You may have noticed that some people are naturally very flexible. They swoop into their lunges with effortless ease, their forward bends are deep folds and their back bends are nearing a full circle. If once, as they might claim, they didn’t have the same degree of flexibility, it certainly didn’t take them long to get it. Interestingly, experts agree, that stretching doesn’t actually make muscles permanently long. They surmise that through a stretching exercise the nervous system is trained to tolerate a greater degree of muscle extension.
The breath connection
So it’s not so much the muscle we are working with rather it is the nervous system which is why if we are nervous or emotional the nerves tend to tighten the muscles. This is why whatever method you use to stretch your muscles, a calm slow deep breath with long exhalations will yield the best results.
Hot yoga is so popular because warmth also helps the nerves to relax and soften the muscles making them more pliable. While stretching in a hot environment is beneficial and preferable for some, there are those who prefer to do their asanas in a little more moderate heat. The best results for these people will be a good warming workout before stretching. This will create their own internal and external body heat and yield great results also.
Throughout the body we have connective tissue called fascia. The fascia is a three-dimensional web of tissue that envelopes every muscle, tendon, ligament, bone, organ, gland, nerve, and every single cell. It is a thin, white, stretchy and somewhat slimy layer of film that surrounds the entire body, but also between the skin and muscle and between the segments of muscle. Our fascia keeps everything in its rightful place. When it is fully hydrated, it is stretchable and slippery but when the fascia is dry, it is stiff and uncompromising. Our fascia can be compared to cling wrap. If you try to glide 2 pieces of cling wrap past each other they will stick to each other. However, if one of them is a little wet, they will glide nicely. Similarly when we are dehydrated, the fascia sticks to surrounding tissue making movement with complete freedom or ease more difficult.
Types of stretching
I often see people in a yoga class bouncing up and down in a forward bend. This is called ballistic stretching and is not highly recommended as it easy to take the muscle momentarily past its ideal stretch and cause damage to ligaments and tendons.
A mixture of both static stretches where the muscle is lengthened and held there for some time and dynamic stretches where the muscle is slowly stretched then shortened repeatedly are said to yield the best results and a combination of the two methods called PNF stretching is thought to be the most efficient.
Watch for signals that you have reached your limit
The reason why a slow mindful practice of stretching is recommended is so we can look for the subtle signals that we are going past our limit and feeling the stretch in the joint rather than the belly of the muscle, or that we are starting to compensate by straining in some other part of the body. An example of this would be if we are trying to stretch our hamstrings and they reach their limit so I round my back to get deeper into the stretch.
Unavoidable factors affecting stretch
Some things we just can’t avoid. Women in general are said to be more flexible than men although there are of course exceptions.
Those in older bodies might have noticed that as we age we tend to lose flexibility.
And then of course is genetics. Some people are born with an amazing degree of flexibility while others… have to work at it.
However whatever our sex, our age, whatever we inherited – keep stretching, stay hydrated, be warm, relax and breathe!
By Vrndavan Dasi
Founder and Principal of Veda Yoga Teacher Training