How well balanced are you, really? Just because we have a right side and a left side, that doesn’t make us symmetrical, or balanced.
We do sports partly because they will ‘get us into shape’. Yes, sports can help us get fit and strong and feel great, but often they are also pretty good at getting us ‘out of shape’ – or perhaps more correctly I could say ‘out of balance’.
Just about all sports can lead to some form of imbalance or asymmetry in our bodies; even sports we consider to be ‘symmetrical’ such as cycling and swimming. Each sport places specific demands and muscle use patterns on our bodies. Some muscles will be used more than others, and become stronger (tighter) while others may be relatively underemployed and therefore become relatively weaker or loose. It’s no surprise that we will therefore come to experience muscular imbalances in the body.
This is a big deal. Why? Because muscular imbalance, over time, can have serious consequences. Muscular imbalances can develop in any sport, but especially so if your sport involves a lot of repetitive motion, such as running, cycling, swimming, rowing, paddling etc or asymmetrical sports like golf or archery. Left unchecked, muscular imbalances can gradually move your body and joints out of healthy, sustainable alignment.
Over time imbalances can lead to a huge range of problems – strains and overuse injuries, spine and joint problems, or something may ‘suddenly’ give way. But it’s not really sudden – it’s been gradually set up to be less balanced and less stable, until it is no longer sustainable… and there you are… sidelined with an injury and no longer able to enjoy your sport.
Many people first come to yoga because they have been injured and are looking for a safe, rehabilitative exercise to help get them back into balance. Yoga can be a really effective way to develop and maintain muscular balance, and to recover from injury. From my perspective as a yoga for athletes instructor, I’d prefer to see athletes practising yoga as a preventative measure, to reduce the chances of injuries even occurring, or lessening the severity of those that do. Yoga is also very useful for developing a keener awareness of your body – how you move and use your muscles, and whether you already have imbalances that you weren’t aware of.
Below are three simple yoga poses you can try to help identify common imbalances. Take a moment to try these out in front of a mirror, and just observe what you see and feel. Hopefully you will find you are balanced, but chances are you will be able to determine at least some difference from one side to another in at least one of these yoga moves.
Yoga balance test 1: Shoulders – Strap moves
Set up: Start in a seated position with a neutral, long spine. Try kneeling, or sitting up on a prop if this helps. Use a yoga strap (or something similar that is non-elastic, such as a belt) and hold this in a wide grip.
Move: Raise your arms up wide over your head, then move them down behind your back to just below shoulder height, then raise the strap back up and lower it in front of you. Try and isolate the movement into the shoulder joint, keeping your arms straight, and spine and ribcage neutral. Repeat this move slowly a few times.
Observe: How easy is it for you to keep your arms straight and move evenly on each side, keeping the strap parallel with the floor? Imbalance in your shoulders may make this challenging.
Set up: Lie on your belly with your arms alongside your body, palms facing upwards, and your feet hip distance apart.
Move: Engage all the muscles down the back of your body, and lift your chest and legs directly up off the floor. Use your glutes to lift the legs off the floor, and reach your fingers back away from you, opening the chest.
Observe: Be in front of a mirror and check for balance throughout the body. How even are your legs? Does one/both move higher or wider than the other? Do you roll slightly to one side of your body? Are your shoulders and arms even?
Note: This pose works the entire back line of the body and can highlight a range of imbalances in different muscle groups. To help discover imbalances, try working this pose strongly to your maximum range and see what ‘falls out of balance’ first.
Set up: Sit in a cross legged position with your legs as shown – trying to stack your shins on top of each other. (If this is not possible for you, sit in a more relaxed cross legged position). Press out through your heels and flex your toes back towards your shins.
Move: Sit up tall, and gently lean the upper body forward until you feel a stretch through the outer thigh/ITB/glutes region. Observe what happens on this side, then change sides by bringing the other leg to the top (or front) position.
Observe: This pose can highlight imbalances in external hip rotation and tightness through the glutes and ITB. Observe the relative leg positions on each side as you set up for this pose and look for differences when you change sides (e.g. height of top/front knee, range of motion, location and intensity of stretch you feel).
Sarah MacDonald is a professional yoga teacher and New Zealand’s only officially certified Yoga for Athletes instructor. She recently opened Balance Yoga Studio in Cambridge where she is committed to helping people of all ages discover the benefits of yoga. She specialises in working with athletes of all levels from any sport, and can tailor yoga sessions to complement any athlete’s training regime. www.balanceyoga.co.nz