When I talk about yoga to the general public, I usually get the response “I would go to yoga but I am not flexible.” Well, I hate break the news to you, but yoga is not about being flexible, it is about balance. All yoga asanas (the physical practice of yoga) is hatha yoga. “Ha” means sun, “tha” means moon. It is the balance between the divine masculine and the divine feminine. A non-egoic yoga practice is about balancing the the divine masculine with the divine feminine. If you are too loose, the postures are there to facilitate strength to improve stablilty. If you are too tight, the postures are there to allow you to become more flexible improving stability. The bigger question… Are you willing to let go your ego to allow for BALANCE?
Bikram’s next claim is stated 3 different ways:
- A heated room protects the muscles to allow for deeper stretching.
- A heated room increases suppleness and elasticity of muscles, ligaments and other supporting structures of the body, allowing for greater flexibility with less chance of injury.
- A heated room allows warm muscles to produce a fluid-like stretch that allow for greater range of motion in the joints.
Let me ask you this… What if (humor me) your body does not need a deeper stretch, or does not need to get more flexible? What if you are in a body that needs to get stronger? What if your body needs both?
There is no clinical data, not even on google scholar, to support the claim that heat protects muscles so I will explain the impact of heat and deep stretching on muscle and fascia (tendons and ligaments). First, we need to discuss the difference between muscular flexibility, joint flexibility and our fascia.
Muscles are flexible because they are elastic. They are elastic because muscles cells are comprised of protein filaments called actin and myosin. These protein filaments allow for contraction (force) and flexibility (motion) by sliding past one another, thus changing the shape of our muscular cells. Muscles are responsible for maintaining and changing posture, movement and locomotion. Some of our vasculature and internal organs contain muscle cells including our cardiovascular, genitourinary and gastrointestinal systems. With fascia lining every muscular cell and muscular bundle, how is it that muscles can remain flexible within its non-elastic fascial housing system?
Fascia encasing the muscles makes up the myofascial system. The myofascial system creates adjustable tension and integrity around the skeleton known as tensegrity. There is a continuous inward pulling of this tensional network with the bones acting like struts allowing the bones to float. The tensegrity model works extraordinarily well when facia is healthy. Healthy fascia is relaxed, pliable, slippery, wet and strong. (Notice I did not say elastic nor flexible). Healthy fascia requires hydration and movement. When hydrated and healthy, fascia has the ability to stretch without restriction, independent of gravity, balance stressors and counter stressors like an anatomical emergency break creating mobility, flexibility, resilience and proprioception… TENSEGRITY. Whether you practice ELDOA, yoga, pilates, etc…. Healthy loading during these practices induces remodeling of the fascial architecture. After longs periods of sedentary behavior (i.e., sitting all day), dehydration, physical and emotional trauma, scarring, and inflammation fascia looses its pliability due to fascial architecture becoming disorganized. It takes some time for the disorganized fascia to unravel and reorganize.
We can safely come to the conclusion that one cannot increase muscular flexibility without healthy fascia. Coming back to the Bikram’s original claim; A heated room increases suppleness and elasticity of muscles, ligaments and other supporting structures of the body, allowing for greater flexibility with less chance of injury. If we are dehydrating the cells of our body during a hot yoga class because of excessive sweating to cool the body down, all-the-while not rehydrating by intaking water, then it is safe to assume that our fascia gets dehydrated and with dehydration, fascia looses its pliability and tensegrity… therefore, the muscle cannot increase its flexibility because the muscles itself cannot move within its dehydrated fascial housing system.
Remember, ligaments and tendons are fascia and have minimal flexibility and elasticity, therefore, they are NOT meant to stretch. The ligaments sole purpose is to support and stabilize our joints. They are not meant to stretch. Tendons cross over a joint space to connect muscle to bone to facilitate movement and locomotion. This is to allow for movement and locomotion. If tendons and ligaments were elastic we would be Elastigirl.
Medical Science Monitors published a study called Effects of heat and cold on tendon flexibility and force to flex the human knee by Petrofesky et al. in 2013. The study revealed “that the anterior and posterior cruciate ligament flexibility increased and the force needed to move the knee decreased with heat by about 25% compared to cold application.” We know that heat will increase ligament stretch. The problem is in a joint heavy posture like virasana and lotus, heat can encourage you to go beyond the point of healthy flexibility. It is a well known fact that these 2 specific postures can put too much tension on the anterior cruciate ligaments and menisci. Once the ligaments over-stretch, they cannot not un-stretch. The loose ligaments cause loose unstable joints which put you at risk for ligamentous tears and joint injuries. This is quite the contrary to Bikram’s claim.
There have been great medical advances with regards to improving and encouraging ligaments to become more stable, but that comes with a pretty hefty price. These medical advances increase blood flow to the ligaments to encourage them to tighten. It all goes back to osteopathy with one simple rule… The rule of the artery is prime! If you can increase blood flow, you can create healing. There are 3 different modalities all with similar affects; prolotherapy, platelet rich plasma (PRP) and stem cells. All of them can be injected right into the ligament of the joint space to encourage ligaments stability. Dr. Guy Voyer has also come up with ways to make our ligaments smarter and stronger. He has identified a way to directly target each individual ligament through a awareness postures and ELDOA exercises.
It is important to remember that a physical yoga practice is not only a moving meditation but is also a form of physical exercise and just like any exercise you can get injured if done unhealthfully.