For someone who teaches yoga, It can be a common cry from class participants: “I am feeling sooooo stiff!”. Luckily, regular yoga and exercises that release, lengthen and strengthen muscles can help! Here are just some reasons your body might feel as if it is getting stiffer and some tips on what you can do to keep things feeling a little more free and easy.
1. You are getting older..
I am sorry to have to tell you this, but the truth is, we are ALL getting older. After about the age of 25, the fluid between our spinal discs begins to decrease, causing the disc spaces to narrow. And whereas once this fluid moved naturally, it now requires that you move your spine in order for the lubrication to occur.
2. Your job/the humble chair…
Many jobs these days involve repetitive tasks, loading and/or being in chronically stressful positions that affect our posture and therefore how our body feels over time. Sitting at a desk or in a car for most of the day means that we are constantly in hip flexion. When we stand up after sitting for long periods, the front of the body – particularly the front of the hips – may feel tight and short. This means that as we straighten up, the bottom sticks out due to tension in the hip flexors. This may not be obvious at first but it can lead to a sway back – which is essentially compression of the lumbar spine (usually the weakest part of the back).
3. Constant asymmetry
Much of what we do all day involves asymmetry and we will all tend to favour one side of our body over the other. We put handbags on our shoulders, rest children on our hips and use a mouse when we work the keyboard. When we play sport we usually kick with one foot (soccer/rugby) or land on one foot (netball). Most of us can only hold a tennis racket or golf club on one side and can usually only swing from one direction.
4. Only ever moving from the bits that move easily…
As certain parts of our spine start to stiffen with age combined with aspects of the above, the faulty movement patterns, stress, tension and habits that we have all accumulated will become more defined. Unconsciously, we all move from the bits that move easily – for example, neck, hips, shoulders. These joint complexes can become unstable and weak whilst around them, stiffness begins to set in. Even for those of us that stretch and exercise regularly, we may forget to move and lengthen the whole spine. Watch how some people walk for example. The spine is often ram-rod rigid and the legs just flip forward. The original inhabitants of the Earth knew how to move properly using the whole of their spine and their African descendants are still working it these days!
My yoga teacher, Simon Borg-Olivier, is fond of telling people how years ago, he went from being the stiffest person in the yoga room to the most flexible literally overnight, just by completely changing his diet. So interestingly, this is perhaps the most important element to consider if your body continually feels stiff. Most health conscious people by now will have heard of the acid/alkaline balance. Generally, if we consume too many acid-forming foods (meat, dairy, grains, processed), our blood becomes more acidic and our synovial (joint) fluid more viscous (thicker). Following a more plant-based diet – and eating less generally tends to alkalise the blood and keeps the synovial fluid healthy. Try it!
There are many different ways to stretch, some of them more useful than others. Many people over-stretch and are aggressive because there is a sense that “we must win”. Unfortunately though, apart from the risk of damaging ligaments and tendons, when you actually “feel” a strong stretch, you are no longer stretching. Yep, more is not more. This is because the muscle that you are trying to stretch has actually contracted (shortened) due to the ‘stretch reflex” (a warning from the nervous system that if you don’t stop, you risk pulling/tearing a muscle). Stretching is best referred to as “lengthening”. If done slowly, while focussing and directing the breath into the muscle, the chances are, you will get deeper into a movement yet without pain. Resistance-style stretching is quicker and more efficient as long as you can learn to relax in your mind. This comes back to that idea of wanting to win again – even when the only competitor is yourself! And we are all very fond of tensing our jaw and neck unnecessarily (for example) even though we might actually be stretching a hip! Another efficient way to get a better result for less effort is to see where the body naturally ends up going by itself PRIOR to grabbing and yanking a leg or foot here or there or doing a quick, intense movement using nothing more than force or momentum. For example, if I want to demonstrate a karate kick, I could use momentum and move very quickly to get my leg closer to the ceiling. But, I also risk pulling or tearing my hamstring or my groin. If I did exactly the same move but slowly, could I get my leg that high? Probably not and we can see the results of this type of thing consistently on the football field where groin and hamstring injuries are the order of the day. Using momentum is also notable in some faster-paced yoga styles where sun salutations are not executed safely because the majority of people lack the strength and spinal flexibility required to do the push-ups properly and so often end up injured.
Every time we do intense exercise we tear our muscles. Often it is just minute tears that heal themselves up quickly. But, we need to give ourselves time to heal. Waking up feeling stiff, sore and in a whole world of pain day after day?…Really? Good for you? Does it feel good? Try balancing your yang exercise with some yin activity for better results.
8. Not stretching
I reckon GP appointments would HALVE if the amount of people who went to see their doctor with some body ache or niggle just took the time to stretch (sorry, lengthen) their poor, short muscles each day. Things like lifting weights, sitting in chairs, holding babies and children all contribute to pain, stiffness and discomfort. There is no way around it unless you enjoy feeling as if your joints have all been fused and you have all the money in the world to to spend on massages or at the chiropractors.
9. Not exercising at all
See (8) above. It is also important to remember that our bodies were made to move! Generally, the body becomes more alkaline as it warms and the synovial fluid less viscous (more runny). This means that any exercise combined with a short burst of hyper-ventilation (over-breathing) will help the body loosen up. Although yoga is typically about learning to breathe less, traditionally, many traditional vinyasa yoga practices begin with a few rounds of sun-salutes to get the blood pumping. Short bursts of hyper-ventilation can help minimise the need to over-breathe during the second round of activity (this technique is often practised by professional divers).
10. Lack of down-time/Chronic Tension
It is very challenging in this fast-paced world that we live in to find time to relax. Most of us go to bed to rest our heads, not our bodies. The sleep, when it comes, may not be restful and we wake up feeling more tired. Every time we feel tense and anxious about something, there will be an accumulative physical reaction somewhere in our body. It is a shame that most of us feel guilty about taking time out to do nothing and simply allowing our body and mind to be soft. Or, that we find it impossible to sit or lie down and do nothing!. Zen wisdom teaches that these mind weeds will disappear with practice and we should take the time to “just be” and allow things to play out in our minds without buying into thoughts and feelings. And yes, it will be hard at first. Start slowly, five minutes with your legs up the wall perhaps or lying on the floor in a comfortable position. You can’t stop yourself thinking, but you can observe them without engagement. Yoga and other Eastern style whole-body/mind philosophies are generally about learning to meditate while we move. Finding the still-point within the movement. Not only does this save time, but it addresses many of the above issues. Essentially and fundamentally, this is the practice of vinyasa yoga. Increasing energy and movement while improving core strength and flexibility. Attention without tension.
NB – Always check with your doctor before beginning any exercise program. Remember that severe muscle and/or joint pain in the body may be due to particular medical conditions that cause inflammation. A blood test can usually clear this up.
If you are not sure about whether attending yoga classes is for you but have some niggles that need some attention, please do contact me to arrange a one-on-one (or semi-private) session. You may be surprised to discover what you are doing unconsciously, and how easily certain things can be resolved with specific exercises. This small investment may save you $$$ if you constantly find yourself needing expensive body work.