In my previous post I talked a little about what I learned in an AIS (Active Isolated Stretching) workshop with Adarsh Williams. I included a video of myself doing the AIS hamstring stretches.
In this post I’d like to talk about modifying the AIS hamstring technique for more typical yoga forward bending posture.
A Different Point of View
In laying on our back to stretch the hamstrings we kept the pelvis stable and moved the leg relative to the pelvis. We kept the pelvis stable by using the abs. In most seated forward bends we move our pelvis relative to our legs. So that our hamstrings have one stable point of attachment, we can stabilize the bones of the lower leg by making the foot and ankle active. We can do this with either the knee straight or the knee bent. Now if our focus is on stretching the muscles that cross only the back of the hip (the adductor magnus is one such muscle) then the bone that we need to stabilize is the thigh bone. We can do this by making the knee “strong.” However, to stretch the hamstrings we may find it helpful to make the ankle and foot “strong” so that we stabilize the lower leg.
In the video below I demonstrate three seated stretches that are the equivalent of the AIS reclining hamstring stretches. In one I keep both knees bent, in the other I straighten the knees as I bend forwards and in the final one I keep the knees straight. In all three variations I inhale to enter the stretch and exhale to leave it. In AIS stretching the exhales are normally used. This may be because it is easier to engage the abs while exhaling (which can then be used to stabilize the body.) However, if we can learn to activate the abs while inhaling then stability is not a problem. Of course you can do these stretches using the exhale to stretch. I prefer using inhales because it feels nicer and it is easier to keep my spine long and my ribcage open. More to the point I have a tendency to feel anxious when I use my exhales.
The point is, try both options for your self and see which one works best for you.
All the best
p.s. the “previous” exercises that I am talking about can be seen in this video here.
I just finished a couple of AIS workshops with Adarsh Williams.
It was my first time to see Adarsh in seven years. We’d first and last met when we where both in Chicago teaching yoga there. Since then he’s gone on to get married, has two children and also has his own yoga space in Palo Alto California. He’s a massage therapist and a certified Ashtangi and a really nice guy. (Not that other Ashtangi’s aren’t nice guys, I just wanted to emphasize that he is and well anyway…)
Active Isolated Stretching (A.I.S.)
The focus on the two workships I attended was AIS, Active Isolated Stretching.
In a nutshell this technique means knowing which muscle you are stretching, putting your body in the right position (there may be a few options) to stretch that muscle and then using the opposing muscle (called the antagonist) to cause the intended muscle to relax so that it can be stretched. Hold for 2 second then release and repeat. We used exhales to enter and hold each stretch and inhales to relax and recover.
In this article I’ll talk a little about what we learned and did with Adarsh. In my next posting I’ll talk about ways how this technique can be built on or modified. The idea is to present you with a range of options for stretching your body so that you can use the technique that is most helpful or appropriate for you.
First of all some basic points of understanding that can be applied to any sort of muscle stretching or strengthening.
A muscle has to be relaxed in order for it to be stretched. Just because a muscle is lengthening doesn’t mean it is being stretched. If a muscle is working against a greater force then it will lengthen even though it is active. To stretch a muscle (or more specifically, to stretch the connective tissue within a muscle) we need to relax it and lengthen it while keeping it relaxed.
A muscle has to have one of its ends “fixed” or stable in order for it to relax and lengthen. Think of being on the side of a cliff with little or no support. We would probably freeze in fear. If we know we are safe (on solid ground) then it is easier to relax. We can think of muscle tissue functioning similiarly. When a muscle has a firm foundation (when it “thinks” it is safe) it can relax freely. That means fixing one bone to which a muscle is attached and then moving the other bone relative to the fixed bone.
In a lot of cases (but not every case) when we try to stretch a muscle beyond a certain point it contracts to prevent lengthening beyond a point which is safe. (It’s like we might start to “freeze up” the closer we get to the edge of a cliff.) This reaction can be countered by activating the opposing muscle. This is the “Active” part in AIS, using the opposing muscle to prevent the target muscles from contracting.
I should note here that AIS isn’t the be all and the end all of stretching. There are other options and there are other “factors” to be aware of when stretching. You may find that you can keep a target muscle relaxed even without activating its opposite muscle. You might see if you can keep a target muscle relaxed even without activating its opposing muscle(s).
You may find that you can help a muscle to relax first by contracting a muscle and then relaxing it. This is something you can do with your breath.
Finally, just because we are contracting a muscle’s anatogonist doesn’t mean that the agonist will release in all cases. It depends on what we are trying to do. If you’ve ever flexed your biceps (to look cool) with your elbow bent then your biceps and triceps are working at the same time to keep the elbow bent. While you may be focused on tensing your biceps, in this case the opposing muscle, the triceps, also has to activate to keep the elbow in place.
The point is that just because a muscles is active, this doesn’t mean that it’s opposing muscle (or antagonist) will always relax. It depends on what you are trying to do. Luckily, with AIS and someone like Adarsh to teach you most of the homework has already been done for you. The active muscle is used to cause a particular movement and that movement stretches the target muscle. And that by the way is what the “isolated” part in AIS means, isolating a particular muscles to stretch it.
Adarsh presented the AIS material in two sessions. The first session included hips, feet and spine while the second session focused on shoulders, wrist and neck.
Not since I worked with my own teacher, Andrey Lappa, have I encountered such a complete system of both stretching and strengthening the body.
Because we use one group of muscles to stretch another we strengthen and stretch at the same time and the result is balanced flexibility and balanced strength. We even stretched our fingers and toes!
Following is a summary of the exercises that we did. I may have missed some exercises out. I wanted to emphasize here the pairings of muscles and how they where used to stretch each other.
The first set of exercises where for stretching the hamstrings, first with knee bent and afterwards with knee straight. (See video clip below.) We used the psoas and quadriceps as the active muscles in these stretches. (With the knee bent we where more than likely stretching the Adductor magnus which has a similiar action to the hamstrings except that the hamstrings attach to the back of the tibia and fibia while the adductor magnus attaches to the back of the femur. The hamstrings cross the back of the hip and the back of the knee while the adductor magnus only crosses the back of the hip.)
Staying on our backs we then stretched that adductors followed by the abductors. We used these two sets of muscles to stretch each other.
Following that we stretched the psoas by using the abs, glute maximus and hamstrings.
We did twists and side bending for the spine. For twisting we used the obliques and intercostals. Twisting one way we stretch one side (and activate the other) and we balance this by twisting then to the other side. We also used our arms to assist at the end of each twist.
Side bending we used the left side of our abs to stretch the right side and vice versa.
Here is a demo (by me) of the hamstring exercises. The first 40 seconds are me talking about activating the abs. The exercises follow.
In the next post I will talk about and demonstrate how to use the psoas to stretch the hamstrings in more typical yoga posions or asanas.
Here is another demo from off of the web. I’m hoping that Adarsh will publish his own videos on utube.