Why Is Muscle Stiffness Not The Only Thing Stopping You In Yoga?

I’m too stiff for yoga.

Why Is Muscle Stiffness Not The Only Thing Stopping You In Yoga?

I hear this so often that it’s becoming a signature mantra for non-yogis. Most people think that they can't do yoga due to muscle stiffness. Maybe it’s by genetics! We were born with a certain body types that makes us stiff. Or it’s by lifestyle choices like how athletes muscles are shaped, as seen in swimmers and weightlifters. 

However, muscle stiffness is not the only thing stopping you from going deeper in yoga.  Knowing that muscular tension is not the only thing stopping you in yoga is great news, especially if you haven’t been getting results from your yoga classes or stretching routine. What you’re about to find out will resolve some of the mysteries behind your inflexibility. 

1. Stiffness In Your Joints

According to a study published by the American Physiology Society, it showed that there are four main contributors to tension in the joints: 

Main contributors to tension in the body


This study revealed that tightness in the muscles is not the major factor in limiting our range of motion: the joint capsule has a greater effect on our mobility than muscles. As we move towards the end of our range of motion muscles have even less effect on further movement. At this point the connective tissue, such as the joint capsule, fascia and tendons, are entirely responsible for tensile resistance, the resistance of the joint to stretching. 

Unlike muscles, the way we loosen connective tissue requires the practitioner to hold a posture using minimal exertion over time; this way of practicing is the fundamental theory of exercise in Yin Yoga. 

2. Emotional Blockage

Heartbreak. Depression. Anxieties. Our emotions have a significant effect on mobility. To understand this concept, we must first know the three primary networks in our body.

The three main networks that keep the body in balance are neural, fluid, and fibrous. 

⇒  The neural net comprises millions of neurons carrying encoded information from our body to the brain. It is the quickest system of all (think of how quickly you can feel the painful sensation when you stub your toe). 

⇒ The fluid net carries chemical information around the body in a liquid medium, such as the exchange of oxygen and carbon dioxide in our bloodstream. 

⇒ Finally, the fibrous net transmits mechanical information in which it communicates through the tension along the grain of the fascia. 

So what do these three networks have to do with body stiffness? Well, here is an example presented by Tom Myers, the author of Anatomy Trains:

Imagine you’re depressed for whatever reason. Physically you feel it in the body as being stuck on the exhalation. You have a sunken chest, and the neck is slightly flexed thus creating a hunch in the upper body. The depressive posture may be a projection of the self to the world involving guilt, pain or anxiety. But soon, it is expressed out through the motor system as a repetitive pattern of contraction. After some time, the fibrous net would accommodate this chronic contraction; note that this almost always requires compensation throughout the whole body including the legs, neck, and shoulders as well as the ribs and so on. The collapse in the chest causes a reduction in the breathing, in turn, creates a different balance of chemistry in the blood and body fluids, lowering oxygen and raising cortisol levels, a type of stress hormone. 

So what started out as a depressed state of mind is now a continuous cycle of recurrent fascial contraction, increased stress hormone and more depression. 

3. Different Types of Compression

According to Bernie Clark, an experienced Yin Yoga teacher and the author of Your Body, Your Yoga, there are three types of compression: soft, medium and hard. Soft compression refers to two skin surfaces compressing into each other. It has a soft, spongy feeling to it. For example, in Paschimottanasana (Seated Forward Fold), female students with fuller chests will stop sooner due to the compression against their thighs. The same goes for pregnancy, in which the belly of the pregnant mother protrudes outward and makes contact with the legs before reaching her full range of motion. Medium compression describes the contact between the bones and skin. It has a pinching, uncomfortable feeling in it. This is seen in many students when they flex their hips. Due to the shape of their pelvis and the size of their thighs, the pelvis hits the thighs. Most common yoga postures with medium compression are Child's Pose, Happy Baby and low lunges (Anjaneyasana). Lastly, hard compression describes a ‘bone on bone’ scenario in which two bones come into contact and press into each other. A common hard compression is when we extend our elbows. The ulnar bone compresses into the humerus when the elbow joint reaches the end of its range of motion.

All three types of compressions yield the same result: no further movement is permitted. It is illogical to keep extending our elbow beyond its maximum range of motion, yet we see this often done in other body parts such as forward folds and back bends. 

It is possible that the reason you can’t go any further is that of muscular tension. So how can we differentiate between tension and compression? 

A golden rule from Bernie Clark: Tension is felt away from the movement, while the compression is felt in the direction of the movement.

Tension usually comes with the feeling of ‘pain’ or discomfort. Whereas there is little to no sensation in compression, like hitting a wall, you simply can’t go any further. 

So now that we know that several other factors can cause body stiffness, what should we do? It all starts with mindfulness. Be mindful of your emotional states such as anger and anxiety; take deep breaths whenever possible; and be aware of your postures while standing, walking and sleeping. By taking care of one aspect of the self, you’ll see positive results in the others. Your ability to integrate locally and globally will create an upward spiral in your general state of being, and your body will open up with ease!