Yoga for Paddling: Anatomy of Paddling

'Yoga for Paddling' author Anna Levesque shares tips for kayakers, canoeists and standup paddlers

— An excerpt from Chapter 2 of Yoga for Paddlers by Anna Levesque

MY PHYSICAL THERAPIST/YOGA THERAPIST says that every muscle in the body has a dream of being strong and supple for optimal performance. Muscles want to be able to produce force when called into action and be able to yield when it's time to stretch and relax. Unfortunately, our daily activities often thwart that dream by chronically contracting some muscles, leaving others underactive and sleepy.

Take the shoulders, pectorals, and upper back as an example. A paddler's pectorals and the fronts of the shoulders are overused in the motion of forward paddling, causing them to be chronically contracted. When the muscles on one side of the body are chronically shortened, it usually means that the muscles on the other side of the body are underactive. In this case, if there is no countermovement to strengthen the muscles of the upper back (rhomboids, middle and upper trapezius and erector spinae), it leaves the upper back unable to draw the shoulders back into optimal alignment. This misalignment can lead to rotator cuff tears and other shoulder problems such as trigger points and muscle spasms in the shoulder blade area.

Think of your musculoskeletal system as one system linked by connective tissue. Just as individual waves are part of the ocean and have an impact on the entire sea, so do individual muscles have an impact on the function of the entire body. This is an important concept to understand for healing our bodies, reducing the risk of injury, and achieving optimal performance. If you don't understand the currents in the ocean and how they work together, then it's difficult to perform maneuvers such as paddling out past the break efficiently.

A similar analogy could be made with a river. In order to peel out of an eddy, you need to understand the downstream current, the eddy line, the feature creating the eddy, and the current inside the eddy. It's all connected, and being able to engage when you need to engage and pause when you need to pause is important for executing a successful river running move.

Muscles are attached to tendons that are attached to bones. This means that when muscles are overused and chronically contract, they have an effect not only on other muscles but also on tendons and bones. The impact of misalignments can cause discomfort and pain in the body, and eventually lead to an increased risk of injury.

The source of pain in the body is not always obvious, and it helps to have a basic understanding of anatomy. For example, chronically contracted hip flexor muscles can pull the pelvis out of alignment, leading to back pain. In my experience, most kayakers who experience low back pain go straight to a forward fold in yoga, thinking that lengthening the low back is what's needed. Although stretching the hamstrings can be beneficial for kayakers, stretching the hip flexors is what will actually help bring the pelvis back into optimal alignment, relieving the discomfort.

I suffered from trigger points in the shoulder blades mentioned above. I was sure that the knots I was feeling were due to the strength and overuse of my upper back muscles. I would try to stretch them out by taking my arm across my chest to stretch the upper back, a stretch I see paddlers doing all the time. What I didn't realize was that particular stretch exacerbated the problem by contributing to the over-lengthened state of my upper back muscles. After taking my first yoga therapy training in 2010, I became aware of the root cause of these knots. From that moment I worked to strengthen my upper back, and the trigger points disappeared. A basic understanding of anatomy, and how muscle imbalances affect our alignment, allows us to make better choices when it comes to taking care of our bodies.

The inability of just one muscle group to move through its full range of motion can have an impact on performance and comfort. For example, hamstrings must be strong enough to keep our knees bent when we sit in our kayaks or canoes or stand on our SUPs. On the other hand, they also need to be supple enough to allow us to sit or stand with our pelvis tilted forward (anterior tilt) for good posture. Good posture leads to optimal core engagement, which leads to optimal power in our strokes. Paddlers who have shortened hamstrings paddle with their low backs rounded. This position can lead to back pain, an increased risk for disk injury, and poor stroke technique.

Strengthening the muscles that we underuse in paddling and stretching the muscles that we overuse helps to bring our bodies back into optimal alignment. Alignment can help prevent and reduce pain, discomfort, and injury. By paying attention to our bodies and bringing balance to the imbalances, we have the potential to heal ourselves before invasive intervention is needed. I do the work required to bring optimal alignment to my body so that I can continue to enjoy the sport that I love. Not only enjoy it, but paddle with skill, ease, comfort, and strength.

Optimal alignment also allows for freedom and ease of movement. Hunched shoulders, poor posture, and an inability to enjoy the sports we love does not have to be our destiny in old age. We can choose to take care of our bodies and our alignment. By doing so, we give ourselves the best possible chance of enjoying a strong, supple, and active body throughout our lives. Crucial bodily functions such as digestion,  breathing, and elimination also work better with optimal alignment. Our diaphragms have room to move, and our organs don't get compressed, which can lead to reduced function. Doing the work to balance our imbalances is important, not only for our ability to paddle, but also for the state of our overall health and quality of life.

In this book I've chosen poses that focus mainly on opening the front of the body (a countermovement to paddling), as well as targeting other relevant areas, such as the hamstrings. The positioning of the poses themselves can help paddlers balance their bodies. I've also included alignment principles, subtle actions that can be engaged while in the poses. These alignment principles are covered in chapter 3.

To understand how yoga for paddling can benefit your body and performance, it's important to have a basic knowledge of the muscles we are targeting in this book. I'm not an anatomist, so my intention with this information is not to be overly detail oriented. I want to provide a big-picture view that sets the reader up for further exploration and learning. It's relatively straightforward to feel and understand the imbalances that arise from the movement of the upper body in paddling. The lower body, however, is mostly static, whether sitting, kneeling, or standing.

The muscles of the lower body engage in isometric contractions. This means the length of the muscle and the joint angle don't change. In other words, the muscles are engaging but not moving. Muscles can be complex, with anterior and posterior fibers activating in different ways during isometric contraction. It is out of the scope of this book to delve into these details. I encourage every reader who is interested in learning more about the details of the anatomy of paddling to seek out further education by scheduling a visit with a competent health professional, physical therapist, yoga therapist, and/or yoga teacher.

The diagrams on the opposite page highlight the muscles we are targeting in this book, either to strengthen or to lengthen. Below is a brief description of the functions of the muscles highlighted in the diagrams and how they either activate or become sleepy due to the motions of paddling.

 

Hips and Legs

ILIACUS > The iliacus flexes the hip (brings the thigh toward the chest). This muscle is generally overused in kayaking due to the sitting position, in SUP due to hip flexion, and in canoeing due to the kneeling position. All three sports engage the iliacus in hip flexion, leading to chronic contraction.

PSOAS MAJOR > The psoas major flexes the hip and acts as a lumbar spine stabilizer. Similar to the iliacus, the psoas major is engaged in hip flexion while kayaking, canoeing, and SUPing…

Continue to an excerpt from Chapter 3: Alignment Principles

For all excerpts, plus info about the author, please visit the C&K homepage for Yoga for Paddling.

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