Sunday, December 30, 2007

Power Yoga: Part 4

Cross-Training Is Not the Total Solution

So how do you correct imbalances? Some try other sports. In hopes of reducing the injuries, they may begin to follow various types of cross-training regimens where they depend on other sports or activities to keep them in shape while the muscles needed for the primary sport rest or heal. "Well, if I can't run, maybe I can bike or skate or swim."

Training for other sports helps, but it is not the end solution. Even though it may help to counter the effects of sport specificity (training at only one sport), or allow you to continue one or another aspect of your exercise during injury, it is not the complete answer to injury prevention, injury rehabilitation, and balanced training. There are two fundamental reasons why it is not.

First of all -- and this is extremely important to remember -- discontinuing a specific sport or exercise does not fix an imbalance that has resulted from or been aggravated by that same sport! Rest may give torn connective tissue or muscle tissue a chance to heal, but it doesn't eliminate the source of the problem. Once you start training again, the same imbalance will cause the same injury over and over again. The tightness never goes away. Muscles don't get longer by themselves. For example, if you ran track in high school or college, and are now forty-five and haven't run a day since then, your muscles are as tight as they were the day you stopped running. You will have lost your strength or your running fitness, of course, but the muscles, unless you have done something about it, are exactly the same length as they were twenty-five years ago. And there is a good chance that if you developed an injury as a result of that tightness, when you start running again the same injury will return like a ghost to haunt you.

A good analogy for this might be to imagine you have driven your car over a major pothole and this has knocked the front end out of alignment. You continue to drive the car, not realizing that it's a little out of balance. Without your awareness, one of the tires begins to wear unevenly, getting thinner and thinner in one spot until, eventually, the tire wears through and one day goes flat! Uh-oh, you think. Flat tire! You are forced to stop driving, yes? So you sit for a while (you rest the injury). You put on a new tire (new tissue forms, the pain and inflammation are gone). If you start to drive again without getting the car aligned and correcting the imbalance, the new tire will begin to wear in the same place and eventually go flat, too.

I generally use this analogy in the first class of every Power Yoga session I teach at the New York Road Runners Club. Then I ask if anyone in the class has had the experience of developing an injury, resting, then resuming training and developing the same injury again. It's amazing. There are tons of people in every class who answer yes.

So what do you do? You straighten the frame! "Muscular imbalance and structural irregularities don't fix themselves" (Axiom No. 5 of the Power Yoga program). You have to do something about it. And that is what you use the Power Yoga workout for, among other things. If you carried a baby on one hip for two years, and now you are running and have a knee problem, it may take having another baby and carrying that baby on the other hip for two years to solve the problem. It might also mean doing Power Yoga for two years.

Second, no one sport perfectly balances and complements any other in strict biomechanical terms. Some sports complement one another well, like cross-country skiing and distance running; others not so well, like basketball and distance running. Some sports have a good direct muscular crossover effect, like Rollerblading and cycling, or climbing and kayaking. Others have very little muscular crossover effect, like cycling and running. Besides, most of us hate to shift our exercising priorities to the point where we would be backing off from the level of achievement that we worked so hard to reach. Only a program designed to specifically open, realign, and build power and flexibility will work effectively as an antidote to the negative effects of exercise and keep us on the road.

Even Iron Will Bend

If the fender of our car gets banged up, what do we do? We take the car to a body shop where the "body workers" will heat up the frame and then remold it to take out the dent. "Even iron will bend if you heat it up" (Axiom No. 6 of Power Yoga). In many of us who've been active exercisers for years, our muscle and connective tissue are starting to feel like the iron in our cars. The only way to get rid of a dent (unless you just want to hammer it out cold -- and some of you actually try that method!) is to heat up our frame and remold it.

Let's say we have a serious injury and need surgery. The surgery might repair a bone or reconnect a severed ligament or muscle, but it does not restore the tissue to the preinjured elastic, supple state. The "memory" of the injury will stay there forever until we do some body work.

More often our injuries are less traumatic. Yet we feel pain. So for relief many of us seek out a sports medical specialist or an orthopedist and expect some miracle. We might get some information about what specifically is wrong with us. Frequently, as is the procedure in allopathic medicine, the doctor will give us drugs, generally painkillers, muscle relaxants, or anti-inflammatories. Then what? We may get rid of pain, spasm, or inflammation. But something caused the pain, spasm, or inflammation. Did we get rid of the cause of the problem? Probably not. Surgery might correct a structural imbalance, but drugs rarely do!

Perhaps we stop all activity and rest. But Axiom No. 7 of the Power Yoga system states: "Stopping training doesn't correct an imbalance." It may give the injury time to heal, but as soon as we begin to train again, as I mentioned previously, the injury will come back. Why is that? Imagine misaligned moving parts rubbing against one another, causing friction, or what we feel as pain. If we stop exercising, the friction stops, so the pain diminishes and the inflammation subsides. But when we start things up again, the moving parts are still in the same biomechanical relationship to one another. And the moment we start using them in the same way, the rubbing starts and the pain returns.

You have to take out the "dent" to stop the rubbing! How do you do that? You have to get in there and knead it around like bread dough and work out the trauma. You have to take the tissue in every direction, both in a stretch and in a contraction. And in order to remold and reshape the tissue while you are doing this pushing and pulling, you have to heat it up. Without the heat, the realignment is not safely possible.

The Alchemical Process

The primary ingredient of the Power Yoga practice -- and what makes it so particularly effective as physical therapy -- is heat. Think of what a glassblower can do with a piece of glass tubing when it is heated. The glass can be shaped into swans, baskets, and unicorns. But imagine trying to reshape the glass without the heat? What would happen? You would end up with a pile of shattered glass.

The heat does more, though, than allow us to realign our frame without breaking. As the connective tissue becomes heated by our practice, it becomes less "solid" and more "liquid." We become pliable for reshaping. In this pliable state, we apply the form of the practice that begins the remolding process. Tight, "dead" spaces that may have been shut down and in shock for years begin to open up and allow increased circulation. Thus, old clumps of gnarly scar tissue, debris, and other by-products of the healing process get moved out, not to mention environmental toxins that accumulate in the body.

The practice can then undo the rigidity and create more space for intercellular fluids to circulate and bring in nutrients while carrying off toxins. So not only does the practice work on restoring function to an injured area and facilitating realignment, but it also works to detoxify the organs and tissue and revitalize the entire system.

When gold is mined it comes in the form of ore. It looks kind of dirty and not much like the gold we think of in coins or jewelry. In order to persuade the gold to come loose from its setting in the ore, we must heat it. Gold can only be purified in the presence of heat. In the same way, to develop the "gold" in ourselves, we must apply heat and cleanse ourselves of the unwanted "ore."

Every injury, whether old or recent, is embedded in "ore." The Power Yoga practice works to restore the gold luster of the tissue, joint, or bone by applying heat and helping the bodily systems of circulation and elimination carry off the unwanted elements.

It's funny how when something goes wrong with us, most of us expect medicine to make it right. Sometimes it can. But what we will learn with our yoga practice is that much of our healing potential is in our own hands, and our active participation is frequently the essential element in effective medical therapy and long-lasting health.

Copyright © 1995 by Beryl Bender Birch

Excerpted from

Power Yoga: The Total Strength and Flexibility Workout
by Beryl Bender Birch
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