Off The Road – The Wisdom of Yoga

by Russ Ebbets, DC

The origins of yoga are somewhat unclear. Some authorities date the practice as beginning as recently as 1200 years ago. Other sources trace the beginning to the initial stages of recorded history, as early as 2500 years ago. For this article’s discussion neither really matters. The important point is that the discipline is time tested and not some marketing fad created to marginally capitalize on the fitness craze.

I was introduced to yoga as a high schooler through the old Book-of-the-Month Club. The initial offer of the BOTMC was usually five hardcover books for 99 cents. The choices included bestsellers, some reference books and titles that may be best described as eclectic. It bears mention that this “dollar” deal was when the minimum wage was $1.65.

The yoga book I purchased was more a series of pictures of an emaciated man, wrapped in a loincloth, exhibiting various contortions that I couldn’t even begin to approximate. We’re talking foot behind the head, balancing the whole body on one hand and a series of pictures of him working a small string up his nose eventually exiting through his mouth. I couldn’t see “the point” of any of this and unfortunately “the point” was never explained. Ultimately, a side-show job at Ringling Brothers was not in my future plans and the book got shelved.

Fast forward to senior year in college. I suffered a series of injuries that effectively ended my collegiate career. After several laps of the medical merry-go-round, I was forced to accept the soul crushing reality that no one had a clue how to help me and that I’d better learn to live with my overtraining injuries.

Despite the knee and back injuries, I could lift weights. Although the college’s weight facilities at that time were little more than a Universal gym, I was able to design a workout that maintained some level of fitness.

Few people lifted in those days. Old wives’ tales about becoming muscle bound and other tidbits of misinformation abounded which left workouts as much hit and miss as they were structured. One day one of the other people in the gym was a professor. To me, all he did was stretch, only stretch. On this particular day he began to talk with another professor about his recent trip to India and how he had contracted hepatitis. Until his hepatitis resolved he said he could not exercise per se, but he could do yoga. Yoga, I thought, what he did didn’t look like anything I knew about yoga. Maybe there was more to the discipline than I thought I knew?

It turns out there was. At a local bookstore I found a copy of Richard Hittleman’s 28 Day Guide to Yoga. This was a progressive, step-by-step plan that over the course of a month not only introduced the practice of yoga but progressively challenged the body with an ever evolving series of poses or postures that worked to methodically manipulate the joints of the body and lengthen soft tissue. Additionally, yoga can develop or help restore a state of balance, poise and grace. With Hittleman’s book as a guide, I have done yoga exercises almost daily my whole adult life.

But why did the poses evolve as they have to what practitioners use today? The genius of those who created yoga is that their rudimentary understanding of the body’s anatomy and physiology became the foundation for the development of the postures. That may seem improbable in our high-tech, high cost, MRI diagnostic imaging world, but it is nonetheless true. Below is a quick examination of six classic poses or yogic practices with an explanation of why they are done, how they work and why they have remained standard practices for 100s of years.

In general – Yoga practice accomplishes several goals. Most soon recognize an increased range of motion (ROM) the postures create over the course of days. A secondary benefit is the gentle “pulling” the stretch causes at the insertion sites of one’s muscles, tendons and ligaments to make these attachments stronger. This, in turn, creates joint complexes that are more stable and less susceptible to injury. Technically, this is an application of Davis’s Law and a form of invisible training. Davis’s Law states that when tissue insertion sites are challenged the intuitive wisdom of the body increases the holding strength of the tissues. This is called invisible training because to the naked eye there is no apparent change to the body.

There are several general benefits worth noting. The synchronization of breathing with the stretching and relaxation phases of the different postures helps develop and establish an unconscious improvement of this critical body function. In fact, there is a yogic maxim – “he/she who half breathes, half lives.”  Body coordination is also sharpened as the slow, rhythmic movements in and out of the various postures programs or re-programs the sequential muscular firing patterns of various body movements. This teaches the body to move with a greater efficiency, less wear and tear and can be seen to promote longevity or contribute to the anti-aging process. 

The Shoulder Stand –

In truth, none of us spend much of our time upside-down in our daily lives. Our upright posture is the default position to walk, run or even sit for hours on end. The circulation of the blood throughout the body is driven by the heart, no news here, but what few realize is that the ejection of blood from the heart travels upwards first, against gravity, before it descends to circulate through the torso, legs and feet.

Yoga2.jpgWith an inverted posture (shoulder stand – Figure 1 or head stand) the heart pumps the blood with gravity. In this upside-down position two areas that directly benefit from this repositioning are the brain and the neck. Oxygenated blood from the heart travels with a slightly greater pressure more thoroughly perfusing the various nooks and crannies of the neck and brain. But why the neck?

By one’s mid-thirties to mid-forties virtually everyone starts to develop arthritis in the lower cervical spine. The reasons here are varied but would include untreated motor vehicle crashes, poor postures at work and the ubiquitous falls that created a whiplash to the neck with the lower cervical spine suffering the most long-term damage. While most may experience minimal pain, the damage to the discs and arthritic changes to the spinal vertebrae can cause one to start to lose height and close the holes of the spinal nerves exiting from the spinal cord, compromising the function of the nerves and the tissues supplied.

Of import here is the thyroid gland and its production of its three hormones. The thyroid gland is located in the area of the lower neck. The thyroid hormones influence the body’s metabolic rate and protein synthesis. This is why the medical solution for a 40ish patient is thyroxine, a hormone supplement for waning energies. An alternative is the use of the shoulder stand with the re-positioning of the heart to “flush” the thyroid gland with blood, capitalizing on the naturally occurring hormone remaining and using it to stimulate the body.

Inverted postures can initially be challenging. There are modified positions that offer some similar benefits without the chance to topple over. Better to start conservatively than to find out quickly what one cannot do.

YogaFigure2.jpgThe Lotus Posture – The seated, crossed legged lotus position (Figure 2, left) may be the most universal symbol for yoga. This posture clearly expresses the intent of yoga for advertising, business cards or book covers. In the lotus posture one can practice meditative thought, breathing exercises or use the position to chant selected mantras. But there are additional benefits for the runner.

As we age the foot slowly loses its ability to dorsiflex. Dorsiflexion is the biomechanical term for lifting the toes and forefoot from the floor while the heel remains in ground contact. The foot dorsiflexes twice during the running/walking gait cycle. For heel strikers the dorsiflexion is at heel strike. In the toe-off phase the foot also dorsiflexes. Over the weeks, months and years of an athletic career this sequence is repeated. But why is the loss of dorsiflexion problematic?

The aging loss of dorsiflexion contributes to the shorter stride and a decreased force production with toe-off. Attempts to “maintain” performance levels as we age, begin to place more and more stress on the tissues of the foreleg. What is a telltale sign of an aging (35+ year-old) runner? Achilles problems, and in the weekend warrior, who does not warm-up properly, a spontaneous rupture of the Achilles is an ever present possibility.

There are three ligaments on the lateral aspect of the ankle. The one closest to the toes is the anterior talofibular ligament (ATF). In addition to stabilizing the ankle this ligament also checks foot dorsiflexion. Sitting in a cross legged lotus posture places the foot in a plantar flexed and inverted position that stretches the ATF. An ATF with greater elasticity is better able to handle the stresses of running. Coincidentally, one’s ability to maintain a healthy dorsiflexion range of motion at the ankle can also help with fall prevention in an older population as a more mobile ankle allows for better balance and proprioceptive feedback, foot to brain.

YogaFigure3.jpgThe Cobra – To many the Cobra Posture (Figure 3, left) is simply a backward bend done lying on one’s stomach. The posture accomplishes two general goals and also plays an important role in challenging the spinal column and discs that separate the individual vertebrae.

The bending motion is one of the six positions the body can move into and out of. Bending can be forward or backward or side-to-side. The interesting point here is that with the bending, one side of the body gets stretched, while the other side gets compressed or pushed together. Everybody gets the stretching part, but the compression part may be confusing.

All joint complexes (i.e adjacent bones) have a desired movement pattern or ranges which they can normally, safely move. Problems arise when one’s lifestyle chronically limits the ranges of motion one routinely goes through due to one’s work patterns (repetitive motions), handedness, mental state (drooped shoulders) or simply laziness (the recliner and a TV remote). Over time not exercising the full range of motion (ROM) of a joint complex subsequently shrinks and is commonly blamed for the “aging process.”

The Cobra Posture stretches the tissues on the front of the spine and compresses the check joints (facets) of the posterior spine together helping to maintain one’s forward and backward ranges of motion. It is important to emphasize here that the positions assumed should be done so gradually. Rapid movements, where one quickly forces the facet joints together can literally jam the facets together, cause the muscles to strain and compromise one’s symmetric ROM defeating the purpose of the Cobra pose.

The Cobra Pose has been adopted by physical therapists and evolved into the widely prescribed McKenzie Technique for the treatment of lower back disc injuries. But again, for this technique to be successful, it takes a time commitment of weeks and the actions must be completed in a smooth and gradual manner.

YogaFigure4.jpgThe Posture Clasp – It was mentioned earlier that breath control was one of the main focuses of yogic practice. One of the ways this is accomplished is the promotion of “good posture.” But besides your mother’s admonition to “stand up straight” we get little direction throughout life. The Posture Clasp can be performed from the seated Lotus Pose (Figure 2) (preferred) or standing (Figure 4, right). The Posture Clasp is performed with the hands clasped behind the back and then the arms are lifted (shoulders extended) to end range.

This uncommon lifting pattern stretches the shoulder’s capsule increasing shoulder ROM. This action also activates the muscles between the shoulder blades that when toned help bring the shoulders backwards, opening up the chest, thus allowing for a greater inspiration. Interestingly, this Posture Clasp can also cause the sternoclavicular joint to slightly move. The sternoclavicular joint is the only bony attachment of the arm to the body. All the other attachments of the arm, the rotator cuff, rhomboids, pecs and serratus anterior are muscles.

Stooped postures, one sided lifting patterns, use of cell phones, computer work or gathering actions of white collar work can roll the shoulders forward and cut off the apices of the lungs decreasing the inspiratory capacity of the lungs which is a more technical way of saying – those that half breathe, half live.

The Tree Pose – Balance is the most important biomotor skill, and arguably the least trained. Instability in upright posture promotes injuries, compromises the effectiveness of training, decreases force production and generally shortens athletic careers and one’s life. Loss of balance and falling down can be a nuisance to the adult and fatal for the elderly.

YogaFigure5.jpgThe Tree Pose (Figure 5, right) is a simple way to challenge one’s balance and proprioception. It bears mention that balance uses one’s sight while proprioception uses one’s muscle sense without sight, eyes closed.

Standing on one leg we use visual cues and muscular strength to maintain the pose. Fatigue is signified by the eventual “wobble” one feels as the postural muscles tire. The practice of the position, over time, extends the time-until-wobble or fatigue which is an endurance quality. The ability to perform the Tree Pose with the eyes closed challenges one’s proprioceptive sense adding another layer of complexity to the “simple” pose. The necessary caveat here is to make sure one has an open space as falls or necessary re-steps can happen.

YogaFigure6.jpgThe Lion – The Lion is a lesser known posture within the practice of yoga. The Lion is usually performed from a kneeling position (Figure 6, left). It is a series of six movements to create exaggerated features of the face, neck and hands. Ideally doing the Lion tones the muscles beneath the skin of these areas, increases the circulation and theoretically will decrease the incidence of wrinkles. To perform The Lion the eyes are widened, the mouth is open wide, the tongue extended, the nostrils are flared, the hands are either extended along the legs or raised to the side of the head with the fingers spread wide and a guttural “roar” is produced. For some this is a silly, fun gesture, but there is method to this madness.

There are 12 pairs of nerves that supply the sensory and motor functions to the head, neck and shoulder areas of the body called the cranial nerves. The nerves exit at the base of the skull and are responsible for expression of the five senses. Sight, smell, taste, phonation, sense of touch and taste are all possible due to the cranial nerves.

What the exaggerated features of the Lion do is momentarily stimulate these nerves. This sudden and comprehensive challenge floods the brain with stimulation creating a momentary jolt that stimulates or jump starts the brain to an overall heightened awareness. If you have ever observed a sprinter preparing to get into the starting blocks or a football kick-off returner about to receive the kick-off, they perform a “knees-to-chest” jump. This knees to chest creates a similar stimulus flooding the brain with sensory input from throughout the body with the brain responding with a momentary sense of heightened awareness.

Interestingly, cranial nerve X, the vagus nerve, is the longest nerve in the body and travels from the skull all the way to the large intestine. Along the way branches of the vagus nerve innervate the heart, lungs, liver, gall bladder, stomach, spleen, pancreas, kidneys, bladder and sex organs. The vagus nerve is essentially responsible for the functions of the parasympathetic nervous system (the wine or dine responses).

Flexibility is one of the five biomotor skills. Oddly, it is the only non-competitive biomotor skill. Yoga is flexibility, but I think now you can see that this is a simplistic view. Even though we discussed six poses or postures we only scratched the surface.

Modern day yoga is done in hot rooms, with goats and has even produced its own scandalous Netflix documentary. Although yoga has been promoted for women, that is misleading as men will benefit from the practice just as much, if not more. To get started I have long suggested Richard Hittleman’s 28 Day Guide to Yoga. It is a safe, progressive program requiring minimal equipment other than some floor space and 20-30 minutes of your time daily. In the span of 28 days, one will become conversant in the ability to attend to virtually any area of the body feeling discomfort. And when done in the safety of your own home one can roar to one’s heart’s content.

Russ Ebbets, DC is a USATF Level 3 Coach and lectures nationally on sport and health related topics. He serves as editor of Track Coach, the technical journal for USATF. He is author of the novel Supernova on the famed running program at Villanova University and the sequel Time and Chance. His 2019 book, A Runner’s Guide, a collection of training tips and running articles was a 2019 Track and Field Writers of America Book of the Year finalist. A Runner’s Guide 2 was published in February 2023. Books are available from He can be contacted at

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