• Christina Raskin

Tension vs. Compression

Ever hear a yoga teacher say, “Just keep stretching and you’ll get deep in that pose, one day.” Or “it just takes practice and then you’ll be able to do your {fill in the blank}”

I hate to tell you but you might practice and practice but never get those centre splits. Those yoga teachers are only partially correct.

Have you ever wondered why, after years of a dedicated yoga practice, you still haven’t ‘mastered’ that elusive pose?

There are three things that dictate a person’s range-of-motion in a joint and thus they dictate how far a person can get into a shape:

1. The bone/joint shape

2. The capsuloligamentous structures- basically the ligaments surrounding the joint

3. The muscles around the joint

You can not change the shape of your bone/joint and you do not want to stretch the ligaments, in most cases. There are rare times a physiotherapist can address overly tight ligaments but that is not something we want to do in a general public flow yoga class.

So the only thing we can affect in our yoga practice to increase range-of-motion in the body are the muscles around the joint.

Thus, if someone wants to go deeper into a pose, we need to first figure out if that is anatomically possible in their body. I.e. Is it their muscle or their skeleton that is holding them back?

So how do you know, when practicing a pose, if you can’t go deeper because of the bone structure or because of a tight muscle?

I’ll tell you how, learn how to tell the difference between tension and compression in your body.

Tension- The sensation of a muscle being stimulated or stretched, the ‘opening’ of a muscle. Tension also relates to contraction (either sustained or temporary) and twisting.

Compression- When bone hits bone or tissues are compressed between two bones. Compression in and of itself is not bad and not painful, you’ve just hit your full range-of-motion. If you try to push further it might lead to injury because the movement will go into other parts of the body.

So how do you tell the difference in your body?

When you feel the sensation in the direction you are moving towards, you are likely experiencing compression. When you feel the sensation in the area you are moving away from then that would be tension.

An excellent place to explore this is in external rotation in the hip joint. For example, in Baddha Konasana (Butterfly or Shoe Maker’s Pose). When you sit in this shape the hips are in external rotation. To see if you can not go any deeper due to compression or tension just notice where you are feeling the sensation.

If you feel restricted in the outer hip, that is direction your legs are moving towards (towards the ground), so that is compression. If you feel the restricted sensation in the area you are moving away from, the groin, then that tells us that there is tension in the groin muscle.

So if you feel it in the outer hip, compression, that tells us that you can not go any further in this pose as you have hit bone-on-bone in the hip joint. If you feel it in the inner thigh, tension, then we know that if you stretch the groin muscle more then you will eventually be able to go deeper.

If you, or your student, is feeling compression in a pose then you’ve hit your full range of motion in that joint. It will NOT change no matter how long you practice or how dedicated you are. And this limit is different for every single body because we all have unique skeletons.

This news can be discouraging or liberating, depending on how you choose to see it. How liberating that you can let go of the idea that you aren’t working hard enough? Or let go of working towards that ‘perfect’ pose if it isn’t something your body will ever do.

Instead you can start to practice the real yoga, the yoga of being present in your body and accepting yourself just as you are. Realizing that you are perfect and that you don’t have to look a certain way or ‘master’ a yoga pose to be happy.

The real practice of yoga starts when you’ve hit that limit. That’s when you have to accept and be present with it. Stop the doing and the working…. just be.

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