Whether you have a program of flexibility you are just getting ready to start one, you want to get the most from your efforts. Before we discuss the specifics of how to stretch effectively let's briefly look at some of the benefits of stretching which include: improved flexibility, enhanced sports performance, increased space in the body, feel better in your body, improved energy flow, and counter the effects of aging.
Stretching helps to produce better overall health. And when your health is good you have more choices in your life. When things you want to do in life are restricted by an inability to move then possibilities for happiness and satisfaction in life start to dwindle. Life becomes smaller. The more choices we have in life the happier we can be.
What limits stretching and flexibility? Here is a list of things that influence your flexibility:
- Fear – afraid of going further which simply sends a message to your nervous system to stay stuck
- Inability to relax. Tight muscles don’t stretch that far!
- Lifestyle – stress / diet
- Repetitive motion (causes cross-linking of cells)
- Past injuries
- Temperature - a 1-2% increase in temperature improves flexibility
- Time of day - less flexible in the morning - more flexible in afternoon peaking
- from 2-4:30
- Gender - Women are generally more flexible than men
- Lack of a regular flexibility program or practice and inactivity
- Overdeveloped muscles
- Too much tissue or fat in a specific area
- How healthy is the joint where you are stretching – joint diseases? Arthritis? bursitis?
- Calcium deposits?
- Bad biomechanics – not stretching properly/effectively
Five basic principles of flexibility
- Your muscles must be relaxed; sometimes we need to trick them into relaxation.
- You must feel safe or your nervous system will refuse to relax: use props, chairs, blocks, partners, etc.
- Repetition and intensity will reset your ability to stretch tissues longer.
- Stretching must be done slowly for at least a minute.
- Start with simpler stretches and work towards more challenging ones. Warm-up is important.
Listen to your body and playing the “edge”
In yoga, the term “edge” refers to the place where sensation gives way to pain. Most often the edge is physical, but it can be psychological as well. Think of the edge as a continuum, where at one end you feel slight sensation and at the other end pain. As you approach your edge you feel more and more sensation until you feel pain. If we continue to push through the pain we risk injury. This is an important concept to grasp because as you spend time in different asanas, it is natural for you to want your body to open and deepen into the postures. By recognizing your edges and working with them in appropriate ways you can effectively and safely accomplish this.
Let’s first look at what is happening on a physiological level. Within your muscles are special sensors called “muscle spindle apparatus”. The muscle spindle apparatus runs parallel to the muscle fibers, and their job is to report how much the muscle is being stretched to the central nervous system. If the muscle stretches too hard and too quickly then the muscle contracts in a protective response known as the “reflex arc”. This, of course, is the opposite of what you want. In order for the muscle to lengthen over time, you need to reset the muscle spindle apparatus. This is done by taking the posture to your edge – where you are feeling lots of sensation- not pain! This should be done slowly with lots of awareness and use of the breath. This process is done over and over again – helps to reset the muscle spindle apparatus and allow the muscle to lengthen.
So, an important concept in working with your edges is to become aware of them, to tune into your body and feel what is happening when you are in a posture. It is helpful to keep in mind that your edges change from day to day, depending on how you feel mentally, emotionally and physically. Sometimes you feel strong and willful, desiring to push your edge. At other times you might be tired or find your body is particularly tight and you want to go easy. Remember, honoring where your body is at the moment is very important. It is not about pushing beyond your edge as this is a good way to risk injury. Tuning in to the relaxed side of the edge give you time and room to explore the exercise/ posture safely. Too often I see people just go into and out of postures quickly – more injuries occur this way than in the exercise/posture itself! Take your time going into an exercise/posture, and coming out – with awareness and with the breath.
- As mentioned above do not go to a point of pain – just sensation – pain causes injury resulting in scar tissue which only reduces flexibility.
- Do not bounce or make jerky motions (ballistic stretch) can result in microscopic tears which will only make your body tighter – less flexible
- Some stretching techniques that you will learn are very powerful – Add just 1’to 2” at a time and then go back and do the exercise again.
- Do not stretch past the normal range of motion.
- Ideally, we want to find a balance between strength and flexibility – do not let a joint become overly loose.