We talk about the CORE STRENGTH A LOT in physical therapy.
In PT school, clinicians learn all about the anatomy of the core including all the muscles, where they attach, their function, what nerves innervate them, how the muscles work during functional movement, the mechanics of breath, and so on.
Through the practice of yoga, I finally understood how powerful appropriate cueing can be and that it takes more than just 3×10 of a deadbug exercise to create a fully integrated core.
So what’s the secret? How do yogis look so graceful when they move? So much so that you can tell who’s a yogi just by the way they walk. What is it about a yoga practice that can train the core so well? And how can you use some of the asanas (poses) in physical therapy to gain similar benefits? And whether you are an athlete needing an active recovery tool to reset after hard games and practices or a busy business woman needing help to recover faster from an injury to get back to the meaningful work you put out into the world, why is yoga important to help you recover faster?
Yoga core strength translates into more graceful movement off the mat, reducing risk of injury in the first place.
It’s simple. The practiced yogi has great body awareness and postural habits. With LYT in particular, the focus is on proprioceptive awareness to optimize posture within typical daily movement patterns and works to flow through a variety of movements so that every joint ROM becomes normalized and stabilized. Off the mat, what this translates to is a look of standing tall and floating across the floor because of how light the body can move when it’s been trained to move optimally. And with optimal movement, you decrease the strain on your body and require less energy to move. Not to mention, your body becomes more adaptable. Meaning, you’ve got the body coordination, strength, and mobility to quickly get up and go when duty calls, or juke your opponent on the court.
There are unique training principles to yoga that you don’t always find in traditional PT exercises.
#1: Syncing breath to movement
This is simple but effective. By breathing with movement, you train the body how to manage internal pressure which is important when we talk about recovery. Managing your internal pressure system well means that muscles will know when to contract and when to relax and you’ll avoid overactive hypertonic states that can inhibit muscle recovery. Syncing breath to movement also calms the mind. The parasympathetic nervous system ramps up and you increase relaxation – even when you might be working hard in a class you can still maintain a feeling of calm in the body. The easier you can navigate through challenges via breath control – the faster you will be able to recover from the intensity of the movement. Lastly, we literally require breath to live yet many people “forget” how to breathe. Their breath is shallow, lung capacity is low, and cells are under-oxygenated. People who regularly practice yoga have better lung capacity1. This means more oxygen to your cells which translates into more energy to tackle the day. Yoga is even being studied as a treatment alternative for populations that typically struggle with other exercise types such as people with asthma.2 To breathe is to prosper. Remember, breath is life. If you are breathing, you are living. And that is enough.
#2: Consistent internal & intentional core cueing with functional movement
In yoga asana, the yoga instructor is typically talking to you almost the entire class time. They are creating a checklist of how to think about movement in a highly core-centric way. Yogis know that core integrity is the foundation for any pose especially when getting into advanced movements like handstands and forearm balances. The internal cueing of squeeze here, lengthen here, breathe here builds your propioceptive awareness and it starts to become automatic just like anything you perform over and over again. Now a squat becomes a core move. And so does a lunge, tree pose, warrior two. Every move is thought of and trained through the perspective of how the student is controlling the trunk to hold the pose. The same idea can be adapted into physical therapy principles. Cue core first, and the rest will usually follow.
Now, most will tell you that internal cueing doesn’t translate into sport because an athlete’s focus is not on their body when participating in competition and it requires use of different parts of the brain, so we shouldn’t overly focus on internal cueing. That’s true. I would also say that if every athlete had better body intelligence (in this case core engagement so practiced and perfected it just happens automatically with movement) then we would see less injury. Somebody research that and let me know if my hypothesis is correct!
I think that a yoga practice added as a recovery tool for athletes would enhance body awareness, improve overall mobility and stability, and take them out of habitual movement patterns that can lead to overuse injuries from overtraining and overdeveloping certain body regions. Think of the right-handed pitcher who gets really good at twisting left but develops tightness in his trunk and hips the opposite direction. Imbalances increase injury risk. Core strength training, particularly the yoga way, reduces imbalances. Now the athlete has the foundation to apply to the other training tools that will get her stronger, faster, and more skilled in her sport.
The point is – your core is the grand central station of movement. Its function impacts how you absorb and produce force with movement. Therefore, we must consider how to hold core support with functional movement to improve the way we move, and therefore speed up recovery. When the core is functioning optimally, it takes less energy to do what we want to do, and we decrease stress on the rest of our body creating an environment that promotes healing and recovery.
- Vedala SR, Mane AB, Paul CN. Pulmonary functions in yogic and sedentary population. Int J Yoga. 2014;7(2):155-159. doi:10.4103/0973-6131.133904
- Yadav P, Jain PK, Sharma BS, Sharma M. Yoga Therapy as an Adjuvant in Management of Asthma. Indian J Pediatr. 2021 Nov;88(11):1127-1134. doi: 10.1007/s12098-021-03675-y. Epub 2021 Feb 24. PMID: 33625666.