The practice of Yoga on the human body system is expansive and eternal. The muscles, bones, nervous system, respiratory, circulatory and digestive systems of the human body are greatly benefited from regular practice of yoga asanas. All our body systems are coordinated with each other. It’s a beautiful practice that teaches us to work from the inside out, as it draws our attention inward and teaches you to focus on the breath. I have also learnt that yoga has tremendous healing capabilities. We discover not just how our body systems are intrinsically coordinated, but also how our physical, mental and spiritual selves are connected too. Once we are able to see the connectedness, we understand the Self more, hence healing takes place.
Today we will dive deeper into the relationship between Yoga and the muscular and skeletal systems, together with a few examples of muscle groups engaged for yoga poses. Yoga practice allows the lengthening and loosening of muscle and the connective tissue (such as fascia) of the body. Regular practice develops strong muscles which help the body to align the skeletal system. Unlike with weight-lifting, yoga allows us to build strength within the muscles, while simultaneously creating flexibility. One vital effect of yoga on muscular systems is that it allows us to be more pliable and keeps joint pains and disorders at bay.
There are 3 types of muscles in our bodies: namely,
Also known as the involuntary muscles, these are not attached to the bones. Urinary, genital and respiratory track are made of smooth muscles. The best examples of involuntary muscles are those of the stomach, the intestines and the heart. The walls of arteries are also made up of involuntary muscles.
Being an involuntary muscle, they are the muscles which are present in the heart to frame up the cardiac tissue.
Also known as voluntary muscles, these are attached to the bones. They are related to the central nervous system. The bulky fleshy part in the middle of the muscle is the belly of the muscle. They are the largest part of the muscular tissue, consciously controlled. They may be directly attached to the bone or the cartilage to increase the efficiency of the system.
Yoga asanas relieve muscular tension by means of the slow contraction and lengthening of certain muscle groups. The muscles are stretched for a length of time and then are allowed to relax and regenerate. This allows the muscles to absorb and be enriched by nutrients, oxygen, and prana. As the muscles become more flexible, toned, and supple.
Types of actions taken by muscles:
- Concentric Contraction
The muscle fibers contract and generate more force than the resistance that is present so that the ends of the muscle slide toward each other and the muscle shortens.
- Eccentric Contraction
The muscle fibers contract and generate less force than the resistance that is present so that the ends of the muscle slide apart and the muscle actually lengthens. The muscle is active as it lengthens, so this is not the same as relaxing the muscle.
- Isometric Contraction
The muscle fibers contract and generate the same amount of force as the resistance that is present so that the ends of the muscle neither move apart nor move together and the length of the muscle does not change. (Eg. Holding a yoga pose, or holding a glass of water in mid air)
Above in the image you can see the examples of concentric, eccentric and isometric contractions.
The elasticity of a muscle can be extended within its normal limits. One of the goals of yoga is to work the muscles and increase the resting length. If done consistently, the static stretching of Hatha Yoga, where a pose is held for a period of time, can help to increase the resting length of the muscles. This makes them more flexible and resilient. Yoga asanas induces greater flexibility faster than other methods because each stretch extends the normal elasticity limit of the muscles gently, thoroughly, and in a relaxed manner. They are designed to work with opposing muscle groups. When we work with these agonist and antagonist muscles, one contracts or shortens while the other is lengthened. For example, when one performs paschimottanasana, the hamstrings are lengthened or extended while the quadriceps are shortened. When one performs salabhasana, the quadriceps are lengthened or extended while the hamstrings are shortened. These two asanas work well together to stretch and tone a set of agonist and antagonist muscles — the hamstrings and quadriceps.
Yoga asanas also strengthen the tendons and ligaments, keeping them healthier and more flexible. Tendons are connective tissue that bind muscle to bone, and ligaments are fibrous bands or sheets of connective tissue that bind bone to other bones. They are not as easily stretched as actual muscle tissue. If a person’s posture and balance are good, the tendons and ligaments will remain strong and elastic, supporting the skeleton more efficiently.
Linking to the skeletal system, now you see how the two systems, muscular and skeletal are linked in yoga practice.
I will start by talking about the spine, as the spine is a central focus in yoga practice. Not only is it a conduit for the flow of prana into the body and nervous system, but it is one of the most important sections of the anatomy because it allows us to move, turn, rotate, and live in an incredibly mobile way. The more flexible the spine remains throughout our life, the more mobile and flexible our entire body will be.
A healthy spine contains four natural curves, sometimes called an s-curve — two are concave (lumbar and cervical) and two are convex (coccyx and thoracic). Ideally all four should be preserved with no excess compression on the vertebrae or curving in other areas of the spine. Asana helps in maintaining elongation of the spine and thus the proper curvature.
Yoga asanas aligns and lengthens the spinal column, allowing greater flexibility and range of motion. Keeping the spine flexible increases the circulation to it and also massages the inner articulations of the spine. This stimulates the muscles and nerves and increases the blood flow to the entire spinal area. The spine must be continually loosened and exercised. Otherwise the vertebrae tend to become compressed and squeezed together into smaller and smaller areas of the spine. Yoga asanas help to alleviate stiffness in the spine, loosen the vertebrae, and create a healthier “space” between them. This decompresses the spine, helping to alleviate tension in the muscles, tendons, and joints.
Proper joint articulation is important for flexibility and overall health. Asana practice helps to keep the articulation of the joints soft rather than hard and brittle. Joints allow for the independent movement of specific parts of the body. As our muscles become tense, the spaces between the joints become compressed. In extreme cases, the synovial membrane can become damaged and cartilage can wear down (arthritis). Prolonged muscular tension can also cause joint pain of various types and degrees. Proper alignment and muscle tone, which are achieved through asana practice, help to alleviate this and yield greater flexibility. The gentle stretching of the asanas relaxes the body and mind, releases tension, and creates a sense of space for movement around every joint in the body. This in turn allows for a freer flow of prana.