Preventing Yoga Injuries vs Preventing Yoga, Part III: Joint Mobility, Stability and Proprioception
By Ray Long
A central concept in all healing arts is that of correcting imbalances within the body. The principle of re-establishing balance can be found across all cultures from Navajo sand paintings, Ayurveda, Traditional Chinese Medicine to modern allopathy. And anything with true healing power also has the capacity to cause injury when practiced without balance. For example, joint mobility is beneficial for a number of reasons–provided it is balanced with joint stability. In this blog post I discuss the concept of joint proprioception and its relationship to joint stability and yoga, concluding with a tip for “re-setting” muscular proprioception following hip openers.
Proprioception refers to the sense of the relative position of neighboring body parts, such as the femoral head within the hip socket (acetabulum) as well as the muscular force utilized in movement of those parts. This is in contradistinction to exteroception, which is the perception of the outside world (like the feeling of the feet on the ground) and interoception, which is the perception of the inside of the body (pain, hunger etc). I look at proprioception as a type of “GPS” for the joints.
Joint position is detected by specialized nerve endings known as “proprioceptors” that are located within the muscles, ligaments and joint capsule and the periosteum (on the surface of the bones). These receptors communicate information about the joints to the brain via the sensory columns of the spinal cord. Conscious sense of joint position is transmitted to the cerebrum of the brain; unconscious proprioception is communicated to the cerebellum. Figure 1 illustrates this pathway in a cross section of the spinal cord.
Scientific studies have demonstrated that joint position sense is decreased in persons with osteoarthritis, with the consideration that reduced proprioception may play a role in the development of the disease. Indeed, exercises that improve proprioception have been demonstrated to be effective in the conservative management of osteoarthritis.
Proprioception is also reduced in persons with joint hypermobility; exercises that improve joint position sense are also effective in reducing symptoms in this population. I suspect that proprioception may be also be a factor in those having joint pain associated with subtle instability (who do not have an identifiable cause for their pain such as arthritis, hypermobility or a structural lesion). Similarly, the diminished performance seen in certain athletes following stretching routines may be related to reduced joint position sense.
I bring this up in relation to yoga because certain individuals experience soreness in their hips following hip opening poses. Understanding that this pain may be related to decreased proprioception, I have been using a simple technique to re-establish joint position sense following these poses. For example, I worked with several practitioners during the Blue Spirit Intensive who had this type of hip soreness. Following a sequence that led to Full Lotus, we applied the technique, which “resets” the joint position sense in the hips. After the “reset”, these folks noticed that the hip pain they typically felt was gone, with this benefit remaining throughout the day.
This leads me to believe that some of the hip pain experienced by practitioners may be related to a reduction in muscular proprioception after stretching, which persists as a subtle form of instability during other activities following practice. Furthermore, the soreness appears to be relieved by a technique to increase proprioception that involves co-activating the muscles surrounding the hip joint at a midpoint of the joint’s range of motion.
Here’s the technique…
Following a hip opening sequence, and before Savasana, I utilize an intermediate version of Warrior II, where the forward knee and hip are not flexing deeply (figure 2). Then I “co-activate” the hip muscles in the forward leg (co-activation involves simultaneously contracting muscles that have opposite actions). The cue for this is to imagine pressing the inside of knee into an immoveable object while at the same time pressing the outside of the knee into a similar object (the knee remains centered and does not move). This engages both the hip adductors and abductors, as well as the internal and external rotators in a position where the joint is in the mid-range of motion. Done properly, this cue should give a feeling of stability in the hip joint.
Since it is a neurological process, this technique does not require strong muscular contraction; I only utilize just enough strength to feel the muscles engage and the hip stabilize. Furthermore, the cue only requires a short duration. I have been using 20 seconds, repeated twice on each side. The effect is a bit like “resetting” a GPS that has gone out of its normal range. Figures 3-5 illustrate the muscle groups involved with the arrows demonstrating the direction of force. Visualization of the muscles helps in this process.
If you would like to learn more about anatomy, biomechanics and yoga, feel free to browse through The Key Muscles and Key Poses of Yoga. Also, check out the Yoga Mat Companion series, which contains many examples of co-activation (including the one in this post). Many thanks for your support by sharing us on Facebook, Twitter and Google Plus as well.
Ray and Chris
Author; Ray Long
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