Welcome to the world of co-activating muscles in yoga poses. If I were to ask yoga students to engage their core, lock their pelvic floor, or activate their gluteal muscles, they would do many things, but only a few of them would actually access the necessary muscle group. I do not use these cues when I teach. Why? They do not instruct; they state a desired result.
To know me is to know, I don't practice or teach results. I practice and teach the process. The results happen slowly over time, when we least expect them.
My greatest joy is teaching you HOW to build a yoga pose from the inside out and not just which yoga pose to do. Learning to build a pose and working with the body instead of forcing a pose and resisting the body pays you back time after time with progression and reduced injuries. Learning the concept of co-activating takes your practice to a whole new level.
Arguably yoga's most powerful technique: co-activating muscles. Co-activation is a process where we engage larger muscle groups in order to engage smaller stabilizing muscles that are difficult to access because they are deeper in the body. In this blog entry, we'll look at how co-activating muscles can reveal the hidden strength of smaller muscles, creating more accessible and stable yoga poses.
Understanding Muscle Co-Activation:
Muscle co-activation is a dynamic and integrative principle that emphasizes simultaneously engaging the bigger, major muscles and the smaller, supporting muscles. You can advance your practice, develop body awareness, and have a deeper connection with yourself by actively employing these underused muscles as you build yoga poses.
As a student of yoga it was frustrating when a teacher would cue, "engage your gluteal muscles" with no instruction on how to do it. Left to my own devices, I would crunch up my butt cheeks. This actually accessed the wrong gluteal muscles leaving me weaker in the pose and open to injury and of course frustration.
Benefits of Co-activating Muscles:
Better Stability and Balance: Muscle co-activation improves stability and balance by activating the muscles that support joints. You can explore more difficult poses with grace and ease due to this increased stability, which improves your overall yoga practice.
Heightened Body Awareness: Co-activation allows you to connect and engage with the smaller muscles that are underused, which heightens your awareness of your body. This increased sensitivity to your body's movements and alignment enables you to make subtle adjustments and find optimal alignment in each pose.
Enhanced Flexibility and Strength: Co-activating muscles enhance the use of supporting muscles, which results in increased flexibility and strength. You can explore deeper ranges of motion, enhance muscular balance, and feel more powerful.
Greater Mind-Body Connection: The practice of co-activation promotes a greater mind-body connection. You can bring focused attention to each movement by purposefully engaging the primary and supporting muscles. This creates a harmonious connection between your physical body and your mind.
Cons of Co-activating Muscles:
It's not as much of a con as a change in mindset. If you've been practicing with a result-oriented mindset and continue to do so, learning new things, especially co-activating muscles, will frustrate you. Anytime we learn a new technique on how to build a pose, it will highlight where we are weak. It'll feel challenging, and it'll highlight the steps we skipped to produce the result. That's a blow to the ego. Immediately, the ego will say, "That doesn't work. I'll go back to the way I was doing it before." In reality, it's not that it doesn't work; it's that we don't know how to do it or if it's challenging. The ego will take the path of least resistance, i.e., old habits.
Examining Co-Activation in Yoga Poses:
Keep in mind that each of these actions is done in little, progressive steps. Make gradual adjustments until you feel stronger, but avoid going too far and feeling constrained.
Warrior II with Shoulder Blade Engagement:
Old Method: Raising the arms to shoulder height. In this example, the arms and wrists are asking the traps to do all the work to hold the arms in position. The effect is burning shoulders and/or a heavy upper body.
New Co-Activation Method: Activate the upper back muscles by consciously moving the shoulder blades toward the center and slightly downward. This co-activation promotes a sensation of strength and grounding by encouraging an open chest and improving stability.
Deep Core Muscle Activation in Tree Pose:
Old Method: Placing foot instead of standing leg. Standing leg hip bows out to the side, and the upper body leans in the opposite direction in an attempt to keep the body in balance.
New Co-Activation Method: As you develop Tree Pose, engage your deep core muscles by pressing your foot into your standing leg and your standing leg into your foot at the same moment with equal effort. This activates deep abdominal muscles—think pelvic floor. Additionally, press the mat away with the big toe mound of the standing foot for stability. Lift the ribs to activate core muscles. These co-activations enhance core strength, stability, and balance.
High Plank with Wrist and Finger Activation:
Old Method: Surrender to gravity, allowing the shoulders to creep towards the ears and the shoulder blades to collapse.
New Co-Activation Method: Activate the muscles of the hands, fingers, and wrists by pressing the mat away with the entire hand until you feel lifting in the upper back. Make the motion of sliding the fingertips to the center of the palm. The fingers do not move, but this activates muscles in the forearms, adding upper-body strength. This co-activation not only strengthens the wrists but also enhances the overall stability and alignment of the pose.
Chair Pose with Glute Activation:
Old Method: Bending the knees while keeping the hips higher than the knees Keeping the weight in the front of the feet with toes gripping the mat, praying for the pose to end.
New Co-Activation Method: Shift your weight back into the heels and push the mat away with the heels to intentionally activate your gluteal muscles. At the same time, curl the toes up to activate the quadriceps. To activate the pelvic and deep core muscles, press the knees together. This improves the pose's stability and fortifies the muscles in the lower body. (If keeping the knees apart, place a block in between the knees and press into the block.)
Co-activation uses bigger, easier-to-access superficial muscles to recruit deeper muscles that are challenging to isolate and engage. Concentrate on achieving balanced activation to enable the supporting muscles to collaborate with the larger muscles.
Join me for classes at Evolution Yoga. I teach these and many more co-activation concepts. The more you know, the more adaptable you will become to your yoga practice, the more your practice will unfold.
Keep growing and flowing!
All my love,
Hello, my name is Vikky, and I am thrilled to share my passion for yoga with you. I have been teaching yoga for over 13 years in South Florida, and my journey with this ancient practice started over 37 years ago. As a registered yoga teacher and 200 Yoga School with Yoga Alliance, I hold expertise in multiple disciplines of yoga, including yogic anatomy, 500-hour yoga teacher training, yogic philosophy, and meditation. My classes are a blend of dynamic movement, breathwork, and meditation, providing a holistic experience that nurtures the mind, body, and spirit. I believe yoga is for everyone, regardless of age, fitness level, or experience. My approach is welcoming and inclusive, creating a safe and nurturing environment for all my students to explore the many benefits of yoga. Through my teachings, I hope to inspire and empower students to connect with their inner selves, cultivate mindfulness, and lead healthier, happier lives. Join me in my classes to experience the transformative power of yoga firsthand.