Jenni Rawlings is a yoga teacher with an emphasis on anatomy, physiology, and movement science. Follow for online yoga classes, online yoga anatomy courses, and online movement science courses for yoga teachers.
Savasana is also known as “corpse pose”. But is it really trying to make literal corpses out of us? Well, apparently some people would have us think so!
I’m exaggerating here, of course. No one is actually suggesting that savasana - the relaxing, peaceful pose in which we lie and rest for several minutes at the end of every yoga practice - could potentially kill us. But as difficult as it may be to believe, people are seriously proposing that this classic yoga pose could injure us. And so in the interest of some education on interpreting research papers, a little pain science primer, and a continued encouragement for less fearmongering in the yoga world, I’ve decided to examine this intriguing topic today.
IS SAVASANA OUT TO GET US?
I was prompted to write this piece because of a recent widely-read blog post that was brought to my attention. This blog post cited a research paper that seemed to suggest that savasana could potentially be a harmful pose. In order to support this study’s suggestion, the blog post proposed that because our bodies have adapted to the activity of sitting in chairs, most of us are not well-suited to lying flat on the floor. As a result, when we lie in savasana, our back arches and our spine is “compressed” and “overloaded”. The author writes: “For many, lying on the floor creates much higher loads on weakened tissue than you might expect for something as ‘simple’ as lying on the floor.”
The author proposes that instead of lying flat on the floor, most people should bolster their head and shoulders up higher in savasana in order to re-arrange the position of their body and avoid potential injury in the pose.
Before we examine this claim further, let’s first take a look at the research paper that was cited in order to justify the notion that savasana is injurious.
THE RESEARCH PAPER ON YOGA & INJURIES: A VERY PROBLEMATIC STUDY
I obtained a copy of the full study in question in order to explore its claims further. Titled “Soft Tissue & Bony Injuries Attributed to the Practice of Yoga” (Lee et al 2019), the researchers retrospectively reviewed the medical records of 89 patients who claimed to have experienced yoga-related injuries. According to the researchers, there were 12 “patient reported yoga poses that led to injury” (page 427), and one of these poses was savasana.
This study is significantly problematic for many reasons. First of all, it is a retrospective study, which is a very low-quality form of evidence that relies only on subjective recollections (i.e. anecdotes and not secondary data) to begin with.
Second of all, this study in no way establishes causation between savasana and injury. At most, the study might show that a handful of people claimed to experience a symptom of pain or discomfort while in savasana. This does not establish injury. Additionally, it does not establish time order between the two variables (a necessity for determining causation), and it does not examine any of the myriad alternate explanations that could be (and most likely are!) involved in the reported pain experienced during savasana.
Another important point about this study is that it was not done on a representative, random sample of people who do yoga, and is therefore not generalizable to the greater yoga population. The people selected for the study all attended the same medical clinic and they all had significant comorbid health conditions such as osteoporosis, cancer, and hyperlipidemia. Therefore we can’t make any inferences from this study about the general population of yoga practitioners.
Furthermore, the researchers did not include any non-injured patients, which means they selected on the dependent variable only. What about all of the people who went into the clinic who happened to practice yoga and were not injured? These patients weren’t considered in this study. And we can safely assume that they all did savasana at the end of every single one of their yoga classes. Why didn’t this injurious pose send them into the clinic as well?
For these and many other reasons that we don’t have time to discuss here, this study is not causal, is not valid, and is honestly not worthy of citing due to its extremely poor quality design. In fact, in the words of an academic researcher I consulted about this study (who just so happens to be my husband :) ): “From a causal standpoint, this study is garbage.”
FLAWED STUDY ASIDE - WHAT ABOUT PAIN SCIENCE?
We’ve established that the study in question is deeply flawed. But that major problem aside, where is an understanding of modern pain science in either this study or the blog post that cited the study? One of the most foundational insights about pain that we understand today is that the link between pain and tissue damage is quite tenuous. Many people experience pain in their bodies with no associated damage, and many people have damage in their tissues and no associated pain.
This means that just because something hurts or is uncomfortable does not necessarily mean that tissue damage is taking place. A helpful phrase commonly used in the therapeutic and rehabilitation worlds these days is “hurt does not equal harm”, and I believe this is a crucial insight that is missing from this discussion about savasana and injury.
Additionally, we know that in order to sustain an injury (tissue damage), the forces involved generally need to be significantly high and/or fast. The simple act of lying on the floor in savasana includes neither high nor fast forces. It is simply not plausible that this benign pose could actually cause tissue damage in our body.
Now I definitely don’t disagree with the blog post author that many people feel discomfort while lying flat on the floor in savasana. This is absolutely true, and many of us could find a more comfortable and relaxing pose by adding some props so that our body feels more supported.
But there’s an important difference between suggesting that people should prop their savasana up for comfort and suggesting that they should prop their savasana up in order to avoid injury. The former will help people find more ease and potentially embody more “yoga” in their pose; the latter will potentially serve as a nocebo - a negative expectation of an otherwise harmless event or action that causes negative consequences like pain.
Suggesting that savasana can harm us is nocebic because we understand today that pain is a multifactorial output of our nervous system that can be influenced by many factors beyond biomechanical ones. Beliefs and social influences are two well-established contributors to painful experiences (among many other psychological and social factors as well.)
The more that we spread a message about the fragility and vulnerability of our tissues (especially in low-load contexts that can not realistically injure us), the more we can influence people to have less confidence and trust in the innate strength and robusticity in their body. This can result in people’s nervous systems creating more painful perceptions than they otherwise would have in innocent yoga poses like savasana and beyond.
It’s easy for well-meaning yoga and movement teachers to cause unintentional harm when communicating about the human body. The more we can educate ourselves about pain science and the potential negative effects of nocebos, the more likely we will be to teach about the body in productive, empowering ways.
Additionally, I encourage all of us (including myself!) to become more active consumers of knowledge. If we see a single study being used to make a broad claim, rather than taking that claim at face value, we would be wise to feel skeptical and potentially conduct some of our own research to investigate further.
And finally - setting the science and the flawed study aside, let’s not forget the power of common sense. I mean… savasana? Really? Have we become such feeble creatures that we can’t lie on the floor without harming ourselves? We should feel justified in using our common sense to question such claims.
Did you know that for all of the attention we yogis place on the topic of stretching, there are many (many!) unsupported beliefs about this simple activity that permeate the yoga world? I've covered several misconceptions about stretching before and will continue to do so, such as:
-stretching & strengthening are opposites ---> myth!
-stretching a muscle "releases" it ---> myth!
-stretching our connective tissue can lengthen it out so it becomes lax ---> myth!
But today I'd like to focus on one myth in particular that I don't believe I've addressed recently. This myth is the common claim that stretching weakens our muscles.
We often hear this claim in the form of warnings like "stop stretching your hamstrings because it weakens them". Or "sitting weakens your glutes" (because they're in a stretched position when you're sitting in a chair).
This claim is also at the root of beliefs about posture, such as rounded-forward shoulders (often referred to as "upper crossed syndrome"), in which we're told that the rhomboids (mid-back muscles) are "long & weak" because they're in a stretched position.
Now if you know my work at all, you know I'm a huge proponent of yogis incorporating strength into their yoga practice. And a large portion of the yoga world seems to be moving in this direction as well, which makes me very happy!
But as with all perspective shifts, the pendulum tends to swing toward extremes before it settles somewhere in the more grounded, evidence-based middle. Along with the widespread enthusiasm for strengthening, there is a large amount of fearmongering about passive stretching taking place in the yoga world today.
Although strengthening is indeed awesome for us, this doesn't mean that stretching is bad for us. And if you refer back to the common myths I listed above, you'll note that stretching & strengthening aren't opposites anyway, so there's no need for us to pit them against each other. We can be pro-strengthening without being anti-stretching!
Which brings me back to today's stretching myth. One common claim we hear that gives the mistaken impression that stretching is bad for us is the myth that stretching weakens our muscles. I'd like to bust this myth once and for all, using the handy tool of muscle physiology.
What is the one way in which muscles become stronger? When they contract against a high enough resistance that they are stimulated to adapt to increase the amount of force they can generate. Our muscles strengthen when they do strong work: lowering slowly into chaturanga, moving heavy weights around, etc.
Knowing this, what is therefore the one way in which muscles become weaker? The one and only way that muscles grow weaker is when they don't do strengthening work. That's it! If we don't expose our muscles to progressive loads, they will weaken.
Whether we stretch or not has nothing to do with muscles strengthening or weakening. Strengthening has to do with force production, while stretching has to do with tissue extensibility. These are two separate qualities.
The claim that stretching muscles weakens them is completely unsupported by science. Which means that we now have one less reason to fearmonger about stretching! :)
For a deeper dive into what we do (and don't) know about stretching, consider my online mini-workshop How Stretching Affects the Tissues of the Body. As many yogis who have taken this workshop have expressed, this should be required info for ALL yoga teachers!
“Relax your shoulders”, “soften your shoulders”, “release the tension in your shoulders” - I don’t know about you, but I’ve heard all of these instructions and more (and definitely said some myself!) in my many years in the yoga world.
Part of the reason for these cues is the widespread belief that just about everyone’s upper traps are pesky, misbehaving muscles that inevitably cause pain in our shoulders & neck.
This is an interesting idea, though, because:
1) The upper trapezius muscle is actually a very thin, superficial structure that seems pretty low on the list of “most likely to be evil” muscles.
2) Pain isn’t an input from the periphery, but an output from the central nervous system - so a muscle doesn’t really *create* pain.
3) Even if the upper traps *were* the widely misbehaving, rude muscles we often think they are, why would constantly relaxing or “releasing” them cause them to behave well?
This “relax your shoulders” narrative has seemed questionable to me for years, but I recently learned about a brand new study in which people with neck & shoulder pain were given a 5-week upper trap strengthening program. (That’s right - a *strengthening* program!)
And after doing this upper trap strength work, their pain decreased!
This evidence seems to run counter to popular belief. Instead of relaxing the upper traps and “releasing” their tension all the time, perhaps we should consider strengthening them and *increasing* their tension!
Just one more reason why “tension” isn’t necessarily a bad thing, even though our language often tends to imply that it is.
As a member of the yoga community for many years, I regularly hear claims made about how stretching affects the body. These claims vary widely, and I’ve heard everything from “stretching is a magical cure that will heal all of your ailments” to “stretching is damaging for the body, and therefore yoga is bad for us.”
I try to be as evidence-based as possible in my approach to yoga, so I’m naturally skeptical of claims that appear to lack scientific support. In order to clarify some of the truth versus fiction regarding stretching for both myself and the greater yoga community, I decided to consult with an expert who is extremely up-to-date on the most current scientific research on stretching.
Dr. Greg Lehman, BKin, MSc, DC, MScPT, is a Clinical Educator, Physiotherapist, Chiropractor, and Strength and Conditioning Specialist. He travels the world teaching his Reconciling Biomechanics with Pain Science course to health & fitness professionals. He is also the creator of the “Recovery Strategies” pain workbook, which is an amazing, informative, and free resource for anyone in pain. Greg’s work has had a profound impact on the therapeutic, fitness, and yoga/movement worlds, and I am incredibly honored to feature his insight on my blog!
YOGA & STRETCHING Q&A W/GREG LEHMAN
QUESTION 1: In the yoga world, there is a widespread claim that stretching can lengthen connective tissues like ligaments & tendons, causing them to become lax and leading to "joint instability". Is this a biologically plausible assertion?
ANSWER: There is no evidence that this actually happens. Pretty unbelievable, eh? There is certainly more evidence that suggests when you pull (apply tension) to connective tissue it responds by getting stiffer, stronger and sometimes thicker. Old research by Dr. Woo has shown this consistently. The only consistent thing that can make connective tissue less stiff is immobilization and injury. So, it is possible that people who gain massive amounts of flexibility may have at some point damaged their tissue.
If people feel “lax” because they stretch I would guess that it would be more of muscle or nervous system change. People may not have the strength in those ranges to control the motion rather than the idea that they lengthened connective tissue constraints.
QUESTION 2: What exactly does "stability" mean when it comes to our joints, and is there evidence to support that a lack of joint stability causes pain and/or dysfunction?
ANSWER: A stable joint system just means when it gets perturbed or jostled it comes back to its resting place. But, people have expanded the definition to mean that a joint just moves a lot when you don’t want it to move. Joint instability is a problem when a joint pops out of place and does not readily go back into place. It certainly does happen but I doubt it’s that common.
QUESTION 3: Can passively stretching a muscle compromise its strength (i.e. decrease its ability to produce force)?
ANSWER: Not significantly, meaning 1-5% of max force production [if stretching immediately prior to a strength activity]. And since we regularly don’t need to produce max force it’s not really an issue. And you only get this transient force reduction when you hold a static stretch for 45 or more seconds. Some research (Blazevich) even suggests that these max force/power losses are mitigated or completely ameliorated provided you do a warm up.
There is no reason to think that long-term stretching will make you weak.
QUESTION 4: Aside from concerns about lengthening ligaments & tendons that we've already covered here, is it inherently injurious or damaging for the body to spend time in passive end range stretches? What about for someone with a connective tissue disorder such as generalized joint hypermobility (GJH) or Ehlers-Danlos Syndrome (EDS)?
ANSWER: I think with EDS it makes sense to limit those movements and get strong instead. That’s one of those conditions where shit really does pop out of place. But for other people, who cares if you hang out at end range. You are just applying tensile load to tissue (pretty much what strength training does but at other ROMs) and the tissue will adapt by getting stronger.
We aren’t made of taffy. We don’t really “stretch” that way with applied loading like end ROM stretching. I don’t think it’s injurious but you could certainly argue that there are better options to achieve health and mobility – like adding strength training or even resistance throughout the range of motion.
QUESTION 5: There is a growing dialog in the yoga world about the distinction between active & passive stretching, with a new emphasis being placed on the benefits of training active strength & control through our ranges of motion ("active stretching") and a de-emphasis being placed on passive stretching. The reasoning goes that if we have more passive ROM available at a joint than active ROM, we are more susceptible to injury because we lack "control" in those end ranges. Would you agree with this line of thought?
ANSWER: I think you should do both. I wouldn’t be worried about injury though. I don’t think most people are getting injured because they have lost “control” of the joint. Further, if you get injured because the joint suddenly goes to end ROM, it’s not strength at end ROM that would have helped you - it’s the strength and control that you needed before you went to end ROM.
QUESTION 6: Many long-term yoga practitioners have discovered through imaging that they have a hip labral tear, and yoga is often blamed as the cause of this tear. Given that yoga is a low-load activity and that a majority of people in general will develop an asymptomatic labral tear as they age [Ref, Ref, Ref, Ref], is a long-term yoga practice a likely cause of a hip labral tear?
ANSWER: Labral tears are common. Heck, they might even be beneficial for performance. It’s not unreasonable to think that ANY activity can predispose you to joint changes. They happen and I doubt there is much we can do about it. You will see labral tears and bony changes in most sports.
So should we stop physical activity because of the chance of a labral tear? No. There are way too many benefits from a movement practice that far outweigh the negatives of a potential increase in the chance of having a labral tear.
QUESTION 7: In terms of stretching physiology, I believe that many people conflate the "muscle spindle stretch reflex" (reflexive muscular contraction during a stretch) with "stretch tolerance" (tolerating the discomfort of stretching) in their minds. Could you describe the difference between these two phenomena? Do they both play a role in stopping us at the end range of a stretch?
ANSWER: I’m not sure to be honest. Stretch tolerance definitely plays a role as the stretch is stopped (in the experimental studies) when the participant says its too much. What happens with long term stretching is that you are able to go farther without there being a dramatic change in tissue qualities. Meaning we assume that the changes in ROM are due to your tolerance or perhaps habituation rather than a structural change.
The muscle spindle stretch reflex is assumed to not be occurring during end ROM stretching because in these studies they monitor muscle activity. Meaning, they try to make sure there is no measurable muscle activity that occurs at end ROM. We assume its just a passive resistance to stretch. However, it is plausible that there is minor amount of activity that isn’t being picked up and this could be “putting on the brakes”.
QUESTION 8: Do you believe there are ways in which passive stretching could actually be beneficial for the body on a musculoskeletal level? If so, how?
ANSWER: Yes. I think long term stretching is just passive tensile force and tension has the ability to create positive structural adaptations in tissue. Some (Kubo) have argued that passive stretching can make tendon more efficient. Others suggest that passive stretching influences muscle stiffness which might be good to balance the stiffness changes in a tendon that can occur with injury.
I certainly don’t view stretching as a negative which I once did. I think if you argue against stretching you are really not “against” stretching but more pro some other intervention. So, if you like to stretch and its helpful for you I would encourage you to keep it up.
THANK YOU AGAIN TO GREG FOR HIS GENEROSITY IN SHARING HIS KNOWLEDGE AND INSIGHT WITH THE YOGA COMMUNITY. I HOPE YOU FOUND THIS INTERVIEW INFORMATIVE AND HELPFUL FOR YOUR YOGA PRACTICE & TEACHING! -JENNILearn much more from Greg Lehman on his website here, and follow him on Twitter!
This list was curated by the innovative online magazine Shut Up & Yoga, and their list includes many of my other favorite yoga/movement teachers as well - including fully half of the special guest teachers in my online class library! (Do I know how to pick ‘em or what? :) )
Click here to check out the article, and to find out what my favorite word is and why (and much more, of course!) I hope you enjoy reading more about my perspective on yoga & movement, as well those of all of the other interesting and innovative teachers who were featured.
I’m more than excited to welcome our newest special guest teacher to contribute to my online class library: the amazing Lizette Pompa!!
I have been a huge fan of Lizette for a long time, and I was thrilled when she said yes to the idea of contributing some kettlebell + yoga flows to my online class library!
Using a kettlebell is one way that we yogis can bring a form of external load into our yoga practice, and Lizette does a great job of unifying the feeling of a yoga flow with the added load / "prop" of the kettlebell.
Lizette is a yoga teacher and yoga studio owner based in Uppsala, Sweden who loves to incorporate strength into her yoga classes. She is incredibly strong and dedicated to her yoga practice, and she inspires me every day with her posts on Instagram.
I hope you love her first practice in my library (which is only $8.99/month for unlimited access to all classes & you can cancel anytime, by the way!) I've already taken this class two times, and my body is verrry happy!
If I could have one wish for our yoga community in the coming year, it would be for us to intentionally *load our bodies* more. But what do I mean by that?
When I talk about loading the body, I just mean exposing the body to enough of a physical challenge that its tissues are stimulated to *adapt* to become stronger.
When our tissues become stronger, our whole body becomes more resilient.
We are less likely to experience injuries because we’ve increased the load-bearing capacity of our tissues, we have more confidence and trust in our body (which can decrease the likelihood of pain), and research suggests that higher levels of strength levels are associated with increased longevity and long-term health!
So all of those are excellent reasons to load our body regularly. But as amazing as yoga is (and I personally love this practice!), yoga is actually a *low-load* activity.
(Obviously for an inactive person, yoga might offer enough load for some adaptations, but at some point, we all adapt to our yoga practice and plateau, you know?)
For all of the talk we hear these days about injuries in long-term yoga practitioners, the reality is that it’s most likely *underloading*, and not overloading, that is the root cause of the bulk of these injuries. Crazy, huh?
And that’s why my biggest wish for yogis in 2019 is to load their bodies more! This could come in the form of integrating more strengthening moves right into our yoga practice (see my online class library for tons of yoga classes that do this!), and/or in the form of yogis taking on other additional activities that involve higher & varying loads (i.e. weightlifting, rock climbing, etc - the possibilities are endless!)
More load = more resilient tissues = happier yogis!
Does stretching make our muscles longer? Does stretching weaken our tissues and de-stabilize our joints? Can “overstretching” give us lax ligaments? Does stretching apply enough stress to our tissues to make them stronger?
There are a lot (a lot!) of claims about stretching that tend to circulate in the yoga community, and not all of these claims are accurate! Did you know?
“Histology” is the branch of biology dealing with the study of the tissues of the body. And from what I can see in the yoga world, many of the claims that we hear about stretching simply don’t jive with what histology/science has revealed about the properties of human connective tissue (including ligaments & tendons) and muscle tissue.
I really appreciated it when the incredibly knowledgeable Greg Lehman stated this quote I’ve featured here during his presentation to us at Jules Mitchell’s 300-hr yoga teacher training that I recently completed. Thank you, Greg!