Combining Physical Therapy and Yoga Helps You Move in Better, Safer Ways
July 29, 2021

In our experience, people tend to discover the benefits of physiyoga (physical therapy and yoga) in one of two ways: They are either dealing with an injury, and a yoga instructor suggests they see a PT, or their physical therapist prescribes yoga as a part of their treatment protocol.

But it’s not just people recovering from injuries who stand to gain from integrating physical therapy principles into their yoga practices. The feedback we get from people who take our physiyoga classes is that they feel safer to explore movement because they’re learning to do so in more optimal ways, while building or maintaining strength and mobility.

There are four main ways that integrating physical therapy and yoga can benefit you – through attending to, and integrating your mind, body and spirit.

1. You learn proper joint mechanics (mind + body)

If you understand how your joints are supposed to move – and are taught how to move them optimally – you’re less likely to injure them. You’re also more apt to make them stronger and more resilient, enabling you to do all the things you want to do.

As a result, you’ll learn how to move your joints gradually into positions with greater ranges of motion and more load over time, allowing your body and mind to adapt.

2. You become stronger (mind + body)

We are creatures of habits, always seeking the path of least resistance. The way you do a chaturanga or squat or bend to pick up your child may be the “easiest” way for you now. But if you’re not using your body and muscles in the smartest (read: most functional and aligned) way, you’re missing the opportunity to get stronger and avoid injury.

By using mindfulness, being present in these moves, and trying new, more powerful movement patterns, you can build strength.

3. Your movement patterns become more efficient (mind + body)

The more your joints move well with good muscular control, the more you can spread the load across all of them. This means less work is isolated to one area: less energy overall is spent on movement, as science has shown. And we are able to do more with less.

A great example of this is running. If you have good hip, ankle, knee, and spine mobility, the force and work of running can be spread across all of those joints and, by extension, all the muscles along those joints. That means more power, speed, and endurance are all possible.

Conversely, if you have limited hip mobility or ankle mobility, your knees and spine may incur more of the load, get tired, sore, etc.

4. You improve your motor learning (mind + body)

Not only do we need to move our joints properly and make our muscles stronger, but we must remember that all the instructions for movement come from the brain first. For our bodies to move better and smarter, it’s important to learn and internalize new movement patterns – otherwise known as motor learning (which stems from physical therapy science).

It starts with mindful awareness of what you are feeling in and outside your body. There are two senses: The first is proprioception (understanding where your body is in space). The second is interoception (what you feel in your body). The latter is the means “by which the nervous system anticipates, senses, and integrates signals originating from the body,” according to a study published in the journal Trends in Neurosciences.

By paying attention to these two physiological responses through mindful awareness, you can make motor changes to achieve new, more efficient, safe, and optimal movements. Using mindfulness from yoga is a wonderful way to apply it to your physical practice. It’s how you can start to make changes in your brains: reprogramming and forming new neural pathways. This neuroplasticity can be applied to any movement.

An example of motor learning at its finest could be when you remember the yoga cue to let your shoulder blade float instead of pinning it down when you reach your arms overhead in urdva hastasana (upward salut), or during downward dogs when your arms are over your head. Over time, with consistent practice you’ll increase your motor learning skills as you utilize proprioception and interoception to engage in embodied experiences.

Through physiyoga you can regulate your nervous system (mind + body + spirit)

There are three polyvagal phases in which your autonomic nervous system operates: rest and digest (social and safe), fight or flight (mobilization), or freeze mode (immobilization). Ideally, you’ll develop the flexibility to shift freely between all three – something physiyoga can teach you. You’ll develop a mindfulness practice, a practice that trains you to separate reality from emotional reactions and stories our minds often tell us (formed by our past experiences and social conditioning). You’ll learn to stay present and responsive, and use your breath to up- or down-regulate your nervous system (enabling more fluidity between polyvagal states). The result? A multi-level, game-changing, more robust nervous system. 

Bottom Line

Applying the science-backed, evidenced-based principles of physical therapy to your yoga practice can help you build or maintain strength and mobility while reducing your risk of injury. Through physiyoga you’ll train your brain and body to optimize movement patterns, and learn to regulate your nervous system through mindfulness and better self-awareness.

 

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