Yoga - Muscle Groups Used

Health & Wellness
Last Updated Jul 20, 2020
Health & Wellness

Yoga helps to improve the communication between the body and the brain.  By understanding how the muscles respond to the postures used in yoga, you can make the practice of yoga more effective.  Improving the communication between the body and the brain improves your health and vitality, and allows you to recover from injury more easily.

The body communicates through the circulation of energy and information throughout the circulatory channels.  As hatha yoga uses physical exercises to achieve the union of the brain and the body, it uses those same exercises to improve the communication between the body and the brain, by enhancing the flow of circulation. 

Yoga is not all about stretching and relaxing.  It is also about learning how to activate or tense muscles and strengthen the body.  The healthiest physical body is achieved by having a balance between strength, flexibility, and the ability to relax. 

Joint Complexes and Muscle Groups Used in Yoga

There are hundreds of muscles and joints in the human body, so when thinking about the structure of yoga, it is helpful to think of the nine major joint complexes and opposing muscle groups.  Joint complexes are sets of joints that work together in the body and behave as one joint.  The nine major joint complexes are the ankles, knees, elbows, wrists, shoulders, neck, lower back, upper back, and hips.  A muscle group is a group of muscles that perform the same job at a joint complex.  When stretching a muscle group, you must consider the opposing muscle group, the group of muscles that are opposing the action of the muscles being stretched.  This is because muscle groups work as opposing pairs.  Lengthening one muscle group will result in the opposing one being shortened.

Spinal Reflexes As They Relate to the Structure of Yoga

In the structure of yoga, you must also consider the spinal reflexes.  A spinal reflex is when a nerve impulse is passed into the spinal cord and then a responding message is sent out without brain input.  The three spinal reflexes in yoga are:

  • The Myotatic Reflex – this is the stretch reflex.  This reflex causes a lengthened muscle group to become tense if it is suddenly stretched, therefore, you need to block this reflex in yoga when trying to stretch.  The reflex can be blocked by mentally focusing on the muscle group being stretched, exhaling as you move slowly into a stretch using the shortened muscles to actively move the joint complex into position.
  • The Reciprocal Relaxation Reflex – this reflex causes the stretched muscle group to relax when the shortened muscle group is tensed.  It can be used to help you relax and stretch any part of your body.
  • The Inverse Myotatic (Relaxation) Reflex – this reflex causes the stretched muscle group to relax if it is stretched enough.  It usually occurs after at least 12 to 15 seconds.

The Different States in Yoga

By correctly using the techniques of hatha yoga, you will eventually be able to relax or tense at will.  Yoga aims to equalize the forces around each of the major joint complexes by creating a state of balance in the muscle groups.  Depending on what is happening at each major joint complex, the yoga practitioner can choose to tense or relax the shortened or lengthened muscle group.  At the most basic level, there are four states of activation or relaxation.

  • State One – both the shortened and the stretched muscle group can be relaxed.  This requires minimal physical effort.
  • State Two – the shortened muscle group can be tensed and the stretched muscle group can stay relaxed.  This helps to strengthen the shortened muscle.
  • State Three – the stretched muscle group can be tensed and the shortened muscle group can remain relaxed.  This helps to strengthen the stretched muscle in a lengthened position.
  • State Four – this is when both the shortened muscle group and the stretched muscle group are tensed.  This stabilises the joint complex, helps to regulate circulation, and improves strength, flexibility, and the ability to relax all involved muscles.
Originally published on Apr 15, 2008

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