How To Distinguish Differences in Tension and Compression in Yoga

By: Steph Ball-Mitchell, ERYT500, RPYT, RCYT, YACEP

How To Distinguish Differences in Tension and Compression in Yoga


It's important to know how to distinguish differences in tension and compression in yoga. I want to discuss the anatomical concepts of tension and compression in yoga practice.  It is not uncommon for people to feel "something" while practicing yoga but to have trouble identifying what it is that they feel.  When we feel restriction while holding a yoga pose, it is important to learn how to identify whether or not it is tension or compression that we are feeling.  Knowing how to make this distinction can change your yoga practice entirely!

differences in tension and compression in yoga

Why Is It Important to Know the Difference Between Tension and Compression in Yoga?


All of our bodies have a different life story, with different experiences, injuries and health histories.  No two bodies have lived the same life and therefore cannot take the same shape in the same way.  When you practice yoga, understanding the difference in tension and compression will help you to create a practice that is safe and effective.  If you teach yoga, understanding the difference in tension and compression helps you realize that yoga poses are always evolving.  We don't simply hit the pose and freeze there.  The pose is constantly moving and changing within each individual body and the experience varies from one body to the next.

The pose is constantly moving and changing within each individual body and the experience varies from one body to the next.
Learning to identify and understand the differences in tension and compression will increase contentment during yoga practice and decrease opportunity for injury.

Original Image from Yoga Journal

When You Feel Resistance in a Yoga Pose, It May Be From One of Two Things:


Tension:  If the sensation you are feeling is coming from your muscles and/or ligaments being pulled or stretched apart from one another, this is tension.  Tension can be in the form of a stretch but also a twist.

Compression:  If the sensation you are feeling is coming from tissues being pressed into each other, this is compression.  It could include the feeling of one bone rubbing on another.

What Happens When You Feel Tension During Yoga Practice?


You know you are feeling tension in yoga when the body seems to open up over time in the same pose.  When you are feeling tension, and you are stretching your body in a way that is loving and gentle, the tension will decrease over time as the body's flexibility increases and starts to open in response to continued practice.  

It is important not to press the body beyond its capacity.  In Yin Yoga, we call this "finding our appropriate edge."  Once you have found your edge in the pose, placing healthy stress (or tension) on the body will help the body open over time.

What Happens When You Feel Compression During Yoga Practice?


You know that you are feeling compression during yoga when the body hits a boundary that it cannot move beyond.  Depending on how you are built in terms of skeletal structure, you may reach a place where one bone is hitting another bone and this will limit your range of motion.  No amount of stretching changes skeletal structure.  

When you feel compression, this does not mean something bad has happened.  This does not mean you cannot take the yoga pose any further.  It simply means you have to turn inwards and practice the yogic principle of contentment.  You have to find acceptance that this is your version of the pose that you are in and be comfortable sitting with that.   It should not be a painful process and if you are feeling sharp pain, you definitely want to back off of the pose.  

It should not be a painful process and if you are feeling sharp pain, you definitely want to back off of the pose.  

When you hit compression, you can always try to re-position yourself to move around the point of compression.  You can also try a different variation of the pose.  I see this often while teaching Yin Yoga.  Many times I teach Yin Asana Sleeping Swan, pictured below:

yin yoga teacher training online, yin yoga certification online
Sleeping Swan, Yin Asana

This can be a tough pose for many people as bone hits bone in this pose, range of motion is limited and compression is experienced. A great alternative to Sleeping Swan is Thread the Needle Pigeon or Reclining Pigeon, pictured below:

yin yoga teacher certification online, yoga alliance yin yoga
Reclining Pigeon, Yin Asana

In these two postures, the body comes into the lower body takes on the same shape.  It can be more accessible to practice the pose in a reclined position so that compression is less likely and can be mitigated.  If it's enough of a stretch, the left foot can remain on the floor while the outside of the ankle comes to the top of the left knee/left thigh.  If someone is not feeling a stretch with the left foot grounded, they can interlace the fingers behind the left leg and use the hands to begin to pull the left knee in towards the face, deepening the hip opener.


Join Our Yin Yoga Teacher Training Online to Learn More About Tension and Compression


To learn more about tension and compression, please join our Yin Yoga Teacher Training Online that includes 5 yin practices, 40+ yin asana poses, lectures, playlists, videos and more.  This Yin Yoga Teacher Certification is approved for Yoga Alliance Continuing Education, 25 Hours.   Be sure to also check out our Online Restorative Yoga Teacher Training and our Online 200 Hour Yoga Teacher Training Certification.

About the Author

Founder of Online Yoga School and Yoga & Ayurveda Center

Steph Ball-Mitchell, E-RYT-500, RPYT, RCYT, YACEP, CAADC

Steph has over 25 years of experience in yoga and movement.  Her understanding of yoga and the human body has been influenced by lifelong dancing and holistic health.  She found her life’s purpose in helping people become happier and healthier through her own healing journey.  Steph assists her students in knowing the joy and wonderment of integrating the mind and body through accessible yoga.  She encourages an authentic and life-nurturing practice, one that brings greater consciousness to each moment and every movement of the body with a heavy emphasis on breath.  

With a masters degree in counseling, Steph brings awareness, acceptance and a down to earth approach to her classes.  She studied with Maty Ezraty and later completed her second 200-hour training with Nancy Candea at Yoga Impact in New Jersey and her 300-hour training with Chris Loebsack at Boundless Yoga Studio in Stroudsburg, Pennsylvania.   The perpetual student, Steph has studied with Leslie Howard, Travis Eliot, Bryan Kest, Donna Farhi and countless others.  She has extensive training in pelvic floor yoga, restorative yoga, yin yoga, power yoga and accessible yoga.  Most recently, Steph was certified as a Grand Master of Meditation through Swami Vidyanand.

Steph founded Yoga and Ayurveda Center with her husband.  She later launched Online Yoga School to support her local trainings and has recently launched a virtual yoga studio to accommodate the international community of trainees.

When she isn’t on her mat, Steph can be found volunteering, enjoying her husband and children, dancing and cooking.  She currently enjoys serving on the board of World Yoga Federation and Meditation Alliance International and previously enjoyed serving on the Education Committee of Yoga Alliance and places a strong emphasis on inclusivity in her teacher trainings.