A few years ago, I remember a friend saying, “Why do I need to be flexible anyway?”. There are many, many reasons. Firstly, flexibility (When I use the word “flexibility”, I mean long, strong muscle and joint complexes combined with a significant range of movement) and mobility enables us to maintain good health by encouraging blood flow and circulation – there is limited blood flow into tense, tight muscles. Flexibility also means we are less likely to become injured and if we do, we will tend to heal quicker. Also, most of us need to work. For leisure, we like to travel, play sports and we all have home and family commitments. In short, flexibility and mobility means we will be able to keep doing what we like/need to do for as long as possible as well as avoid annoying or serious niggles, aches and pains.
It’s not necessarily about “stretching” though, because an intense feeling of stretch in a muscle is the SNS warning us of potential danger. The sensation is actually the muscle trying to shorten, so not only does stretching elicit the fight or flight response, it’s also a big waste of time! The best way to lengthen muscles is to work with, rather than against, your nervous system and go through a few stages of preparation. In my class, this is described as “Vinyasa Krama” (AKA Intelligent steps towards a “goal”).
- Release muscles naturally with soft and flowing movements as well as static postures and balances (to actively invoke a reciprocal relaxation response – see image description below).
- Move the body part slowly into the lengthened muscle position without using force*
- Then (and only then) maybe use something else (for eg, belt, floor, wall or another part of your body such as your arm, foot or hand) as a lever or pulley to gently encourage the muscles you are trying to lengthen to go a little bit deeper, but always with resistance (push and pull). In other words, never “yank” or force or just “sink” into a pose or posture even if (especially if) you are very flexible. Never go too far beyond your “actual” (true) range of motion. This creates weakness in the joints, over-strains the muscles, creates a stress reaction and has very little to do with Yoga. Your true range of motion is how far you can go without using any type of force. Using resistance is the safest, the most practical and the most efficient way to practise yoga postures. It releases muscle tension immediately, while keeping the mind steady and the body, warm, strong and safe.
In the bottom image I am practising the pose Gadjastan (elephant posture). The nature of the position means the hamstrings reciprocally soften and release because the quads are working. It’s ideal to follow this pose with a forward bend such as the one pictured at the top (Prasarita Paddotanasana), because it will feel so much easier and natural than it would for most people if they just dropped forward into a position like this out of the blue.
It’s useful therefore to understand the nature and the point of sequencing intelligently using basic but applied anatomical techniques, versus just yanking ourselves into random stretches – rarely therapeutic and could possibly make things worse**
*The SNS generally instigates the stretch reflex when movements are quick and/or sudden. This is why people can sometimes injure themselves doing very benign things – such as turning around suddenly and/or picking something up off the floor. The pulled muscle is a fight or flight response. It’s actually the SNS reacting to save us from (what it senses on an autonomic level) could be a more serious injury. On the upside, at least we know that at this stage at least, our NS is communicating efficiently with the rest of our body. When this connection becomes severed due to age or related illness, that’s when we see people starting to suffer serious falls.
**Ask the question! How much experience and/or applied anatomy and physiology has your teacher or trainer had? What are their qualifications? A degree in Human Movement or Physiotherapy takes 4-5 years, but yet these days, it’s possible to become a qualified PT, Pilates or Yoga teacher in a matter of weeks if that.
All these things are why we really must incorporate mindful muscle lengthening and flexibility work into our healthy lifestyle programs.