Yoga’s physical practice is based upon eccentric contraction. To really understand this, it’s best to first discuss the flip side of the coin which is “concentric” contraction. Concentric contraction is what most of us are used to doing in our daily life. Weight training is a very good example of an activity based upon concentric contraction.
An illustration of concentric contraction in action occurs when doing bicep curls. The bicep muscle originates just above the shoulder joint and inserts just below the elbow joint. In a weight training bicep curl, the muscle contracts to lift the dumbbell, tightening the muscle from the insertion (just below the elbow joint) towards the origin (just above the shoulder joint). The result is a shortening of the bicep and a drawing together of the joints. Over time, the joints may begin to rub together if no eccentric work is done, leading to possible arthritis.
So what is eccentric contraction? Using the same bicep, eccentric work also contracts the muscle, but the contraction occurs from the middle of the muscle, not at the insertion. The muscle contracts out towards both the insertion and the origin simultaneously. The result is a lengthening of the muscle and a pushing apart of the joints. This eccentric contraction is activated by pushing the body parts to which the muscle attaches out in opposing directions. Still using the bicep as the example, in an eccentric bicep contraction, the lower arm (where the bicep inserts) must extend down while the shoulder (where the bicep originates) must extend up. This is commonly referred to as stretching.
Without simultaneous extension in opposing directions, eccentric contraction does not occur. With that in mind, and knowing that yoga is based on eccentric contraction, it becomes important in every pose to ask yourself where the opposing movements are. For example, in Downward Facing Dog Pose as your hips move up towards the ceiling where is the opposing movement? The answer: the head which lengthens towards the earth. When the arms push into the earth, where is the opposing movement? The answer: the shoulder blades pulling back towards the tailbone. The rule of opposing eccentric always applies.
If you are unable to find the opposing movement within a pose to activate the eccentric contraction, ask your teacher. Making sure that all movements are actively eccentric allows you to receive the full benefit of the pose. Attention to the practice of opposition, makes a world of difference in your yoga practice.
The Yogic Way®
Kavita Maharaj is the owner of Red Door Yoga® and the director of The Red Door Yoga School® in Lantzville. She can be reached at 250-390-9367 or through www.reddooryoga.ca for questions.