a friend, and then have them bounce your biceps around while you come into chaturanga, hover there for awhile, and then press out of it. It’s quite illuminating when you see how relaxed the biceps are during all three phases of chaturanga.
The anatomy lesson I received from Marcus and then subsequently the education I received at the Swedish Institute radically transformed the way that I practice, and also led me to believe in the importance of cross-training for yoga. As I was teaching a lot in gyms, I started spending a little time before or after my classes doing seated and/or bent-over rows, rotator cuff exercises with therabands, light weights and/or cables, and squats and leg curls to strengthen the glutes, quads & hamstrings. While the hamstrings and glutes can be strengthened somewhat in yoga, I feel that the amount of work they get relative to how much the quads get in the standing postures is somewhat imbalanced, so like to do a little extra time on these muscles at the gym.
If you don’t want to go to the gym, it is very possible to incorporate some cross-training for yoga on your mat and in the classes that you teach. Back when I used to teach at Yoga Works, I bought a few rolls of therabands (yellow, red, blue & black), cut them into 5′ strips, stuffed them into a duffle bag and carried them around to all of my classes about once per month. I’d walk into the room and dump all the bands out on the floor and tell everyone to grab one of each color because we’d be doing a little upper body “cross-training for yoga” tonight. We’d do seated rowing with the black and/or blue band, rear-delt flys with the yellow band, and lateral rotator cuff strengthening with the red or yellow band. At first my students were a little bit hesitant, but they gradually came to really appreciate it and always smiled when they’d see me walking in with that blue duffel bag.
If you decide to incorporate some theraband work into your yoga practice and/or classes, here’s a Zenyasa® sequence that I occasionally teach. I like to do all of the upper body strengthening work right after the Sun Salutations, so that we can do a variety of shoulder stretching variations in the standing posture flow. This puts a temporary break in the flow of the class, but students seems to appreciate the variety and work the therabands, and you’ll get back into the flow soon enough.
- Seated breathing and/or meditation practice to get centered, free the breath, cultivate mindfulness
- Opening the Gates: a comprehensive joint warming series to pack the joints with synovial fluid and move the prana/qi
- Half Salutes and step-back Sun Salutations
- Chaturanga refinement practice and/or Arm Balances – depending on the level of the class, you could either do drills to develop skillful technique in chaturanga (i.e., shoulders back, collar bones broad, core tight, legs strong, etc.), or you could prep and practice a variety of arm balancing postures
- Theraband exercises and tabletops – after working the pushing muscles with the chaturanga drills and/or arm balances:
- Seated rowing in dandasana (round 1, 15x, with blue and/or black theraband)
- Tabletop vinyasa (round 1, 8x with the breath, holding the last one)
- Seated rowing in dandasana (round 2, 15x)
- Tabletop vinyasa (round 2, 8x)
- Rear-Delt Flys with theraband (8-10x, with yellow theraband, holding the last one)
- Transition to virasana for lateral rotation exercises (round 1, 15x, with yellow or red theraband)
- Breathing break; perhaps give a little spiel about the anatomy of the rotator cuff)
- Lateral rotation exercise (round 2, 15x)
- Tripod headstand – demo variations while class practices a triceps stretch (include options appropriate for all levels and give precautions; note that those new to tripod can keep the knees on the floor just place a small amount of weight to the head, or alternatively practice restorative Child’s pose)
- Uttanasana (1 minutes) / Downdog
- Standing Flow 1 (from DD)
- Parsvokanasana (side-angle pose), with half-bind or full bind (for more advanced students)
- Trikonasana, with half- or full bind
- Bird of Paradise (optional, for more advanced classes)
- Unwind/rewind back to downward facing dog
- Standing Flow 2 (from DD)
- Virabhadrasana 1 vinyasa (in and out, then hold)
- Vira I with yogamudra arms (bowing forward to inside knee, fingers interlaced and arms overhead)
- Pyramid pose with hands on the floor (from 2nd pose in series, just place hands on the floor and extend the front knee)
- Warrior 3 into Tadasana
- Eagle pose, standing on opposite leg
- Repeat on second side
- Floor Postures
- Dhanurasana & Bridge
- Supine Leg Stretch & Twist
- Pigeon / Seated Twist / repeat
- Finishing Postures
- Sarvangasana / Matsyasana / Savasana
The following comments were copied over from the first incarnation of this post on Blogger.com. New comments are welcome!
19 Responses to Cross-Training for Yogis: Cultivating Functional Balance in the Upper Body
Speedball steve August 30, 2011 at 12:28 pm
What I’ve been explaining to yoga students for YEARS…..well done, my friend–
Connie August 30, 2011 at 4:23 pm
It’s true, you brought up some great truths. I am glad yoga brings balance to the mind. Congratulations on the new studio, looks great!
Anonymous August 30, 2011 at 6:55 pm
So much appreciate this wonderful article!
Mary Aranas August 31, 2011 at 8:03 pm
This is a wonderfully written, engaging, and super clear article, Jason!
Jason Brown September 3, 2011 at 8:24 am
Hi Steve, Connie, Mary… thanks for leaving your comments. Happy that you enjoyed this blog post
Alicia September 4, 2011 at 7:44 am
Hi Jason, just wondering what makes a pushing muscle a pushing muscle, or a pulling muscle a pulling muscle? Why are triceps pushing or pulling muscles? They can do either action.
Jason Brown September 5, 2011 at 5:52 pm
Hi Alicia, thanks for seeking clarification. When speaking of pushing and pulling muscles, I’m not really talking about muscles per se… but about actions performed by the body, and which muscles contract in support of those actions. A pushing action is one in which we are pushing something away from ourselves, or attempting to. A pulling action is one in which we are pulling something toward ourselves. Because the triceps always attempt to extend the elbow when they contract, they would always support pushing actions… and never pulling actions. If they contract and actually do extend the elbow, then the arm moves toward straight – which is an obvious pushing action.However, perhaps your confusion comes from what happens if the triceps contract in an attempt to straighten the elbow, but the elbow never-the-less begins to flex slowly (as when lowering into a push-up). In this case, they are still acting in support of pushing, but the force of the pushing is less than the force of gravity, and therefore the elbow flexes. Conversely, the biceps always contract in support of pulling actions, and never in support of pushing actions.
To perform a pulling action, you really need something to pull on… such as a free weight, a bar on a machine, a door handle, a resistance band, etc. Seated rowing on a machine or with a resistance band, or bent-over rows using free-weights, are the best ways to strengthen the upper body muscles that act in support of pulling.
So to clarify, the upper body muscles that act in support of pushing are the front deltoids, pecs, triceps (and trapezius for overhead press)… and the upper body muscles that act in support of pulling actions are the rear deltoids, biceps, rhomboids (and trapezius for rear-delt flys). I hope this helps. Best, Jason
Jessica Bonnema September 5, 2011 at 9:20 pm
I love this. You are such a great teacher.
Jason Brown September 5, 2011 at 9:30 pm
Thanks Jessica! Please come by and take a class with me sometime, as my guest. Would be great to see you again
creyogini25 September 6, 2011 at 3:41 pm
This is a great, clear article Jason. Thanks so much for sharing! And congrats on the studio and the wonderful things you are sharing in the yoga world.
Ariana September 6, 2011 at 9:31 pm
What an excellent post. I will be coming back to this one again and again – great content!
Sharon September 7, 2011 at 2:19 pm
Fabulous article, thank you Jason for your insight and knowlege. As both a Pilates and Yoga instructor, I believe this information makes a strong case for the two methods being quite complementary in nature. Many Pilates exercises address the muscular actions that are not executed in a traditional Hatha/Vinyasa yoga practice, and vice-versa. What a gift it is to have two such full and beautiful methods at our fingertips to increase our functional strength as well as our mental and spiritual clarity. Thanks again, looking forward to Anatomy class! Namaste
Jason Brown September 7, 2011 at 3:02 pm
Creyogini25, Ariana & Sharon — thanks so much for your comments. I’m happy that you all enjoyed the article. I’m hoping to start writing more regularly
Tiger Yogini September 8, 2011 at 8:42 pm
As always, a brilliant article Jason!!
Vsalerie G April 28, 2014 at 4:15 pm
Great article Jason and I like how it can be sequenced into a vinyasa class. I think I remember someone mentioning somewhere on your sites that they found a reasonable place to buy them online?? If you were to get 3 strengths for classes, what colors would you recommend? I am so in need of taking better care of my WEAK but big biceps as well as my shoulder muscles!! Thanks for all your great articles. Also wanted to let you know how much I enjoyed coming back to your trainings!! Love it all!
Jason Ray Brown April 28, 2014 at 6:45 pm
Thanks, Val! If you were to choose just 3 colors, I’d get black, red and yellow. You can get them at Amazon for a good price (click here). It was great to see you again recently as well!
Maxine May 5, 2014 at 4:17 pm
Thank you for a great article.
I am interested to find out what the “Opening the gates” sequence is that you refer to in the sequencing part of the article? you mentioned joint releasing so is it the same as the Pawanmuktasana series of the Bihar School of Yoga and in the book by Mukunda Stiles -Structural Yoga Therapy? I am not familiar with the Zenyasa Yoga sequences I live in England. Thank you
Jason Ray Brown May 13, 2014 at 12:42 am
Hi, Maxine… thanks for your comments and question. Yes… Opening the Gates simply refers to the joint-warming series that we do at the beginning of each Zenyasa yoga practice. There isn’t a set sequence that we do, but I think it’s probably similar to Pawanmuktasana and the SYT joint warm up. I like to mix up the way I do it… sometimes stating supine, sometimes standing. Sometimes I incorporate some Qi Gung or Tai Chi moves. I’ll try to shoot some video of it at some point and post it here