Many people turn to yoga as a way of dealing with a problem or problems. For myself the problem was that I was inflexible. I turned to yoga erroneously thinking that I could do it for three months, get flexible, and then get on with what I really wanted to do (run, skate, martial arts.)
I spent five years in university to learn one simple thing. In order to fix a problem you gotta know what it is. Prior to that it helps if you understand what you are working with. If you don’t understand what you are working with or what you are trying to do then part of the problem solving process is acquiring that understanding… in other words learning.
Its ten years later… or maybe 12 (time flies) and now I’m finally getting on with what I want to do. Part of the reason it has taken me so long is that in the process of making my body more flexible I’ve also been learning to understand it. Its so much easier to fix something when you understand what you are working with. I also had to learn what flexibility was. I had to define it. Then I could work towards acquiring it.
For this article I’ll define flexibility as the ability for a muscle or muscles to relax and to be lengthened. The part that relaxes is the belly of the muscle, which is also the same part that contracts.
When a muscle is relaxed and then lengthened (or lengthened and gradually relaxed) the connective tissue within the belly of the muscle is stretched.
Flexibility is a quality of the connective tissue with our muscles. The more pliable our connective tissue is, the more flexible we are. The better we are at controlling our muscles, being able to relax as well as contract them at will, the better we can access this flexibility.
So to stretch and improve our flexibility, part of what we need to develop is control and part of that control is the ability to relax at will.
So one part of flexibility training is learning to relax the muscles we are stretching.
Learning to Relax
Part of learning to relax is learning to feel when muscles are relaxed and when they are engaged.
We can learn to feel our muscles by using and experiencing them. As an example, if we want to learn to feel our quadriceps, the large muscle at the front of the thigh that straightens the knee and helps to flex the hip, we can practice straightening the knee and allowing it to bend.
If we do this slowly we can feel the various groups of fibers as they activate (and as they relax.) Of course to do this we have to put our awareness in our knee and thigh, we have to focus on feeling our quadriceps. (And of course to do that we need to know where our quadriceps is and where its endpoints attach to.)
If we do the movement repeatedly and slowly we can notice changes in sensation and then we can differentiate the sensations that indicate muscle activity and those that indicate that the muscle is relaxed.
Another way to see if a muscle is relaxed is to shake it. So for example, if you roll your thigh from side to side and the quadriceps are relaxed, the muscle will “roll” from side to side. First experiencing this feeling and then memorizing it we may then make it easier on ourselves to find the sensation again, i.e. relax our muscles.
To learn to feel when a muscle is being stretched we can slowly move in and out of a stretching position and notice the changes in sensation.
By moving slowly we maximize our ability to keep the muscle we are stretching relaxed. By moving in and out of a stretch repeatedly we can learn the sensations that indication stretching and we can also enjoy the sensations that accompany the release of that stretch.
(As an aside, some of us enjoy these sensations more than others.)
A Stable Foundation for Relaxation
So that we can relax and then stretch another requirement is a stable foundation.
If we are standing on firm ground it is usually more easy to relax than if we are on ground that is moving or otherwise unstable.
In our relationship with the earth, if the earth is stable then we can relax. If the earth is unstable then we probably tense up in one way or the other.
Looking at the relationships of bone to bone and bone to muscle within our body:
- If the two bones two which a muscle is attached are aligned with gravity or otherwise positioned so that they are stable then the muscle can relax.
- If one bone is moving but the other bone is stable then depending on the type or intent of the movement that muscle can relax or slowly lengthen and then relax.
- If both bones are unstable then chances are that any muscles that connect those bones will tense up.
To relax muscle (so that we can lengthen or strengthen) we can position our bones so that they are aligned with gravity or otherwise supported. So that we can relax and stretch we can make sure that one of the bones to which a muscle we want to stretch is stable and then we can focus on moving the other bone relative to the fixed bone so that the target muscle is lengthened and stretched.
Something to be aware of and this is further understanding, is that the parts of our body have weight. If one part of the body is stable and the other part is allowed to move, then chances are that the movement of the moving part is being assisted by gravity.
Because of this weight, any muscle that is potentially being stretched may tighten up to resist being stretched too fast or being stretched beyond breaking point. If a muscle is active or engaged, it can’t be stretched. So we need to overcome, prevent or counteract this mechanism.
If we control the rate at which the moving part moves, it may be easier to avoid this automatic contraction. We can do this by moving slowly and gradually and even repeatedly.
As an example, in a standing forward bend lets assume we want to stretch the back of the thighs-the hamstrings. If we are standing then our legs will be the stationary element and we move our pelvis by tilting it forwards relative to the legs to stretch the hamstrings.
Since the hamstrings attach to the lower leg bones we can focus on making the feet, ankles and shins stable. Our hamstrings then have a fixed point so that they can lengthen. However they also are dealing with the whole weight of the upper body (pelvis, ribcage, head and arms) hinging at the hip joint. Our hamstrings may tighten to prevent being overstretched. However, if we use our hands to support the weight of our upper body, we can give our hamstrings time to relax. We can use blocks if we can’t reach the floor and push our hands down so that we push our ribcage up.
Since our goal is to lengthen the hamstrings we can slowly lower the ribcage under control by slowly bending the elbows. Better yet, we can bend the elbows slightly, notice the hamstrings and feel when they relax, and then bend the elbows some more.
Once we are practiced with this we may find that we can relax our hamstrings and keep them relaxed without using our arms. Instead we slowly relax our hamstrings to the point of complete relaxation.
Once they are relaxed we can then use the weight of the upper body to help lengthen the connective tissue and stretch it.
Using Weight to Stretch
In a standing forward bend if we want to use the weight of our upper body to help lengthen our hamstrings, we can grab our elbows and let our arms, head and ribcage hang down from our waist.
In a seated forward bend, if we want to add weight to stretch our hamstrings we can engage our back muscles to straighten our spine. We can even think of bending it backwards slightly. If we engage our spinal erectors to keep the spine straight (or bend it backwards) then we have the weight of our ribcage and head helping to tilt out pelvis forwards and lengthen our hamstrings.
Better yet, doing the opposite of before, if we lift our hands off of the floor and reach them forwards we can add even more weight to our upper body (instead of taking it off.) But so that our muscles don’t tighten up in defense, we can do this slowly and smoothly so as to keep our hamstrings relaxed. Then the weight of our upper body can be used to help lengthen the connective tissue within them.
If we understand our body and what flexibility is we can go about stretching in an effective manner.
We can position our body and provide the muscles we are stretching with a stable foundation, we can control the parts that move so that the muscle we are stretching can relax and stay relaxed, and prior to that or during that, we can practice activating and relaxing muscle tissue so that we can feel the sensations that are associated with both.