Working in the industry of fitness, physiotherapy, and yoga, it’s my opinion that you can have a full repertoire of excellent asanas or stretches, but the way you deliver the assignment of the asana can make or break (no pun intended) the effect on the muscles – the optimal results being lengthening in the muscles, enhanced mobility of the joint, and a relaxation response on the nervous system.
To facilitate the outcome of the stretch for accuracy and effectiveness, here are some practical tips which take into consideration the science of flexibility:
- Describe where to feel the stretch and how much. Many times in the past I have instructed a stretch and asked the client where they feel it, and to my surprise find out they are focusing their awareness to a completely different area of the body then what I’d intended the stretch for. Conscious awareness distinguishes the asana from the stretch.
- Don’t forget about the muscle spindle…. every muscle fiber has a network of sensors called muscle spindles. They run perpendicular to the muscle fibers, sensing how far and fast the fibers are elongating. As muscle fibers extend, stress on the these spindles increases. When this stress comes too fast, or goes too far, muscle spindles fire an urgent neurological signal, activating a reflex loop the triggers a protective contraction in the muscle being stretched, in essence, countering the effect of relaxation and lengthening in the muscle. Ideally we are training our clients to retrain this reflex. In a pose, it takes time, gentleness, and focused awareness for the muscle spindle to stop sending is protective signal. Teach your students how to be patient in their stretches and wait for the release sensation in the muscle so they can move deeper into the stretch. This is when and where they will receive the benefits.
- Reciprocal Inhibition – a fancy word to describe a neurological mechanism to facilitate the releasing and extending of a muscle. In essence, in every movement about a joint there is a muscle that is a prime mover (agonist) and there is an opposing muscle the (antagonist). In reciprocal inhibition the rule is whenever the agonist contracts there is a built in feature of the autonomic nervous system which causes the antagonist to release. Take for example the motion of straightening the knee joint, the quadriceps are the prime movers (the agonists) and the hamstrings resist the motion (feel the stretch and are the antagonists). To facilitate the stretch you can have the student purposely contract their quadriceps to engage this mechanism, allowing the autonomic releasing of the hamstrings. Reciprocal Inhibition can be done with any movement, and works great for stubbornly tight muscles.
- Proprioceptive Neuromuscular Facilitation (PNF) – don’t let the name scare you. PNF is a neurological technique designed to produce gains in flexibility by manipulating the stretch reflex (see muscle spindle above). For example, by having you contract a muscle while it’s near its maximum length, you actually ease the pressure on your muscles spindles, and they send signals that it’s safe for the muscle to release a little further. Try this with your hamstrings with Supta Padangusthasana (reclining big toe pose). Using a strap around the foot, pull the straight leg towards you until you feel a gentle stretch in the hamstring. Then contract the posterior leg muscles as if to push your leg away from you, creating tension on the strap. Hold this contraction for a few seconds and then relax the leg and immediately return to the stretch of gently pulling the leg in towards the body and see if you can go a little further.
- For stubbornly tight muscles aim for longer holds (90 – 120 seconds), or in yin yoga a few minutes per asana. In this kind of practice you are maintaining the pose long enough to produce healthful, permanent changes in the quality of the connective tissue (facia) that binds your muscles. Holding poses for short periods of time (20 – 30 seconds) will give the sensation of a gentle release; however, longer holds will give the structural changes necessary for a permanent increase in flexibility.
- In a therapeutic setting, attempt to focus on one to three key stretches/asanas that will best address your client’s needs and spend time on the details of alignment and focused awareness to maximize the benefit of the therapy.