Many years ago, when I just started teaching yoga, I wanted to make sure that my students got enough stretching. One time a good friend of mine took my class. “How was it?” – I asked afterwards. “It was fine, – he said – it just felt a bit passive. All those deep stretches close to the ground made me feel like a wet noodle; I’d rather feel strong.” “Ouch” – I thought at first, but then reflected on it a bit more. Are physical strength and flexibility mutually exclusive? Or are they complimentary? And how can we find the right balance?
The human body is organized around a skeleton, which forms its structural center. However, the skeleton doesn’t possess its own structural integrity. It would be just a pile of bones on the ground if it weren’t for our ligaments (that connect the bones), tendons (that connect muscles to bones) and muscles (whose job is to keep the body upright and to move it). All those parts are linked together by fascia – connective tissue that covers the muscles, merges with tendons and wraps the bones.
The purpose of this intricate arrangement is to keep the entire structure together so that we are able to stand upright (on two legs!) and move in a variety of ways, all within gravitational pull. The structure needs to be stable enough not to collapse, yet flexible enough to allow for the body to move freely. Let’s take a look at each one of those elements to figure out what we want from them in the flexibility/stability department.
Since the skeleton forms the main structural support of the body, we need it to be strong (nobody wants spongy or brittle bones). The bones become thicker and stronger by adapting to new stresses, for example, muscle contraction that pulls on the bones. That’s why strong, weight bearing yoga poses are beneficial here, not the stretchy ones.
We are all born with certain predispositions – some of us have shorter ligaments that contribute to the sense of stability, but somewhat limit the range of movement; others have looser ligaments that enable greater range of motion, but compromise stability. Those who have tighter ligaments from birth might never be able to do a full Lotus pose, but does it really matter if they are able to maintain structural integrity? Those who have loose ligaments can flop into contortionist poses with ease, but might have trouble maintaining proper alignment and can have their joints pop out of place (especially the sacroiliac joints).
We do have some wiggle room within our congenital situations, but some things will remain out of reach forever. A person with tighter structure can work on increasing her range of motion and will succeed in expanding that range (mostly by working with fascia), but she will never be able to do the same leg-behind-the head things that her loose-ligament neighbor can do. And the loose-ligament person can train her muscles to support her weight in stronger poses, but her ligaments will never get shorter and she will never be as stable as her tight-ligament neighbor. Each person is dealing with her own set of challenges and we all benefit from recognizing our structural situations and working with them, instead of fighting them.
With muscles we are mostly interested in maintaining their contractile power, which means that the muscle can shorten when loaded and relax when not loaded. Muscles don’t stretch, they tear. The sensation of release that you get after a deep stretch is your muscle returning to its resting muscle length. The muscles can get stuck in a contracted state, making you feel tight and stiff, or they can get stuck at their resting length, which will make you feel weak and trembling while attempting to do a strong move. In either situation the solution is to contract the muscle first (to restore its contractile power and release tension), then relax it and then stretch it gently (not for the purpose of making the muscle longer, but for the purpose of restoring the resting muscle length). We call it the “contract-relax-stretch” sequence.
Fascia is the connective tissue that serves both as a bag that holds muscles , bones, organs, etc, and the packing material in between those structures. Fascia links all physical structures together and transmits mechanical tension across multiple structures. There will ALWAYS be tension along myofascial meridians, because this is how the body organizes its multiple parts, remains upright and maintains its mobility (just like a circus tent needs equally distributed tension along all the ropes to remain upright).
Fascia is a major contributor to the whole body being “stuck” in a posture that you assume for most of your day and asymmetries resulting from habitual movement patterns. The body adapts to the load you put on it, creating the patterns of unequally distributed tension. Those patterns need to be corrected – not by stretching the tight areas, but by moving the body often and moving it in a variety of directions. That is why in a yoga class we usually include forward bends, back bends, side bends, twists and axial extension postures to encourage balanced distribution of tension along myofascial meridians. This keeps fascia property hydrated and allows it to do its job effectively.
As you can see, at every level of our physical bodies there is a constant interplay between stability and flexibility, and stability is usually a more desirable quality. And what is flexibility anyway? It is a combination of looser ligaments, good muscle tone and hydrated fascia. Looser ligaments depend on Mother Nature, and good muscle tone is achieved by contracting, relaxing and then gently stretching our muscles to restore their normal resting length and increase range of motion in the joints. Varied and frequent whole-body movement takes care of fascia.
Now, yogis never concerned themselves with bones, ligaments and muscles – they used different criteria to define balanced development at the physical (Annamaya) level. We will discuss those ideas next week. Tune in!
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