I’m really unfit and already stretchy – should I do yoga?

There is something important to be aware of regarding yoga practice. I appreciate that experts in yoga might not agree with what I’m about to say, but I say it from the perspective of a practitioner who occasionally has to treat someone who has ‘put their back’ out doing yoga.

Before I explain how this can happen, let me say that yoga is an excellent and structured program aimed at improving muscle tone and endurance, balance, health and flexibility.

But what is it about yoga, compared to other approaches like pilates and gym, that might cause a problem for some people?

The main point is that some of the asanas (‘poses’) in yoga – not all, but some – take the spine to an ‘end of range’ involving compound spinal movements.

Take, for example, the famous triangle pose in the picture below.

Standing in Utthita Trikonasana pose
Standing in Utthita Trikonasana, extended triangle pose.

Here you can see the practitioners have a considerable amount of sidebending and rotation going on through the whole spine.

In this position, anyone’s spine – especially the low back portion – is at its maximum unbalanced position.

Ligaments are at full stretch in some areas, and off-stretch in others. Muscles, both large and small, are working overtime holding a sustained contraction (so as to hold the posture).

This is where the benefits come from, of course, but also where the risks arise – just like in any activity or exercise.

For any ‘body-type’, an uncontrolled ‘extra’ movement in this position might cause the system to stop coping – to ‘fail’. The movement could be an attempt to increase the pose (e.g. to copy the instructor, or someone next to you) or could be when coming out of the pose as the instructor asks you to come up. Regarding this latter point, it is the first small movement that is the most critical to get right.

Now, this applies to all of us. But what if you already have loose ligaments and low muscle mass and poor tone and strength?

To really understand what I mean by this, take a look at my previous blog.

in this situation, an overly-stretchy and muscularly weak person might take up yoga with the best of intentions, but even a gentle class, especially if it takes the participants to sustained ‘end-of-range’ poses, might well be too much for them.

That’s why I generally advise this sub-type of patient to start off with some other form of exercise, for example pilates.