Yoga poses can be a helpful compliment in the rehabilitation process. The integration of yoga postures and techniques into rehabilitation after injury encourages a synthesis of body and mind, allowing for rejuvenation of the body. Because the human being is a psychosomatic unit, with no mind-body separation, post-operative sports rehabilitation training can benefit from the holistic concept that mind and body influence each other. The yoga asanas- that is, the static yoga postures that are executed slowly and without force, allowing muscles to slowly and gradually stretch to a final position- can be used for warm-up, cool down, strengthening and stretching. They can help strengthen and correct muscle imbalances, act as supplemental exercises to promote strength and endurance of specific muscle groups, prevent injury of frequently loaded muscle groups through the post-exercise regenerative benefits of muscle stretching, while promoting the concentration that allows for the integration of mind and body. There are four steps necessary when doing the asanas to allow the integration of mind and body. These include 1.) body control 2.) breath awareness 3.) focus of attention through self-discipline and 4.) concentration. Though the psychological benefits of practicing yoga postures are well known, each yoga posture’s focus point can have, if chosen, a physiological effect on a muscle, ligament, or joint. Asanas are effective for developing correct body posture and increasing flexibility in all body joints, including the spinal column.
Physiologically, how can we improve flexibility through stretching with yoga poses? And just exactly what are the structures that we are trying to stretch?Increasing flexibility refers to lengthening of nerves and the bellies of muscles, the two anatomical structures that run lengthwise through limbs and across joints. The other structures that compose musculoskeletal tissue and act as connective tissue restraints to flexibility- cartilage, joint capsules, tendons, and ligaments- have little, if any, ability to stretch. Indeed, it is their resilient structure that contributes to our body’s stability. Specifically, ligaments and tendons can accommodate no more than a 4% increase in length during stretching before tearing begins. They have their purpose, and if we persist in trying to stretch them beyond their limits, we can often do more harm than good. The structures we concentrate on lengthening in order to improve flexibility are instead the muscles, which lengthen to allow improvements in a joint ranges of motion. During active stretching in the yoga asanas, the fascia connective tissue surrounding the muscle fibers lengthens along with the muscles, and flexibility is improved in a safe and effective way. Nerves embedded in muscle can accommodate 10-15% of stretch without incurring damage. With extreme overstretching beyond this 10-15%, the sheaths that surround nerves can stretch beyond what is safe for their enclosed nerve fibers, manifested in early warning signs of numbness, sensitivity and tingling. These signs, if ignored, can contribute to the development of prolonged sensory and motor deficits. So obviously, there is a healthy limit to respect when stretching muscles and their associated neural elements.
In the occasional rehabilitation case where tightening muscle and soft tissue is the goal, we can take the focus of the asana from stretching and instead concentrate on actively performing repetitive movements within short ranges of motion in the pose. Muscle fibers will shorten, and connective tissues will soon follow suit.
When beginning to integrate yoga poses into rehabilitation of a sports related injury, check first with your physical therapist to confirm which poses will be beneficial for your particular injury. Then cultivate the patience to move forward steadily, no matter how slow your progress. You will accomplish your goal with consistent effort.
With its dependence on little equipment, yoga is an easily portable program for athletes and physical therapy clients (at the discretion of your therapist). Whether you are working on core strength to hold you steady in your asana, standing balance, meticulous alignment and muscular engagement, muscle stretching to release tension, enhancing mobility, or for postural improvement, yoga is a portable process that can add diversity to your workout and rehabilitation routine and keep you focused on the goal.