Yoga Dork just published an article based on “ground breaking new” research that our flexibility is limited by our nervous system. To many Ashtangi’s, this is not new. It is one of the reasons Ashtanga has come under fire. Many modern schools of yoga teach that when you feel any discomfort in a pose, that you stop. It is your bodies way of telling you that you are at your edge and you are about to get injured. Ashtanga has pretty much always taught that there are acceptable levels of discomfort and that the mind has a big hand in our experience of pain. After all, the second series of Ashtanga yoga, Nadi Shodhana, is all about cleansing the nervous system.
I know some people have built their blog empires on taking things out of context,so before I get attacked, I am not saying that you should push towards pain and beyond. I am just saying that sometimes that feeling of tightness occurs way before your edge is reached and is initiated by the brain’s fear of you going outside of your habitual patterns. Yoga, like life, is not black and white. Is there a need to even approach that edge? For some, no. For some, yes.
I always use the example of my back. Some back pain comes from the hips and tight or weak muscles in the surrounding area. That is not the case for me. I spend a lot of time sitting at a desk. I will admit. I hunch over and sit all crazy. My back occasionally gets cranky. When many people feel pain in their back, they baby it. They leave out the back bends or do simple bridges. I do the opposite. I do second series which, depending on the back bend sequence given to you by your teacher, has about 20 back bends in it. When I start, my body is hating every minute of it. By the time I am done with all of them, my back feels amazing. All the pain is gone. Completely. My body feels light, mobile and ready to take on the rest of my day.
I told that story about discomfort to illustrate that in my own experience, discomfort does not always mean that you need to back away from a deeper practice. I have seen this in my students as well. I recently had a student that was having shoulder pain and actually had been seeing a therapist about it. She came to class and I physically adjusted her into the Marichyasana binds which are deep shoulder openers and it actually lessened the pain instead of making it worse. At the end, she said, “this whole time, all I needed was to stretch them out”.
The nervous system and inexperienced teachers who teach based on fear, will often tell us to stop when maybe that is not the right prescription for that case.
Biomechanics-based Restorative ExerciseTM teaches a lot of new and eye-opening information about stretching and flexibility that isn’t yet common knowledge in the yoga world. Additionally, the wonderful yoga teacher Jules Mitchell is on a mission to educate the yoga community about the science of stretching. Her recently-completed master’s thesis in exercise science is a comprehensive literature review of the most current scientific research on stretching to date, and it’s full of an abundance of important information for yogis.
Utilizing the innovative knowledge that these resources offer, let’s examine some of our current beliefs about stretching and introduce some helpful ways we can begin to update these beliefs to reflect the newest scientific word on the street.
THE NEW SCIENCE OF WHAT HAPPENS WHEN WE STRETCH
We all know that when we stretch, we experience a feeling of “tightness” at our end range of motion – a sensation that limits us from moving any deeper into the stretch. We have traditionally defined this “tight” sensation as the result of having reached the end length of the muscle(s) we’re stretching. In other words, we pulled on the ends of our muscle until we reached its maximum physical length, and once we hit that boundary, the stretch stopped and we felt the “tightness”. With enough stretching, we could increase the length of our muscle and therefore move further into our stretch with time.
But we now understand that increasing our flexibility has much less to do with the physical length of our muscle tissue, and much more to do with the part of our body that controls and moves our muscles: the nervous system. Our brain, the main control center of our nervous system, is in constant communication with our muscles and one of its main imperatives is to keep our body where it perceives it is safe. Normal movements that we make throughout our day are considered safe by the brain because it knows and trusts them. But on the other hand, our brain is not familiar with ranges of motion that we never move into, so it’s much less likely to consider those places safe. When we stretch, if we move into a place that the brain isn’t familiar with, our nervous system will end our stretch by communicating with our muscles to put the breaks on the movement.
For example, if you happen to work on your computer for 8 solid hours a day (and if you don’t take frequent intermittent stretch breaks for your shoulders – hint hint ), the brain becomes very familiar with the arms-forward position that you use while typing and considers that range safe. Then later, if you decide to do a chest stretch in which you take your arm out to the side and then behind you, the brain doesn’t feel that that movement is safe because you so rarely go there, so it will limit your range very early on in the stretch.
A major takeaway from this new flexibility paradigm is that when we increase our range of motion through stretching, it isn’t because we pulled on our tissues and made them longer. It’s because we visited the edge of our stretch (also called stretch “tolerance”) enough times that our brain started to feel comfortable there and it began to allow us to move deeper into that range.