Why and How to Activate Your Muscles in Yoga Poses
For some time now I’ve been suggesting that you add “isometric muscle contraction” to your yoga poses to enhance both strength building and stretching. I, myself, have been experimenting with it quite a bit in my yoga practice, and have noticed some dramatic results. Today I’m going to go into detail about both the benefits of this technique and the best ways to practice it so you, too, can give it a try.
Why You Should Activate Your Muscles in Your Yoga Practice
Stretching. When you are stretching a particular muscle, consciously activating the agonist muscle (the opposite muscle to the one you’re stretching) will cause the muscle you are stretching to release (though reciprocal inhibition). For example, if you are stretching your back thigh muscles (hamstrings), activating your front thigh muscles (quadriceps) will release your back thigh muscles, allowing you to increase the hamstring stretch.
Bone Strengthening. Although a weight-bearing yoga pose on its own will strengthen bones, if you consciously contract the muscles holding you up by firming them toward the bones, you will enhance the bone strengthening effects of the pose. For example, if you’re standing in Tree pose (Vrksasana), firming your leg muscles will enhance bone building in the standing leg.
Muscle Strengthening. As you work in strength building poses, you can strengthen more than just the obviously active muscles by consciously contracting other muscles as you work in the pose. For example, as you hold you arms out to the sides in Warrior 2 (Virabhadrasana 2), you can activate your triceps as well as your biceps to increase all-around arm strength.
Joint Safety. For people with joint problems, such as arthritis, consciously firming the muscles that support a joint will help protect the joint from strain or wear and tear. For example, if you have knee arthritis, firming the muscles on all sides of your thighs in Extended Side Angle pose (Utthita Parsvakonasana) will help support your knees. And for people who are overly flexible and can bend easily into deep forward bends and backbends, consciously activating the muscles that are supporting you in the pose will prevent you from hanging from your joints, which can cause injury. For example, instead of passively dropping into pose where you bend backward or forward from the hips, such as Camel pose (Ustrasana) and Standing Forward Bend, (Uttanasana) you can protect your hip joints by activating your upper thigh and lower buttock muscles.
How to Activate Your Muscles in Yoga
To achieve the benefits I’ve described, you should contract your muscles gently rather than strongly. Strongly contracting a muscle shortens the muscle, which seems to prevent you from moving as freely in the yoga pose. On the other hand, gently firming a muscle toward the bone provides muscular support without interfering with movement. If you’re not used to working this way, it may take some practice. Take it in two steps:
Consciously relax the muscle, allowing it to lengthen.
Gently firm the muscle toward the bone.
Stretching. When you are stretching a particular muscle, bring your awareness to the agonist muscle (it is already contracting), which is the opposite muscle to the one you are stretching. Gently relax and then firm the agonist muscle toward the bone, and feel whether the opposite muscle stretches a bit more. For example, if you are stretching your tricep muscles (underarm muscles) with arms overhead, try gently firming your biceps toward to the bone. (I realize that which muscle is the “opposite” to the one you are stretching is not always obvious but that is an anatomy lesson for another day.)
Another technique I just learned about is that if you are targeting a particular muscle, you can contract the muscle you want to stretch before you go into the yoga pose. For example, if you want to stretch tight hamstring muscles, you could practice Locust pose (Salabasana) to contract the muscles just before practicing Standing Forward Bend (Uttanasana).
Strength Building. If you are practicing a strength-building yoga pose, rather than contracting only the most obviously active muscle, firm all the surrounding muscles around the bone as well. For example, in Downward-Facing Dog pose (Adho Mukha Svanasana), firm all your arm muscles and shoulder muscles toward the bone. When you want to strengthen your hip area, in a standing pose, for example, you can slowly engage the muscles all around your hip joints, ensuring that this action does not pull you out of good alignment.
Joint Safety. For joint safety, you want to emphasize strength and stability rather than promoting more flexibility. So practice as you would for increasing bone or muscle strength by firming the muscles that support your joints. For example, to protect your front knee in Warrior II Pose, you might shorten the distance between your feet so you are not bending your front knee through such a deep range of motion, and then, when your knee is positioned over your ankle joint, focus on firming the muscles on all sides of the knee joint toward the bone.
Another great article from YogaUOnline and Dr. Baxter Bell – Strength Building: How Long to Hold Poses.
Muscles and Core Strength in Yoga – Read another article from YogaUOnline and Olga Kabel – How Yoga Practice Strengthens Your Core Muscles Without Crunches.
Nina Zolotow, RYT 500, Editor-in-Chief of the Yoga for Healthy Aging blog, is both a yoga writer and a yoga teacher. She trained to be a yoga teacher at The Yoga Room in Berkeley, California, has studied yoga therapy with Shari Ser and Bonnie Maeda, and is especially influenced by the teachings of Donald Moyer. She also studied extensively with Rodney Yee, and is inspired by the teachings of Patricia Walden on yoga for emotional healing. Her special area of expertise is yoga for emotional well-being (including yoga for stress, insomnia, depression, and anxiety) and she teaches workshops and series classes on yoga for emotional well-being, stress management, better sleep, home practice, and cultivating equanimity. Nina is the co-author with Baxter Bell of Yoga for Healthy Aging: A Guide to Lifelong Well-Being and co-author with Rodney Yee of Yoga: The Poetry of the Body (with its companion 50 Card Practice Deck) and Moving Toward Balance. She is also the author of numerous articles on yoga and alternative medicine.