At the beginning of each yoga teacher training I like to ask my students: “If some area of your body gets tight, what do you do with it?” The answer I am given (often with a snort) is always: “You stretch it.” To which I answer: “That’s the last thing you want to do to it.” That usually gets their attention. So what do you do with the tight muscle? Let’s take a look.
Your muscles have two main functions: to produce movement by moving the bones of the skeleton and to maintain posture/body position, otherwise we wouldn’t be able to sit upright or stand. As we move through life, we rarely use the body in a symmetrical way or maintain a posture that’s perfectly aligned. As a result, muscle imbalances are created that overtime can cause discomfort and pain. I had a student once who’s driven a forklift for 30 years of his life. Turns out, to drive safely, forklift drivers must drive in reverse, placing the body in this position. Can you imagine doing this for most of the day, every day for 30 years? Do you think his body maintained it’s proper alignment and symmetry? Not so much.
Let’s take a look at a more common problem – a hunched-over position (are you sure you are not hunching over yourself while reading this? :)) The muscles of the chest, upper back and neck have to support the weight of the displaced head (which is heavy) every waking hour. The body segments get pulled out of place and the muscles of the chest get stuck in the contracted position (locked-short), while the muscles of the upper back get constantly pulled on and start acting like straps (locked-long). I got this terminology from Thomas Myers’ book Anatomy Trains.
So what, you say. Well, both locked-short and locked-long muscles lose their ability to contract properly and become weak, undernourished and eventually painful. You cannot will them to relax, they can only let go to a certain extent, but once you are back to your hunch, they’ll return to their strained place. Trying to stretch a locked-short muscle is like trying to pry open a clenched fist – it won’t give much and then will snap right back into place. Trying to stretch a locked-long muscle is like pulling on a leather belt, how far will that get you? It is already stretched out and you can actually cause more damage by pulling it further.
What’s the solution then? Contract! Muscles are designed to contract and relax in succession, which increases circulation to the area, brings nourishment and develops muscle tone and strength. So the most effective way of working with the tight muscle is to contract-relax-contract-relax-contract-relax, then stretch (if appropriate). This task is easily accomplished by moving in-out of the pose before holding it.
Take a look at Bhujangasana (Cobra pose). On the inhalation you lift into the pose, contracting your lower back muscles, on the exhalation your return into the starting position to relax your lower back. After doing this contract-relax-contract-relax few times, you can then stay in the pose to strengthen your lower back muscles. After that you can go into the child’s pose to stretch the back. Of course, you have to make sure that you are using your back muscles wisely in cobra, not jamming your lumbar spine and not using your arms. Cobra is one of the most misunderstood yoga postures; it is extremely effective for relieving lower back tension, yet many practitioners give themselves back tension by doing it incorrectly. Very unfortunate. I will explore the cobra pose in detail in my next post.
Back to our topic. Trick question: does this principle of contract-relax-stretch change if the muscle is locked-long as opposed to locked-short? Yes and no. The sequence of events will still be the same: contract-relax-stretch, but for locked-short muscles we’ll place more emphasis on “stretch” at the end to release chronic contraction and encourage them to return to the resting muscle length. For locked-long muscles we’ll place more emphasis on “contract” and probably won’t even do any stretching, because we’d be interested in strengthening the muscle and restoring it’s elasticity.
Simple example: This short sequence is useful for the lower back that’s either weak or tight, but the emphasis will be different. If the lower back muscles are weak and overstretched (like they become with the flattened lumbar curve, tailbone tucked), you would need to strengthen them. So you would do this sequence (right): chakravakasana to contract-relax-mildly stretch, cobra up-down-hold to strengthen, chakravakasana to compensate. Main work takes place in cobra.
If the lower back muscles are chronically tight because of the exaggerated lumbar curve, you’d do this sequence: chakravakasana up-down, cobra up-down, chakravakasana up-down, stay in child’s pose. Main work in the child’s pose. Of course, it will take much more work to relieve chronic muscle contraction, but this is a good start.
By the way, none of that work will have a lasting effect if we continue to engage in the behaviors that got us there on the first place. We have to look carefully at our patterns of movement (or question our students about theirs) to understand what’s causing or contributing to the problem. Then we need to eliminate them or correct them, if eliminating is not possible. My forklift-driving client didn’t have an option to quit his job, but he could try turning to his left as well as to his right while backing up – that kind of thing.
And let me just say – I feel sorry for our poor hamstrings. They get stretched mercilessly in yoga classes, especially if we insist on keeping the legs straight in forward bends. No wonder that one of the most common yoga injuries is literally the “pain in the butt”, or the attachment point of the hamstring tendons to the pelvis. We injure those by pulling on them and then try to remedy it by stretching them again(?!) And then we are surprised that they take forever to heal. So next time one of your students requests hamstring stretches, make sure to include things like this to get the blood flow into the area before you start pulling.
This principle of contract-relax-stretch might seem easy enough in theory, but it can be tricky to implement because we are conditioned to think about stretching. If I asked you to think about yoga poses that would be good for the psoas, what comes to mind first? Lunge? Warrior 1? Dancer? Pigeon? What do they do exactly? Stretch it.
Let me share my own story. Few months ago I’ve developed a pain in my right hip flexor area that felt like it really needed stretching, but if I did stretch it, it felt worse. Hm-mm, I thought, what’s this about? What am I doing differently that’s causing it? Turns out – baby gates! We’ve installed those when my son started to get around and I’ve developed a habit of stepping over them instead of opening and closing. You know, to save time. So I would stand sideways and hike my right leg over it (always the right one) and then pull the left one to follow. Surprise, surprise! My hip flexors on the right side weren’t thrilled. So I eliminated the behavior and set out to resolved the issue it’s created. You would think – if hip flexing had created the problem, then hip extension should resolve it? Nope. You know what turned out to be the best move for my problem? Not the lunge, not the pigeon, this one! Raising and lowering the leg slightly while keeping the lower back neutral did a fabulous job of contracting the muscles and increasing the blood flow to the area; followed by the supine crescent shape with the leg turned slightly in, to stretch it gently. Works like a charm. Below you can find my full practice with emphasis on psoas/iliacus. Works well for me.
And one last thing. Despite the risk of being ganged up on by restorative yoga teachers, I’ll say this. I do not believe that restorative yoga is effective unless you’ve done some movement first to get your muscles contracting. Or at least, it would take much longer for your body to release without it. Just my two cents.
So let’s review. When working with a tight muscle (any muscle), first analyze the behavior that’s causing it and change it. Then address the issue by contracting the muscle first, then relax, then stretch (if appropriate). So stretching is literally ‘the last thing you want to do’.