Should I Do Yoga?
Is yoga right for you? Could yoga make you a better weightlifter? Could yoga make you a better power lifter? Is yoga good training for sport? Would yoga help you lose weight? Like with most questions I answer on the blog, the answer, of course, is that maybe you should be doing yoga. So let's investigate.
First off, I consider myself a supporter of yoga. It absolutely has benefits. But depending on your goals, it might not be the perfect fit. It just depends what you want out of it.
SHOULD EVERYONE DO YOGA?
I first started thinking about this after reading an article last week titled "Why Elite Athletes Need To Be Doing Yoga."
The basic argument was that yoga introduces slow/controlled movements into a routine, instead of explosive movements found in most sports. This builds a stronger mind-muscle connection and overall body control. It also can help with flexibility.
Clearly I'm not a yoga instructor. I've taken several classes of different styles of yoga over the years for whatever that's worth. But more importantly, I've been coaching fitness for a decade. So here's my take on it yoga for my clients:
Anytime I see a headline or statement saying that everyone needs to be doing a certain set of exercises, I'm skeptical and think you should be too. There are very few blanket statements that apply to everyone when it comes to health and fitness. Stay hydrated would be one. I can't think of many others because everything depends so much on the individual, their goals and starting point.
WHAT ARE THE PERFORMANCE BENEFITS Of Yoga (For Sport, weight lifting, or general fitness)?
From a performance perspective, the benefits of yoga include:
- Providing a time for meditative mental relaxation. Many yoga styles focus on breathing and movement for the duration of the class. You're supposed to clear your head and stay in the moment. From a stress management standpoint, blocking off an hour out of your day for this can be tremendously helpful, and the importance of that in our high-pressure lives can't be overstated. Numerous studies show the mood-improving effects of meditative practices, and whether you're an athlete or a busy person who's juggling a little too much, it can help a lot.
- Potentially improving flexibility. If you're the type of person who feels stiff all over, a regular yoga practice tends to work well. When else will you invest 45-60mins on stretching? Yoga offers an easy way to sign-up for a class and find a relatively fun way to loosed and elongate the body. The down side is that the stretches you're doing in a class setting aren't targeted to your specific needs. Not all muscles are equally in need of more flexibility. What most people don't know is that beyond a certain point, more flexibility isn't better [more on that later].
For instance, there tends to be a lot of spinal flexion (forward bending) in yoga. If your back is sensitive to that position, it's going to hurt, not help you. [Click here to find out more about the 6-basics of back health.]
- Improving strength. Some make the claim that yoga helps improve strength, but in my experience that's an overstatement. Strength, by definition, is the ability to carry out work against a resistance. It's the maximal force you can apply against a load. Yes, some postures will challenge your ability to stabilise the body, especially if you haven't done any strength training before (i.e. you're in an untrained state). But certainly this isn't the best way to build strength. The best way to get stronger is to practice multi-joint exercises (be it with barbell, dumbbell, bodyweight, or another implement) in a way that enables you to progress to using heavier loads over time. If you combine that with some proper core training and specialised exercises to target weak links (after an assessment to determine what those weak links are) you will get better results than by practicing a series of yoga poses.
For more info on the keys to a successful program depending on your level of experience: check out this article.
ARE YOU too FLEXIBLE? So flexible THAT YOGA COULD BE A BAD IDEA?
You should probably not do yoga if you're already 'too' flexible.
Stuart McGill, the well known spine and performance researcher, talks about a concept he calls 'tuned mobility'. The idea - which I wholly subscribe to -is that our goal should be to achieve the right amount of mobility for the tasks we want to perform.
We tend to understand the feeling of stiffness in our bodies to be a bad thing, but that's not necessarily so. There's a trade off between stiffness and mobility. Stiffness is useful because it makes it easier to create tension and control. This is essential to create force (i.e. for demonstrating strength). But if we have too much stiffness, it can become hard to move fluidly through a range of motion. Mobility is useful because it enables us to get into the most effective positions to perform our task. But if we have too much flexibility, it's becomes harder to control your joints. There's a balance to be had based on your goals.
Let me give you some examples to make this important point clearer:
- Someone who's dislocated their shoulder multiple times needs more stiffness. Their joint has literally become too lax (i.e. it has more slack in it), and it's harder for their muscles to properly control. Someone who can't raise their arms over their head may need more mobility, but the chances are very low that they'll ever dislocate their shoulder.
- To get into a deep Olympic style squat, you need plenty of ankle mobility. To be able to run economically, you need sufficient stiffness in the calf/ankle so you can bounce/rebound off the ground more effortlessly (turning your calf into a strong spring). [Although you still need decent ankle mobility to run with good form. More on that here.] The point is, you'd want to work on getting a different level of flexibility in your calf and ankle if you were primarily interesting in Olympic lifting than if you were in running.
- To lift the most weight, a powerlifter needs to keep their spine stiff. To bruk out like a dancehall queen, you need to move your spine [see video]. To perform each task at your best, you require different things.
The average person should have a balance based on their needs but know that there is a tradeoff between stability and mobility.
Yoga And Hyper-mobility
Those who have the biggest problems with this are naturally hyper-mobile.
How can you tell if you're hyper-mobile? You can start by looking at something called the Beighton Score. Check the video for more. You can also ask your physiotherapist or chiropractor. And if you're double jointed, chances are you're hyper mobile.
If you're already hyper mobility, most yoga classes will probably do more harm than good. All of the stretching will only increase your mobility and joint laxity) and do little to improve stability/stiffness. For those individuals, avoid stretching when you feel stiff and opt for self massage instead.
Can YOGA make BACK PAIN worse?
And finally, yoga can incorporate a lot of back/spine bending which can potentially be very bad for those with back pain. Typically back pain is triggered by certain positions. For example, perhaps you feel a bit better when you bend forward, but you feel worse when you bend back. [If you have back pain, get a recap of the most effective treatment methods here.]
If all this back bending is a pain trigger for you, then clearly it's not a good idea.
SO WHAT IS THE BEST PROGRAM FOR YOU?
Hopefully this chart will help guide you. I did a full write up on it here.