Our nervous systems crave repetition.

That is to say, it is built into our hardwiring to be “creatures of habit” in one way or another.

That is one (of several) reasons many of us thrive on routines throughout the day, or gravitate towards the same yoga class every week.

For the past few months, I’ve been the “substitute” yoga teacher. And for many of us (myself included), walking into our usual yoga class, there is this sense of disappointment and maybe even anxiety when we notice our regular teacher is replaced by the dreaded substitute. It’s normal. I get it. A different voice, a different pace, different practice traditions (to ohm or not to ohm), and maybe even different yoga poses. To be honest, I’ve walked into our studio and turned around the moment it was apparent the regular teacher was not teaching (insert “gasp” here).

You see, new stimuli (voice, pace, traditions, poses) require extra attention resources from the brain. It’s thought that our nervous systems gates the stimuli we experience in the day to prevent overwhelming our system from paying attention to all things all the time. A change (regardless of the label “good” or “bad”), activates different neural networks that require a certain amount of our attention. Has your brain ever gotten tired from listening so hard, trying to learn a new yoga pose or adjust to a new teacher’s voice? This is because we are tapping into that attention reserve. And yet, there’s something calming and cathartic about repeating “sun salutations”. We no longer have to tap into that attention reserve in the same way. We know what to expect and how to move our bodies. Our attention can turn inward with the rhythm of the movement and our breath.

This past year, I moved from Ontario to British Columbia. My job changed (I had been doing neurological rehab for almost ten years and was now “taking a break” in hospitality), my friends changed, and my family changed (a new puppy, and a “BC family” to start). I moved four times in my first year. My job changed again (back to neuro rehab). That’s a LOT of change! My yoga practice reflected the repetition my nervous system craved – sun salutation after sun salutation, handstands (a familiar pose for me), and lots and lots of breathing. That was it. Anything else required too much change, variability, attention. Our nervous systems crave repetition.

Now, on the other hand, our musculoskeletal system craves variation. Our muscle fibers grow stronger by change (i.e. increasing load volume – the amount of weight x the number of times). We need to load our tissues in different ways for adaptation to occur. In this way, the yoga movement #YogaEveryDamnDay isn’t perfect. At first, our musculoskeletal system adapts to our yoga practice. We start to notice that we feel stronger, certain poses start to feel easier, and maybe our daily life outside of yoga starts to feel stronger. Our tissues adapt. Insert 3 years of practice later. Have we loaded our body in new ways? Maybe not.

Yoga isn’t perfect. Yes, I said it. And I say it often.

In fact, our familiar yoga poses are missing a lot of really important anatomical balance. Take the shoulders, for example. We have muscles in the shoulder that are primarily responsible for “pushing” and muscles that are primarily responsible for “pulling” (in reality, it’s not quite this clear cut, but for simplicity sake). Primary “pushing” muscles involve the pectoralis major, anterior deltoids, triceps, and the serratus anterior. We push a lot in yoga, primarily against the floor, in poses like downdog, plank, chaturanga, handstand, and crow pose. In contrast, primary “pulling” muscles involve the rhomboids, middle trapezius, posterior deltoid, biceps / brachialis, and latissimus dorsi. How often do we purely pull in yoga? Pretty much never. That’s right. There is no pulling in traditional yoga postures. We can actually CAUSE an imbalance in our bodies with only doing yoga.

{Take a breath. There’s no need to panic. I promise there’s a happy ending, but it may get worse before it gets better…}

Now, if we travel beyond just the simple conversation around anatomical balance, we also can talk about our musculoskeletal need for increased volume in order to make strength gains. Volume, in carpentry is made up of three dimensions – length x width x height. Increase any one of these measures, and the volume increases. Similarly, volume in strength and conditioning world, is made up of three dimensions – sets x reps x weight/load. The trick is to increase one or more of these dimensions over time, but careful, too much volume will lead to injury and overtraining, too little will lead to stagnation. When we talk about traditional yoga and volume, these three dimensions could translate to the number of classes per week (sets) x the length of the class or number of times in a certain pose (reps) x our bodyweight (load). There comes a point in time when our lives just can’t fit any more yoga classes in a week, or we can only handle so many “sun salutations” in a class, and outside of pregnancy, major illness or a kid jumping on our back, our bodyweight rarely fluctuates to the extent required for major tissue change.

Well crap. So now what?

{Take another breath, it’s ok, this is where we find out the happy ending…}

Fortunately, we have options. A little creativity can go a long way, but some flexibility to step outside our yoga world is required. We can create a balanced practice both for the needs of our nervous system (repetition) and the needs of our musculoskeletal system (variation). We can still attend our favourite familiar yoga classes (and maybe those teachers are already aware of the imbalances inherent to yoga and creatively adding in pulls and extra load), and either add in a small gym or home program involving some kettlebells, therabands, or hand weights to compliment or balance our yoga practice, OR in our efforts to better serve our community, we now have a regular strength-based class on Thursdays at 5:30pm called Embodied Strength.

It’s my greatest hope that the name doesn’t scare you away. We all have a wide variety of experiences with strength training, and some of us haven’t had the easiest path in the gym. As a Kinesiologist, I feel confident that we can make a class that is accessible to your level, from the foundation up, and sometimes work around and through injuries. Yes, there will be some “yoga”, breath work will still be cued, and we surely will always end with a juicy rest, but there will also be sequences and poses outside of the regular yoga to challenge or load the tissues in new ways. There will be therabands, #EvilShitToDoWithBlocks, and maybe even kettlebells, as well as a whole lot of fun. In an effort to also appease our Nervous System’s need for repetition, there will be a theme for each month with some very similar progressions each week so to not overwhelm our brain’s attention reserve, and also to allow you to learn a bit each week to play with at home in your practice.

Are you nervous? Excited? Bring a friend, and remember, with change, there is potential.

Join Madison for Embodied Strength Drop-in Class

Thursdays, 5:30-6:30pm. Drop-in!