Pulsing Yoga – A Radically Effective Exercise

Pulsing Yoga is a way of doing Yoga that adds a tiny a tiny “pulsing” movement to the poses. It’s a great way to increase your flexibility — and it turns out to be incredibly effective for healing your joints, as well, promoting blood flow to spongy cartilage tissue that needs it..

Originally published 2007

Introduction to Pulsing Yoga

When I began working to improve my flexibility, I stumbled across a technique that turned out to have powerful healing effect on my joints, as well. For want of a better term, I’ll call it “Pulsing Yoga”.

The idea originated in a book I read long ago (now out of print) called Makko-Ho. It was written by a fellow in Japan who did exactly 4 poses. Three of them were performed with a small “bounce”. The fourth was a held position. The pictures showed that he had achieved radical levels of flexibility, and he said he had done it in 12 months. (He didn’t appear to be very fit, which probably helped. Strong muscles impede flexibility. Still, it was a remarkable achievement.) But as effective as his technique obviously was, it didn’t blend well with traditional Yoga poses, which can be nicely meditative as they are held, leading naturally into a sitting meditation. The method I’m writing about here blends the two practices together.

Note:
This technique is extremely effective for promoting growth, and may cause minor, temporary soreness. It should be done no more often than every other day, so the body has time to recover between sessions.

My Experience with Pulsing Yoga

My flexibility improved, of course. But I was amazed to discover that it also improved the strength of my joints — especially the knee where I had foolishly let doctors remove some cartilage. (For the full story, see What’s Wrong with Modern Medicine?).

I got back to running again this summer, and the other day I found that I could run downhill again! For years, lack of cartilage made downhill running too painful, so I pretty much had to slow to a crawl for those parts of a run. But this time, I found that I could run downhill with minimal pain! It’s not just leg strength, either. I ran last summer, and the summer before that. Each time, my legs got noticeably stronger, but there wasn’t much difference in the downhill pain.

This time, I suddenly noticed a major difference. Thinking back, it occurred to me that it was the pulsing that did it. Each pulse contracted the spongy tissue in the joints, squeezing the blood out of it. Each release caused it to suck new blood into the vacuum created by the expansion. The result was the kind of improved blood supply that allows for healing!

How Pulsing Yoga Works

Not every pose allows for a pulsing movement. For example, I find it difficult to pulse in a twisting pose, because gravity isn’t helping me to do that. That means the muscles have to do all the work, which makes them more likely to cramp up. And when you can do a pose “all the way”, to the point that you reach a resting position, pulsing is no longer needed. In those cases, I hold the pose for a slow count of 30. (Takes about 40 seconds.) But when gravity is on your side, here’s how pulsing is done:

  1. I get into a Yoga pose for slow count of 20. (Takes about 30 seconds.) I want to be totally comfortable, just gradually easing into the deepest position I can be in comfortably, without having to “hold” it (which implies a bit of effort).
  2. I then “pulse”–moving just to the point of pain, then backing off just enough for the pain to go away. I’ll do twenty of those pulses. (Takes about 20 seconds.)
  3. On the last pulse, I won’t back off. Instead, I’ll hold that position for another slow count of 20. (About 30 seconds.) That hold takes a bit of muscular effort, but by then it’s not painful, like it would have been earlier. Because the muscle is fully warm by then, and because I’m holding just a fraction beyond the point of comfort, the muscle isn’t stretched to the point of injury, as it would be with ballistic stretching, where body momentum is used to take a muscle past the point where it wants to go.

Effects

When I’m stretching a muscle (say, the hamstrings), I find that each pulse goes a little deeper, and the final hold is extremely effective. In a couple of months, I was able to make major improvements in my flexibility.

When I’m doing something that affects a joint, the depth of the pulses doesn’t change all that much, and I’m not really sure that the final hold does a lot of good. The final hold doesn’t seem to hurt, but the pulsing is absolutely terrific for the joints. (If the pose can be followed with a bit of traction, that’s the best of all possible worlds. Traction is simply pulling on things to create separation in the joint. It creates a bit of additional space and completely relieves any lingering pain.)

Variations

Here are a couple of variations I’ve tried. So far, none of them is as successful as the procedure outlined above. But they may give you some ideas for experiments of your own:

  • 30 count, 30 pulses
    This is the variation I started with. I went into a pose for a slow count of 30 (about 40 seconds), pulsed 30 times, and then held for another 30. I noticed that the last 10 pulses didn’t seem to have much additional effect. They were a bit of a strain, in fact. And I recalled that the fellow who wrote the book on Makko Ho had been doing things 20 times. So that was something of a magic number. I reduced the number of pulses to 20, and that worked almost exactly as well as 30 — only there was a bit less strain and it took a little less time. (I think the perfect number is somewhere below 20, but above 15. So 20 is a nice round number that guarantees you do enough.) The next step was to reduce the slow count of 30 to a slow count of 20. That, too, seemed to work almost exactly as well. Holding for an additional count of 10 in Step #1 may have produced a slight increase, but there was no real difference by the time I got to the end of Step #3. And an additional 10 count in Step #3 didn’t seem to make any difference at all. So I reduced to a 20 count with 20 pulses. So far, that sequence seems to work the best.
  • Repetitions
    When you really want to maximize a stretch, it might seem that repeating steps 2 and 3 would be helpful. But my experience has been that the extra repetition doesn’t make much difference when stretching a muscle. When I first move into a pose in Step #1, the body is a bit stiff. After a slow count of 20, it has pretty much relaxed as much as it can, and I’ve reached my “comfort zone” for that day. When I pulse in Step #2, I find out how much room I have to grow. The body can only grow so much in a day, and the pulsing finds out where that point is, today. In Step #3, I reach that point, hold it, and effectively “preserve” those gains. I may even sink deeper during Step #3, as the muscles relax further, as though the body just “discovered” that what it perceived as its earlier limit was merely imaginary. In all, the difference between my initial position and my final position can be as much as three to six inches. Three quarters of that comes in Step #1, where I start relaxing. The remainder comes in the next 2 steps, when I grow. If I repeat Steps #2 and #3, I may go a little further, but I find that it’s something like a quarter of an inch. And my muscle feels noticably sore afterwards — something I don’t usually experience after a single repetition. So extra repetitions don’t seem to be worth the time and trouble.For joints, it could be that repeating steps 2 and 3 would improve the rate of healing by increasing blood flow, or it could be that it would have no additional effect. It might even be counterproductive. I’m just not sure. It’s an area that deserves to be investigated. But my suspicion is that the same experience I had with muscle tissue applies to the joints: There is only so much growth to be had in any given day, and doing the sequence once achieves that. (Indeed, the final hold may not make any difference when working a joint. That is definitely an area to investigate.)

Bikram Yoga

I’m delighted to say that things are finally getting better — especially my knees. And for even more good news, I found a Bikram Yoga studio down the street from where I work. That’s the kind of Yoga where they do it in a 100-degree room. (And it’s the kind of meditative Yoga style that appeals to me.)

In that hot room, you sweat a lot, your muscles get loose, and you dramatically improve blood flow. When I add my pulsing technique to that equation, the results are going to be dramatic!

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