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Burning: Your Body as Its own Icy-Hot Patch

We have all awoken in the morning to find our muscles tight and sore from a grueling workout the previous day. Termed “delayed onset muscle soreness” (DOMS), this malady occurs when physical exertion exceeds your body’s muscular capabilities. Whether you ran an 8-mile uphill trail or made an extreme effort on your project route (you know, the one with the roof and major throw to a crimp), you stressed and potentially damaged various muscles. Each time you threw your shoulder to that crimp created damaging, micro-tears in your muscle fibers. Just how much damage can mean the difference between moderate soreness or a serious injury.

Muscle soreness happens no matter if you prefer to think of your body as a temple or as a punching bag. The question is, can you alleviate soreness and prevent it from happening in the future? Learning how to recognize the threshold between muscle strengthening (micro-tears) and muscle damage is a start. Understanding the relationship between your brain and your muscles will allow you to recognize the difference between discomfort and true pain. Through a consistent yoga practice, the relationship between the psychological and physical elements of exercise will become applicable to almost all situations you find yourself in.

Yoga leads to improved physical and mental awareness of the body as a whole, so it makes sense that it would improve your over all health and physical capabilities. Over time, understanding the relationship will help you understand your boundaries and develop a mental toughness that translates into better performance. Consistent practice reveals the nuances between challenging stimulation and excessive stimulation – i.e. sore hamstrings or a torn ACL. In addition, repetitive, consistent training progressively pushes your boundaries and builds the strength and health of your nervous system. A stronger nervous system improves your muscles’ response to physical activity, helping them heal more efficiently (read faster recovery and less soreness). That simple.

Searching for Your Threshold

side angle bind
Illustration of the various muscle groups active while holding utthita parsvakonasana (side angle with bind variation). Several dynamics occur in this pose: Green indicates lengthening, Blue indicates contraction, and Red indicates muscles that are twisting. Illustration by Molly Joyce.

Muscles consist of hundreds of muscle fibers that, when operating together, perform a task (doing a pushup, holding plank pose, even standing still). Each of these fibers can withstand a certain amount of work in their current state. Until every fiber inthat muscle is ready, you won’t be able to cross the threshold – it is kind of an all or nothing thing. When performing a yoga pose, your muscles work to support and lift your body weight. The longer you hold that pose, the more work your muscles have to do. Seems pretty obvious right? As the seconds tick by, your muscles start to burn, sending signals to the brain to stop the activity. This is where the mental (neurological) side of yoga kicks in. As you hold the pose, your muscles experience work. They take the heat from the activity and slowly weaken the longer you hold the pose. The fleeting moment of discomfort your muscles experience can teach your body and your mind a lot. Experiment and let the burning sensation take over. Try and enjoy it. Wait until your muscles are screaming. Your muscles will grow stronger, your mind more tolerant. You will never know your boundaries until you approach them. Experiment with how long you really can hold a pose, not how long you think you can. Remove your brain from the situation and pretend that the pose you are holding is as natural as sitting down (because it is).

The Icy-Hot Patch

A yoga class leads your body through phases; a warmup, a work phase, a cool down phase, and a relaxation phase. So, basically, a self-induced massage. The phases cause your body temperature to rise and fall, which assists your body in releasing tension, lactic acid, and other toxins that build up in the body. A massage functions similarly; heat loosens the muscles and pressure applied by the masseuse releases tension and toxins. Try to imagine what a damaged muscle looks like. When damaged, the surrounding muscles tighten to help protect the damaged muscle. As you heat those muscles during a yoga practice and sustain various poses, targeting specific areas, the tight muscles loosen, allowing you the chance to access the damaged or injured muscle and work out some of the tension. The opportunity allows you to therapeutically realign the muscles through proper posture and the proper alignment of a yoga pose. Think of it as reshaping a piece of metal; when heated the metal becomes pliable and more easily shaped. Thus, when you finally reach the cool down phase of a yoga class and savasana (relaxation), your body can cool itself, hopefully with some of the misalignments and soreness removed. You will know it worked because you will feel the “cloud-9” effect when you leave the yoga class.

Application

Cleansing your body of toxins and relieving soreness is possible in a variety of yoga environments. Classes that are heated are especially good for connecting to the deeper tissues. Whether the style of class is vinyasa flow, so you build up body heat quicker, or if it is a heated studio like hot yoga or Bikram, these styles will assist you with heating and cleansing the muscles. If you want to try a yin yoga class, which is slower and more like a deep tissue massage, try and find one that is in a slightly heated studio. Trust me, yin is no fun when the studio is cold.

If you are practicing at home, start with vinyasa flow. Warm up with core intensive poses such as plank and boat, followed by sun salutations. Once you feel warm move into poses that target your sore area. There are dozens of hip openers, chest openers, and shoulder openers that will benefit tight muscles. Move from compression poses to lengthening poses. For example, bound side angle (utthita parsvakonasana) applies intense pressure on the triceps, biceps, and quadriceps. Follow this pose with a gorilla pose or lizard pose, focusing on stretching the arms and quadriceps.

Now that you know how yoga can help relieve muscle soreness, and even prevent it in the first place, experiment approaching physical endeavors differently. Approach the limits of your abilities with more mindfulness. I know, I know, you want to go all out and totally wreck your body for S’s and G’s, but you will do yourself a disservice. Taking care of your body and being kind to it doesn’t mean that you avoid challenging yourself. In order to grow you sometimes have to do what is uncomfortable. It just means challenge yourself in a way that will be beneficial. Caring for your body means allowing it the best chance for growth and improvement.

A special thanks to Anna Knorr for modeling yoga poses and to YOGO for the superb Ultralight Travel Mat.

About Molly Joyce

Molly Joyce has taught yoga for over 5 years and rock climbed for 3 years. Her diverse upbringing in Arizona, New York, Texas, and California instilled a passion for outdoor adventures. She graduated from the University of North Texas with a BA in History and is continuing on to her doctorate. She currently works as a data technician and field researcher at the Springs Stewardship Institute of the Museum of Northern Arizona.

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