It seems a tad ironic to be drafting a short post on stretch and yoga, Many people, when first enquring about classes , will mention “having a good stretch” as a reason for their interest.
Images abound of stretching that involve grabbing a joint and pulling or pushing on it to “loosen it up.” Many people are reluctant to give up stretching, because it “feels so good.” However, pulling on tight muscles does not relax them, and the relief is only temporary. Stretching further strains and loosens joints. This is why many hypermobile people make their conditions worse by doing yoga and this is why I encourage students to move within their range, rather than to stretch/ hold the stretch – for the sake of stretching. As students move more regularly in a way that is useful to their everyday activities, then range of movement that is required for their individual needs will improve.
Muscle (and its related tissue, fibre and cells) is elastic in nature. It can expand to a point, and then it returns to its resting, or shortened, state. Any activity requires muscles to stretch to a certain degree; how much depends on the activity.
When muscle is stretched regularly, it develops the ability to stretch farther, and the affiliated joints increase their range of motion. We call this flexibility. When muscles aren’t stretched often, they stay shortened and the related joints become less mobile, decreasing the range of motion. This is inflexibility.
Many people refer to themselves as inflexible but when they begin to practise functional movements such as side-bending which we do when we walk, they realize that the movement itself has not been given enough attention – often one side is less responsive than the other. Thus the message from the motor cortex in the brain to the muscles and back again has not been “mapped” clearly enough.
The focus in this side bending may be taught as structural (strengthening obliques, quadratus lumborum, erector spinae et al) or as biological (how we respond to our environment – how we sense and experience the movement). This is Pete Blackaby’s distinction, not mine and I do very often slip into the structural because it’s easier for me to explain and for many to “get” but I see more and more that when I teach in terms of parts of the body rather than helping students to sense the movement itself – ie. sidebending, turning, walking, standing up, sitting down etc. – that injuries may reoccur. Movement is a complex interconnection between many muscles, tendons, ligaments, fascia so how can I reduce it to one part?
By emphasizing mobility ; as feeling more at ease with ourselves as we move, we understand that when bones move, muscles have to move as per the intention – namely, stretch and return to a stable and supportive state. The process of moving and sensing the movement helps us to identify weak links in the complex chain. By practising small movements with real focus, we begin to sense how that movement feels and how we feel whilst practising the movement. We make space for a “felt sense” to grow and this is something that we can take off the yoga mat into everyday life.
Other of my posts cover some of the same ground in different words:
In the “Parts” blog I expand upon “mapping”. In the Hamstrings blog, I covered inflexibility of the hip flexors and hamstrings with prolonged sitting. I do encourage students to visit manual therapists who help them to free up tight and imbalanced areas of the body. This is invaluable I feel and it sets the students on the path to exploring how to maintain that balance. Clearly, we all stretch everyday and performance athletes may need to explore different types of stretching for their pursuits. Here, I am questioning the main purpose of yoga being on stretching. When I type in “Yoga” on search engines, I get a lot of illustrations like this one. Great if you can do it!!
We spent some time on mapping sidebending movements yesterday in class. When mention of the “type” of yoga that we practice was raised one “wag” replied …”Sensible Yoga..” Now, some, when practising our slow-paced yoga may disagree and I can imagine remarks such as …. By no stretch of the imagination could this be called yoga….!!
I would say that practising yoga is the key and that it requires patience. How you practice is unique to you, as is what you feel. People find their own way to:
Move better. Breathe better. Feel quieter inside.
This last statement of purpose – Feel quieter inside – is one of the reasons that I call this blog “Inside Yoga”.
Enjoy your practice.