Does a regular practice of Modern Postural Yoga alignment help or hinder someone running regime?
Since the U.S. running boom in the ‘70’s and the yoga boom in the ‘90’s, more and more long-time runners and yoga practitioners have quit running and doing yoga due to chronic pain and joint degeneration. Knee replacements and hip replacements have become increasingly normal among middle-aged runners and yogis. We now have enough data over the last few decades to show that long-term practice of the popular health regimes of running or yoga often leads to chronic musculo-skeletal injuries and joint wearing instead of producing the desired health benefits of higher functionality in the joints and connective tissues.
All Alignment is Not the Same
The most common excuses for the increasing degeneration and imbalance in the musculo-skeletal system among long-time runners, yogis, and dancers is joint “over-use” and the natural wearing of age. However, a more likely chief culprit of this deleterious long-term trend in running and yoga is a chronic imbalance in the myofascial tone between the back and front of the body due to habitual postural misalignment.
The increasing number of health issues from daily sitting, standing, running and yoga is not due to the amount of dedicated days or years of repeated practice. The main problem is chronic misalignment that creates a long-term pattern of tightening of the anterior myofascial chain and a weakening and disengagement of the posterior chain. Repeated imbalanced engagement in the myofascia, especially between the back and the front of the body, leads to chronic joint degeneration in runners and yogis alike. It isn’t what you are doing, it is all about how you are doing. Trail running or barefoot running is not necessarily healthier than running on cement in shoes if there is a chronic postural misalignment between the front and the back of the body. Working at a standing desk is not healthier than sitting if the posture is terribly misaligned: glutes locked downward, pubis pushed forward ahead of the ribcage, knees locked back in hyper-extension, weight on the heels with the toes up. Doing a sweaty ‘flow yoga’ practice is not healthier than regularly sitting for meditation if every ‘sun salutation’ is reinforcing a deep fascial misalignment. If with every pose in the vinyasa flow one side of a joint is consistently tightening and the other side disengaging, then the joint is slowly being worn out.
Typically, this imbalance in the connective tissue is a deep, unconscious postural habit that is never noticed by the practitioner until the pain becomes so chronic that it leads to an orthopedic examination and switching to an alternative health practice without the wear and tear of the running. Nevertheless, any static position like sitting or dynamic movement like running can become an optimally functional posture through the application of a balanced alignment that gives the capacity for a uniform myofascial tone on all sides of the body.
Modern Postural Yoga is Not for Runners
Today, Modern Postural Yoga (MPY) is epitomized by mainstream 20th century yoga styles like Ashtanga Vinyasa, Iyengar Yoga, Hot Yoga, Bikram Yoga, CorePower, YogaWorks, Yin Yoga, and Anusara yoga, which all follow the same standard model of postural alignment. All these styles focus on drawing the glutes downward, tailbone down, and hips rooting down through the heels. In terms of functional, dynamic alignment, none of the standard model yoga styles ascribe to engaging the gluteus maximus upward from an anterior tip of the pelvis. In fact, even when the posterior chain is purposely contracted in a MPY pose, the glutes are universally pulled downward. The usual yoga alignment with its downward myofascial directionality in the hips and legs is good for static rest and heavy stability. Yet, the standard model alignment in Modern Postural Yoga does not promote the myofascia of the glutes to mound upward in order to develop increasingly efficient power of agility, jumping or running!
Softening fascia and stretching muscle so that joint mobility is more elastic and mobile is generally considered a healthy practice, since blood circulation can be greatly improved throughout the body. Yet, passive stretching by itself does not necessarily align the body to its optimal functional position for any particular activity. Passive stretching before running provides dubious measureable improvement in performance.
When the body relaxes, the connective tissue softens and the shape of the body moves toward a primordial C-Curve. The chin and head go down and forward, the back rounds toward a C-shape and the glutes go down. The more the legs relax, the knees straighten and can hyperextend backward protruding the soft connective tissue behind the knees. The C-curve posture with relaxed, smooth connective tissue on the posterior side of the body is optimal for rest, comfort, and innate sense of security. When the pelvis is tucked, the belly is short, the ribcage is deflated, and the head is forward and down, the backside myofascial chains are disengaged and cannot effectively engage to lift and propel the body. Therefore, any alignment system, like the standard model in MPY, that only promotes the downward release of the glutes might be good for rest and calming, but is not helpful for increasing functional movement capacity. Runners or for anyone wanting to increase agility, lightness, and springy power in their daily movements should avoid alignments that consistently release the glutes downward.
Furthermore, most standard yoga stretches are passive disengagements of the posterior chain of myofascia from the pads of the toes up the back of the legs to the back of the head. The front chain of myofascia is often overly contracted in MPY poses by constantly lifting and spreading the toes and flattening the transverse arch in the feet. If a runner applies this foot alignment while running - constantly lifting and spreading their toes and heel-striking, they will have a shortened running career due to the joint pain and degeneration, particularly at the knees!
The default alignment of runners is to lift the toes, strike the heel first in the stride, draw the glutes and tail down, push the groins forward, shorten the belly, deflate the ribcage, flatten the upper back, push the elbows behind the ribcage, pull the chin down and push the head forward.
This alignment is essentially reinforced and magnified through the standard model of MPY alignment consisting of spreading and lifting the toes, rooting down through the heels, drawing glutes down, shortening belly, melting the upper back, pulling the shoulders back, and stretching the back of the neck long. To improve your postural alignment for running or any functional movement for that matter, regularly inputting the alignment patterns of