Understanding Muscle Memory

Is Muscle Memory a Good or Bad thing?

I’ve always thought of muscle memory as a good thing. As an athlete we understand perfect practice makes for positive performance. The same applies to our yoga practice; when yoga practice is consistent and focused the results are much improved.

This past weekend I spoke with our TTs about muscle memory and how the intelligence of our muscular system is aided by tactful hands-on assists in yoga. When an instructor safely assists a student into a slightly deeper position than they are able to achieve without the assist, over time this may make the deeper position become accessible through muscle memory. Additionally, when postures are practiced with optimal alignment plus the activation of well-informed muscle energy our bodies will gracefully adapt to the training and incorporate the information in our day-to-day posture.

However, muscle memory much like a memory foam mattress is unbiased and may work against us. Injury, poor habits, and long periods of dormancy can all create muscular imbalance or atrophy. Neglect and underuse are big risks for our body! Muscle memory, like an automobile, is only as smart as the person driving it. Let’s dig in a little deeper.

Can muscle memory have a negative affect on yoga practice?

The short answer, yes, for two main reasons… we are either working against already established postural habits that are out of balance, or we are creating them with a lack of refined practice. The reason why many of us come to yoga is because of aches and pains in the body. The physical discomfort may be a result of a specific injury, or it may be from poor postural habits. How do you think the poor posture became habitual? Muscle memory. When we aren’t present with our bodies throughout the day, then chances are we may be holding our posture in suboptimal positions and the muscles are gradually, yet consistently adapting to the shapes and repetitive movements. Even when it is injury that has caused a major issue, the muscles like our memory foam mattress adapt to the new shape we are holding. Often after injury we exhibit a guarding tendency, which keeps the muscles contracted and less able to relax and stretch when asked to. Additionally, we often overcompensate in our movements to protect the injury, which causes imbalanced movements and muscle development. Lastly, with the boom of online yoga videos there is a great potential to practice yoga postures with poor alignment since there is not an experienced teacher to observe our body’s shape and become familiar with our common tendencies. When beginning a yoga practice it’s very important to have a skilled yoga instructor helping meet the needs of the student and communicate about specific body propensities. Even adept yoga students are well served to be lead in practice and have the trained eye of a teacher helping them develop best practices.

The Good News

Muscle memory is neutral. It adapts to our repetitive methods of movement and frequent postural positions. The practices of yoga are perhaps the best way to inform our muscles and promote overall postural balance. When we are instructed well and observed keenly by an experienced teacher, then our muscles remember the focused areas to maintain tone and energy. Good yoga instruction and practice is also informing our tissues of where to let go and release tension held in achy spots. When healthy, balanced alignment is practiced in yoga asana the muscles become better coordinated and ready to repeat taking the optimal shape.

I frequently mention to students that muscles, when untrained are like fish in a river; they don’t want to work harder and swim upstream, they want to relax out of the current. Our muscles gravitate to a state of rest, particularly through neglect. Establishing a consistent yoga practice is one of the best ways to activate our entire body and retrain muscles. Yoga is probably the best method to get our underutilized muscles to fire up and create better posture.

The component of stress in our lives equates to tension in our bodies. The antithesis of my fish analogy is that some of our muscles have become programmed to hold tightly no matter what. The adrenaline of our fast-paced lives, and the stress of living in these current times adds up to achy, hyper tense muscles. Again the practice of yoga is one of the best methods for training our overactive muscles (the ones holding our stress) to relax, establishing better balance and energy flow throughout the body.

Using muscle memory to our advantage

Knowledge equals empowerment. Now that we understand how yoga and muscle memory can work together we can skillfully incorporate muscle activation and relaxation in our practice to create healthy posture on and off the mat. It’s important to consistently refine our alignment and adapt to our bodies ever-changing patterns, which means practicing being present and not predetermining our yoga postures before they happen. When we are recovering from injury we want to mindfully challenge the trouble spots to regain strength while letting go of our guarding tendencies. Whether or not we are working with injury, it’s our intent as practitioners to develop optimal posture, which we can carry with us into lives. Make a commitment in your practice for the next month to focus on a balanced approach,

I welcome your questions and feedback regarding muscle memory and yoga. Send me an email gil@breathenorfolk.com or talk to me at the studio.

namaste yogis

Gil Elhart E-RYT 500