During my very first (weekend-long) yoga teacher training we were taught to “swan dive” – bend forward from the hips. I have a lot of mobility in my lower back, so I ended up exaggerating my lower back curve a lot; and since nobody had corrected me, carried this pattern into many other poses. Then, all of the sudden, my back started hurting. What was that about? I went to see another, more experienced yoga teacher who immediately identified my dysfunctional movement pattern. I had to retrain myself in many different poses and as a result, got rid of the back pain and acquired a much stronger core.
This problem is very common in yoga, and is an example of what we call a “release valve.” Release valve is an unfavorable pattern of movement that your body adopts to avoid working certain areas. It also means that you will miss out on all the benefits of the pose and reinforce existing movement patterns, even if they are not serving you. Release valves can show up for a number of reasons:
- Stiffness and limited range of motion that prevents you from doing the full form of the pose
- Excessive mobility that causes you to “collapse” into the posture
- Lack of clarity about what the pose is supposed to accomplish
- Improper training (stemming from the teacher’s misunderstanding or neglect)
Today we will discuss some of the most common release valves and what we can do to correct them.
1. Exaggerating the lumbar curve
This is common for practitioners who have a lot of mobility in their pelvis. It concerns the relationship between the pelvis and the lumbar spine (and is called pelvic-lumbar relationship). Having a healthy pelvic-lumbar relationship is essential to the health of your lower back and the strength of your core. It protects and stabilizes you in virtually every pose; without it your top half becomes disconnected from the bottom half. If you have not developed a habit of progressively contracting your abdomen on the exhalation (we call it a “zip up”) while practicing, your pelvis is likely to tip forward in backbends, forward bends and even side bends. Potential consequences include lower back pain, a weak core, lack of overall stability.
SOLUTION: Zip it up! (Learn more about zip up reasons and technique)
2.“Hanging” on the joints
Every yoga pose requires a delicate balance between strength and flexibility. If a practitioner has loose joints, her flexibility/stability scale is usually tipped toward flexibility. This means that instead of engaging the muscles to work the pose, she can instead rely on her joints and just “hang” there, bypassing the work. Consider the image above. The first practitioner in her effort to keep the hand on the floor is dipping too far in her right hip. Once your thigh moves down past parallel to the ground, it’s harder to engage the leg muscles, so you end up relying on your joints instead. One of the goals of this pose is to strengthen the muscles supporting the hip joint; if you practice the pose the way she does, you destabilize the hip instead. (Read more about stability vs mobility in the hips).
SOLUTION: Engage the muscles (by pressing the foot down) and lift out of the “dip” (so that the thigh is about parallel to the ground). Put the hand on the knee or a block instead.
3. Sticking the chin up
Some of us are in a habit of lifting the chin up all the time. It usually happens because of habits, chronic tension or because we’re trying to keep an eye on what’s going on around us. If you do it consistently, you will create tension in your neck, instead of relieving it. Is that why we come to a yoga class? I don’t think so. (More info – 6 reasons your yoga practice can become a pain in the neck).
SOLUTION: As a general rule, we want to keep the cervical spine and the head in a neutral position, unless we are working with the neck specifically.
4. Shrugging the shoulders toward the ears
This is probably the phrase that I say in my yoga classes most often: “Relax your shoulders”. In fact, some students tell me that they hear it in their sleep. Shoulders climbing up toward the ears is a common response to stress, lack of movement and computer work (read ”modern lifestyle”). It is not surprising that we carry this pattern into our yoga classes. One of my students calls her shoulders “my handy little helpers” because whatever we do, her shoulders are always eager to “help”. Yoga class is a perfect place to deal with this pattern and try to overcome it.
SOLUTION: Relax your shoulders! First step is, of course, noticing that you are tensing them. Once you gain this awareness you can begin to work on consciously relaxing the shoulders when the pose doesn’t call for their participation, and engaging them without tensing when they are involved.
5. Collapsing the chest over the belly
Over the course of the practice we usually take the spine through the full range of motion: bending forward, back, sideways, twisting and lengthening. If your spine or supporting musculature does not allow for a deep side bend, for example, the compensation pattern would be to collapse the chest to turn it into more of a forward bend. This also happens if the student has kyphosis (exaggerated thoracic curve), for example, or just an overall tendency to slouch. If you fall into this pattern, you will be missing out on all the benefits of the postures that you are attempting, while at the same time compromising your spine and your sacrum.
SOLUTION: Lengthen up! Imagine lengthening your spine and moving the chest away from the navel. Oftentimes you will need to limit how far you go into the pose or use a prop, which is perfectly fine and will be more beneficial for you then forcing your way into the pose with a collapsed chest. Strengthening your upper back muscles is also very useful.
These are some easy changes that you can implement and avoid the risks associated with these release valves. There are, of course, many other ways your body can avoid doing what you ask of it. That’s why we need to stay present and alert when we practice. And having a knowledgeable teacher to keep an eye on you is super important, too!