Let’s start “borrowing” movement in Yoga

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In sports and in life, we “borrow” movement a lot to complete functional tasks or to perform in athletics. For example: there is a borrowing of spinal extension and rotation to get our arm behind us to reach into the back seat of the car or pitch a baseball.  We borrow pelvic rotation to increase our spine rotation range of motion while sweeping the floor or hitting a golf ball. We borrow lumbar spine extension to increase our hip extension to climb the stairs two at a time or kick a soccer ball. These are all examples of “healthy” ways to borrow movement. Conversely, if we are reaching into the back seat and hiking our shoulder to our ear at the same time, or if we borrow spinal extension just from L4-L5 every time we climb 2 stairs or kick a soccer ball, we could set up for injury over time, these are examples of “less unhealthy” ways of borrowing movement.

Healthily borrowing movement happens frequently in life and not so frequently in yoga. It made us think… Maybe it's the inherent pace, frequency and goals of performing these functional activities that allows that freedom.  

In yoga classes, often we are instructed how to place our body and how not to borrow movement (which feels inherently less “functional”). Students are used to hearing cues to:

Keep our spine stable during arm binds or garuda,  lock the knees in line during an utkatasana twist to keep our pelvis from moving, or to keep hips “square and level” in warrior 1, or warrior 3.  

Yet, it’s not uncommon in yoga to see examples of “sub-optimal” movement strategies and borrowing. Some of these are: segmental spinal extension during downward dog splits, shoulder over-abduction during twisted triangle, or hip adduction, internal rotation and knee hyperextension during ardha chandrasana (collapsing into the hip). These are the types of aberrant strategies that can occur when the motor planning and awareness is not the focus of the class.


So what’s the difference between movement in life/sport and in yoga.  Nothing? We could argue that. Something? For this post, let’s play out that there are differences, big differences.  The main ones are: speed, repetition, and end-range goals.  

Speed: while this is a variable dependent on the teacher, studio and class you take, yoga for the most part has some pretty slow moving components and holding of postures, which differentiates it from most athletics and functional activities.

So while in sport and function we quickly move our bodies into and out of positions that borrow motion to meet an end goal, in yoga, we sometimes stay in the pose for a while.  This is worth considering when there is the potential that the student pushes their body to the limit of their muscular control, stability, strength, endurance, breath, nervous system.  

Conversely, sometimes we are moving quickly in yoga class, with limited time for awareness in transitions and rapidly into and out of poses that are (many times) pushing our end-range of motion for some of our body (which includes our joints and all the tissues).

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Repetition of shape: With some exceptions in the athletic world where the goal is to make the exact same shape over and over (baseball pitchers, gymnastics & dance for example), in other sports (soccer, tennis, volleyball, even golf and skiing), the shapes we make with our body vary from movement to movement, game to game, circumstance to circumstance to meet the demands at hand. Yoga is different from sports because we are actually trying to use our body to make the same shapes over and over, and that is THE demand.  In sport, we are making shapes with our bodies that meet the external demand of the sport, for example, lunging our body to return a tennis serve or jumping to catch a fly ball.  In yoga, we strive for consistency in our sun salutation shapes, the most open up dog, reaching the heels down in down dog, square hips in warrior I, etc.

End-range goals: striving to move from end-range to end-range is common in yoga, maybe even considered a goal. Although there are many athletic and functional daily activities that may use end range mobility to get there, there is also the inherent variability that we use in the process to get there, as again, sport and functional activities are demand specific, a means to meeting a need or end goal.

In ardha surya namaskar A we are moving from end range hip flexion in standing forward fold to end range hip extension in standing backbends.  Or in seated spinal twist as we move from end range spinal rotation in one direction to another. Or in garudasana, where we move from end range shoulder IR to end range shoulder ER.   Overall, to create the shapes we may consider “ideal” in yoga, one or more of our joints are striving toward their end range of motion mobility on purpose. If we aren’t aware, if we aren’t stable, if we aren’t strong, these places are where we can injure our tissues.  This is where hip labrums can get torn, proximal hamstring tendons get irritated, and backs get “tweaked”.

How do we create a more functional yoga class where it’s ok to borrow movement? Where we teach the “optimal and healthy” ways to borrow movement as PART of the class? It begins with awareness.  

How do we get to that point? It has everything to do with: The teacher, the class, the sequencing and the pace.

How do we borrow movement safely in yoga?

Three things:

  1. Educated teachers

  2. Smart Sequencing

  3. Slower movement (speed can increase with practice)

Educated Teachers: When teachers learn their (only 15-20 hours!) of anatomy in their YTT, it better not be the names of all the muscles in the body and their origins and insertions.  There is no place for that, it’s not practical, and there is just so little time that IT HAS TO BE PRACTICAL. So it starts with practical, applicable movement education in the YTT.  Teachers should be learning safe ways to modify poses, what the body parts need to do in the poses, how that affects our tissues and bones, and how to prepare bodies for these poses. We do this in our Foundations Program, and think it is the best way to keep students safe in yoga. With these practical tools, teachers should learn to recognize those “sub-optimal” patterns of borrowing movement mentioned above, spine extension with downward dog splits, hyper abduction of the shoulder with twists, collapsing into the hip in ardha chandrasana. They should learn how to carefully reign these in by offering students information on how to vary, or limit and especially bring awareness to these patterns.

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Smart Sequencing: This is where functional movement comes into play.  This is the build it up part of the yoga class. This is where the teacher can educate the students about the movement options they can use to create a shape in class.  Explaining movement options and the importance of movement variability is NOW the responsibility of all yoga teachers. For example: a teacher who is sequencing a class around warrior 3 should be comfortable teaching that the hip can be open or closed, how to safely achieve either, why its important to do both, and be able to build those options up from a very basic (laying down first) level.  This way, the student is empowered with ways to scale back a pose if they aren’t up to the “full expression”, and know how to vary that pose so they aren’t repeating the same exact shape over and over. It is within the sequencing where the teacher can lay the foundation of building a downdog split from the core up. Teaching how one way to perform a downdog split can be with spinal extension, however, it may be nice to have the option to try it without spinal extension. The core elements can be taught in supine, progressed to quadruped, then finally into the full pose. Same for shoulder hyper-abduction and twists, and one legged poses with collapsing hips.

Incidentally, this is how rehab specialists attend to motor planning. Motor planning is the magic of combining awareness, proprio/interoception, timing and sequencing, strength and alignment to a goal movement. Teaching the pieces of movement, allowing the athlete to own those and the variations, building in challenges and endurance. All of this to create neuroplastic changes within the motor cortex to execute more efficient movement.

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Speed: In order to teach movement options and variability, the pace will have to slow initially.  As a teacher, you should take your time to share these lessons, maybe just about one pose, just a portion of your class.  Allow the student to create the awareness of it, find time to practice the options, and then over time build speed around it.  The goal here is to create new samkaras or neural grooves. New motor plans and options for the brain to tell the body how to create a shape.  This is magic for athletes & should be magic for yoga students. Break the movements down into smaller pieces, create options, variability, take the the time to create brain to body plans and then slowly increasing the speed and demands.

Closing thoughts, your take homes:

  1. Yoga inherently strives for consistency in shape, sport and functional movements do not, and consistency in shape may set up up for injury.

  2. We need to recognize there are “sub-optimal” borrowing movement patterns that can be shifted into “optimal” for greater functionality and variability in yoga

  3. Speed, repetition and end-range goals are what sets yoga apart from sport and functional movements

  4. Teacher education, sequencing and speed can create a more open setting to borrow movement and create safety

  5. Movement options, movement variability and building speed are the keys to keeping yoga students safe, engaged and strong.  

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