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Muscle contractions in yoga can make some poses easier, improve posture, and strengthen and tone the muscles. The contractions occur not only during the poses themselves but also during breathing.
Types of Contractions
Muscles contract in three different ways. The first type of contraction is concentric, in which the muscles shorten as they contract. You use this type of contraction when lifting your back leg and arms, and tightening your quads, back muscles and abdominals in Warrior III, for example. The second type is isometric contraction, which happens when the muscles are contracting but not moving; you use this type of contraction while you're holding Warrior III. The third type is eccentric contraction; this is when the muscle fibers contract and lengthen at the same time. You contract eccentrically when you slowly lower yourself down from Warrior III and return to a standing position.
Contractions in Yoga Poses
Muscle contractions are essential to most yoga poses. For example, your gluteal muscles must contract concentrically to lift your hips and pelvis in Bridge pose. Contracting the gluteal muscles can help relieve lower back stress when you perform backbends such as Camel pose, an eccentric contraction. You must contract your back, abdomen and leg muscles to maintain good posture and stand tall in Mountain pose; these are isometric contractions because your body is remaining still. It is important to try to contract only those muscles that you need to perform the pose and relax others. For example, in Mountain pose, try to relax your jaw, shoulders and arms.
Contractions in Breathing Exercises
The simplest muscle contraction in breathing exercises occurs during diaphragmatic breathing. The object of breathing deeply in this way is to get as much oxygen into and as much carbon dioxide and other waste products out of the lungs as possible with each breath. You push the abdomen out while breathing in; this expands the diaphragm downward so that the lungs can take in more oxygen -- an eccentric contraction. On the exhalation, you contract the abdominal muscles along with the diaphragm, causing it to move upward to push air out of the lungs -- a concentric contraction. More advanced breathing techniques call for other breathing patterns, such as the quick, forceful concentric contractions and releases in the exercise known as Skull Shining pose.
Although modern classes typically have you rest and meditate lying down in Corpse pose at the end of the class, a seated position for meditation is more traditional. Your legs can be folded into a simple cross-legged position or the more difficult Lotus; your back must be straight, which requires isometrically contracting the muscles of the hips and back while, paradoxically, becoming as relaxed as possible in order to forget the body and focus on the meditation experience. Advanced yogis do this so effortlessly that they can stay in a seated position for hours without fatigue. However, it is not a comfortable position in the beginning; the legs get cramped, and the back muscles get tired. For best results, begin meditation in a seated position if you wish, and quietly transition to lying down when the effort to remain upright starts to intrude into consciousness.