As a former scientist, I found that one of the hardest transitions into the yoga and fitness world was dealing with information based in pseudoscience. Although instructors may have good intentions, some of the things often heard in a typical class are not only misleading, but also potentially dangerous misinformation as well! Here are the seven most common myths that I hear from my students and the truth behind them.
1. The Myth: Yoga builds long, lean muscle.
The way a person’s muscles will look has less to do with the exercise, and more to do with their body type and genetic makeup, which we unfortunately have very little control over. Mechanical factors (amounts of collagen versus elastin in connective tissue, for example) as well as how a person’s muscles repair (availability of immune factors and hormones) influence the way a person’s muscles will look and the bony origin and insertion points of the muscle determine its length.
As far as the “lean” part goes, yoga may not be the best solution for fat loss. When doing familiar movements regularly with the same amount of resistance (in this case, your body weight), your body will become more efficient neuromuscularly and you will expend less energy doing them over time (less calories burned). This is why strength training works to promote fat loss in a way that only doing yoga cannot.
2. The Myth: Yoga is safe. You can’t get hurt practicing yoga.
The sad truth is that no activity you take part in has a zero percent chance of injury. In fact, literally just sitting is bad for you if you do it for long periods of time each day.
You can get injured in yoga just as badly as any other physical activity (we are talking herniated disks, pinched nerves, dislocated shoulders, ACL tears, etc). Tendons, ligaments, and hyaline cartilage can still be overstretched or deformed during isometric activities (holding poses for a long time). Here is our advice on surviving a yoga class utilizing awareness:
Listen to your body. If something hurts, stop doing it! Don’t mistake effort with pain. Learn to differentiate the two, and you will be able to better reap the benefits of a yoga practice.
Don't assume that your teacher knows what is best for you! If you are in a yoga class and the teacher is either asking you to do something that doesn’t feel right or safe or is touching (aka “adjusting”) you into a deeper place than you want to go, tell them to please stop!
Do other forms of movement. Healthy, functional bodies need more than what yoga alone has to offer.
3. The Myth: Hot yoga detoxifies the body and helps you burn more calories.
There are a lot of people out there who would like to sell you the idea that hot yoga can rid your body of toxins. As a former biochemist, I understand this to be a fluff word because any real toxic substances the body encounters is taken care of by a large organ in your abdomen called your liver. There is less real, scientific evidence that shows that doing yoga in excess heat will help eliminate these “toxins” than there is for proving that the tooth fairy exists.
Now, what about hot yoga burning more calories? Despite claims you may hear, you aren’t burning more fat or calories by doing lotus in 115 degrees. You are losing more water (sweat) with trace (less than one percent) amounts of waste material as your body’s mechanism to regulate temperature. You aren’t doing more mechanical work to burn more calories, you just feel exhausted because it’s hot and your body doesn’t want you to overheat.
4. The Myth: Shoulderstand and Headstand have a lot of benefits and should be a part of every yoga practice.
We’ve read in recent mainstream publications that shoulderstand can balance hormones, cure constipation and the common cold, strengthen the heart and respiratory system, decrease varicose veins, stimulate the root chakra, aid in sleep, and reduce wrinkles. Are you kidding me? These supposed benefits are unsupported by medical literature. Not only that, we believe these poses are inappropriate for most group yoga classes. In most cases, students’ necks aren’t prepared to support the weight of their bodies in these inverted positions.
Sadly, there are many who feel that a yoga practice is incomplete without including both of these poses. The truth is, these poses put the neck at risk. Our cervical spines should naturally have a lordotic (forward) curvature to be functional. Bending the neck at this angle is not only uncomfortable, but staying in this position for long periods of time can decrease this natural, functional curvature, and this can lead to disc herniations. In addition to this, the small bones of our neck (compared to the large ones in our lower back) were not meant to bear the weight of your body. Despite these claims, we have to wonder about the risk versus benefit here.
5. The Myth: Lotus Pose (Padmasana) is the ideal meditation seat.
Lotus requires extreme external rotation at the hip joint which most Western bodies are not prepared for and some bodies may not be able to do at all from a structural point of view. If your hips do not have that range of motion and you keep trying to force your foot onto your thigh something will give—and unfortunately, it’s usually the knee.
The ideal meditation posture is one in which you have a balance of ease and effort and can breathe comfortably, maintaining the position for the duration of your meditation. It is important to feel comfortable so that you don’t strain your joints (and to foster a positive meditation practice that you’ll actually want to come back to instead of avoid).
6. The Myth: Yoga is the only kind of movement you need.
This could be true if all you had to do all day was practice yoga. The SAID (specific adaptation to imposed demand) principle essentially means that our bodies do what we prepare them for. Doing only yoga does not give us the muscular adaptations needed to lift heavier things, run faster, jump higher, punch harder, throw further, or endure long periods of physical demand.
Aside from this, yoga literally confines us to movement within our mat space, which unfortunately leaves little room for the three-dimensional movement we usually need in life. Yoga is a great supplement to other kinds of activity, but we recommend doing other forms of exercise as well.
7. The Myth: You have to straighten your legs to stretch your hamstrings.
Although we have always wondered what the general obsession with hamstring stretching is, we get asked about hamstring stretches a lot. You have three hamstring muscles, and two of them originate from the sitting bones (ischial tuberosities) of the pelvis and end at the back of your lower leg bone (tibia). While yes, knee extension does affect one of these attachments, the other attachment (the pelvic one) deals more directly with how you are able to move your pelvis and your trunk.
Locking out the knees in a hamstring stretch may prevent you from articulating your pelvis and getting the most out of this stretch. Try instead to bend the knees a bit (gasp!) and tilt your pelvis forward.
Photo Credit: Sarah Lee