In true Yogi form, we practice “honoring the body over honoring the pose”. We hear often that yoga is individual, to do what feels good for your own unique body. And I couldn’t agree more. Yoga is a rare opportunity in our day to tune into our own body and our wisdom.
Yet there are some super simple and game-changing(!) pieces of the yoga puzzle that we don't hear in yoga classes. The focus today is on an anatomy fundamental principal that everyone can tap into and benefit from, and that’s the engagement of reciprocal inhibition (RI). Reciprocal Inhibition is the single most powerful tool I’ve found to physically improve my practice, and the practice my students.
Moving with awareness of reciprocal inhibition will help you strengthen your body, and turbo-charge your power. You may also reduce your risk of injury and get the maximum benefit from your practice.
BIG WORDS, MADE SIMPLE..
Reciprocal inhibition describes the process of muscles on one side of a joint engaging (contracting) to allow muscles on the other side of that joint to relax (lengthen).
Your knee is the joint, and big muscles on either side are hamstring and quad. Recipricol inhibition means you’re engaging your quad to allow your hamstring to relax.
WHAT IT MEANS IN YOGA PRACTICE
Engaging RI means moving through asanas as active stretches instead of passive ones.
As a student and teacher, I watch so many students move through many of the asanas (poses), especially folding positions of flexion in the body as passive, resting poses, instead of being active in them.
In most 60 minute vinyasa classes, you are likely to only move through a handful of passive poses. Depending on your teacher, you’ll probably spend 75% of the practice in active poses. You’ll be at a much bigger advantage to approach poses through an active stretch mindset, and then move into a passive state, than the other way around.
BREAKING IT DOWN - HOW YOU CAN DO IT :)
Watch my video here!
Let’s break down one of the secretly hard yoga poses, Halfway Lift, to understand how to benefit here from RI engagement.
There are 2 recipricol inhibition actions here!
The first one mimics the first photo above, Engaging the quads to stretch the hamstring.
The second is engaging the core to lift the lower back. This pose is about building core strength. Your core being your low back and your abs. If you just lift your chest and your head, and skip out on the full movement of tightening your core, you end up losing the benefit of the practice, plus you make your low back vulnerable for injury. As the most cited injury with yoga, low back pain is the last thing you need.
HOW TO INCORPORATE, SIMPLE STEPS
1) Start at home and feel your way through. Watch this video, then starting slow, practice on your own.
2) See how it feels in your body, then bring it to class. Half-way lift is a common pose you might move through a dozen times in class. If you haven’t been engaging RI, chances are you will fatigue before the end of class. Better to do the pose with good form while you can, and then skip it once you core is tired.
How does it have all of these magical benefits? It's not magic, it's just science and connection to your body. But sometimes when you discover something simple that makes a big difference in your day, or your practice, it can feel like magic.
Real benefits of engaging reciprocal inhibition
You feel power and strength in your body instead of flopping around like gumby!
It feels SO good to feel flexible. But your flexibility can work against you without strength. If you flop like gumby into a pose, when your body needs support, it’s probably not going to feel good in the long term. I’ve been there, I used to be gumby. Hanging out in forward fold asking myself why my hamstrings never got stronger even though I was putting in a lot of effort everyday.
How it helps to reduce your risk for injury:
Contracting your opposing muscles keeps your body balanced. In an active pose like forward fold, you can pull your chest in towards your calves all you want. If you don’t engage your quads, your hamstrings won’t relax. You can actually end up doing damage to them by forcing your strong effort upon them without countering the engagement.
Strengthen while you stretch. Always get the maximum benefit of your time and effort.
Build your flexibility and keep it. Do you just feel flexible during yoga, and then it disappears? RI can help. The leaders in yoga science at Bhanda Yoga back it up too.
They reference Shirley Sahrmann, PhD (Professor of Physiotherapy at Washington University School of Medicine) and others who have advocated active stretching as a means of increasing muscle flexibility. It improves flexibility of the muscles on one side of the joint while improving strength and function of the muscles on the other side.
** Please keep in mind, I am not a doctor, or a scientist. I am a yoga teacher who has recovered from several sports injuries through yoga. In my studies of anatomy, my body, and in the study, practice and teaching of yoga. This information is based on my findings and supporting articles from trusted sources.