In Part 1 of my “Stretching Is In Your Brain” series, we looked at some updated information on what happens physiologically inside of us when we stretch. To re-cap, new science is revealing that the widely-held belief that we physically grow our muscles longer during a stretch is inaccurate. Instead, flexibility is controlled by our nervous system, which determines how far it will allow us to move into a stretch based on how safe it perceives our body to be in that range of motion.
As yoga practitioners and teachers, we’ve been treating our muscles as though they are independent entities which we can mold through direct manipulation, but in reality our muscles are just the peripheral, subservient component of a much broader system of communication and control. Let’s explore some of the implications that this major paradigm shift has for how we approach the body in our yoga practice.
WHAT DOES PULLING HARD ON OUR TISSUES ACHIEVE?
In the old paradigm of stretching in which we believe that we’re physically pulling our tissues longer like taffy when we stretch, it would logically follow that in order to gain more flexibility, we should simply pull harder and deeper. Wringing oneself deep into a spinal twist or receiving a strong adjustment from a teacher intended to push your range of motion further are common examples of this strategy. But we now understand that flexibility is much less about using brute physical force to grow our muscles longer, and much more about using intelligent communication to suggest to our nervous system that a particular range of motion is safe.
In fact, the “brute force” method of stretching is problematic in multiple ways. When we stretch, our muscles aren’t the only tissues that are affected. Muscles are surrounded by and interpenetrated with fascia, which also makes up the body’s ligaments and tendons. When we move our body into a stretch, both our muscles and our fascia experience the stretch at the same time.
It’s important to understand that fascia has only a set range that it can stretch. Stretching offers many benefits to the health of our fascia, but it won’t change the range of this tissue. This means that after fascia experiences the load of a stretch, only one of two possibilities can happen: 1) it returns to its original length after being stretched or 2) it is stretched too far and is damaged. And that’s it! We don’t make our fascia “longer” when we stretch. And if we pull too hard on this tissue in an effort to elongate it, we will most likely move beyond its ability to withstand the load, which will ultimately lead to injury. As counterintuitive as it may seem, for the health and balance of our structure, we actually want our fascia to be quite “stiff” and “resilient”.
BUT HOW MUCH STRETCH IS THE RIGHT AMOUNT?
We understand that stretching intensely does not benefit us, but how do we know where that boundary lies in our body as well as our students’ bodies? Here’s a key rule to use in your practice: when we stretch, we should only move into a range of motion over which we have muscular control. This is because our nervous system feels safest when it senses that we have control over our movement.
Put another way, we don’t want to create flexibility without the strength to support it. If we stretch within these parameters, our practice is likely to contribute to a balanced body that moves well. However, when we stretch into a range in which the targeted muscles cannot function, we are creating excessive mobility (and more than likely hypermobility) that we don’t have the ability to stabilize.
To illustrate this point, let’s look at hanumanasana, yoga’s forward splits. If we practiced this pose with the goal of building flexibility within the context of strength, we would only move as deep into the shape as the muscles of our legs could maintain control. Picture it: without using your arms pressing into the floor, you would slowly lower down into your full hanumanasana and then use those very same leg muscles to lift yourself all the way back up (again, without the use of the arms!) This might seem like a superhuman acrobatic feat, but I promise it would be possible if you truly worked to build power at your end range.
Let’s touch in on a few other asanas to see how this “stability at your end range” principle might apply. Padmasana, or lotus pose, is one of yoga’s classic asanas. Most of us use our arms to pull our legs into this shape. We also sometimes use momentum to quickly fold our legs into lotus, but momentum is another method of moving into a range of motion that we don’t have the strength to control. Is it any wonder that padmasana is notorious for tearing soft tissue in many a yogi’s knee joint? Try this instead: without using your arms or momentum, use only the muscles of your legs to fold your feet as close to your hips as you can and breathe there. This shape - one over which your muscles have control - is the correct stability edge for your body. Another great example is ekapadasirsasana, yoga’s leg-behind-the-head pose. If that leg can climb behind your head itself, without the use of your arms, then you’re staying within your excellent strength-at-your-end-range limits. But I have yet to see a yogi who can accomplish such a daunting task! A less obvious pose in which we commonly move beyond our stability edge is gomukasana, or cow-face arms. Many people like to use their opposite arm to help that bottom arm climb higher up the back, but as soon as we interfere with that bottom arm’s own ability to move itself to its edge, we are stretching past our active range of motion and into unsupported mobility.
I know that so many of us yogis are used to going as deep as our bodies will allow in our poses. Think of the innumerable beautiful photos that yoga teachers have in their portfolios or on Instagram of their bodies looking extremely graceful in a perfectly-executed forward split. (I don’t personally have a photo of myself in hanumanasana, but I certainly have photos of many other asanas in which I’ve moved well beyond my active boundaries.)
The science behind utilizing stability as a container for flexibility is not yet widely understood in the yoga world - and not surprisingly, the number of overstretching injuries in our community is quite high. But as a yoga community, we have to ask ourselves some tough questions: if you have the mobility to move deeper into a pose than your muscles can control, where is that mobility coming from, what is it offering you in terms of how well your body functions, and how many more times can you practice this pose before an injury occurs? What is the value of flexibility without the strength to support it? This is the kind of shift in thinking that yoga needs to make if we want our practice to truly offer the structural health and other long-term benefits like aging with ease that so many yoga practitioners seek.