Yoga poses give you a wonderful stretch. And that stretch helps to loosen tight muscles and leave you with a feeling of overall space and flexibility in your body - how wonderful!
Today I'm going to write a little bit about dynamic stretching and stretching that feels good. Over all the years I've been stretching, from the hardcore stretching of my gymnastic days and stretching at the end of fitness classes to the elongated held poses in a yoga class, I've had a love-hate relationship with it. That relationship has had me asking, 'is this even doing anything? as I stretch and don't seem to get any more flexible', to 'this is pure painful torture, why am I doing this?'. It's taken me a mindful approach and a mindset change to find a stretching practice that feels good, and I call this a mindful-dynamic approach to stretching, as it constantly adjusts and responds to how I'm feeling.
It's really easy to get competitive with yourself when stretching, there can easily be a voice in your head that says more is better, more flexible, closer to the floor/your knee or whatever the perceived 'goal' might be. So let's start right there, forget the goal, there is no goal. A yoga posture is about more than putting your body in some sort of position. The shape that you see and the ability to hold it comes from your relaxation and being with where you and your body are at the time you do the pose. It's like running before crawling, you can't just go straight for the end result and get the benefit, it doesn't work like that. The benefit of relaxing and strengthening into the pose leads you to somewhere else, that somewhere else being a different shaped pose. That pose may or may not be different the next time you practice.
The body's ability to relax in the pose comes from the elongation and strength of muscles over time. That's why it is a mindful practice, because by bringing your attention to how you feel in the pose you are able to assess and adjust it as you hold.
A common thing that can happen is going too far into the pose or stretch to begin with. We've definitely all done this before. Go to the end range of stretch only to find that you're straining and struggling to hold it to that extent for any number of breath counts.
There is such a thing as the stretch reflex. This reflex triggers a signal to contract the muscle and is not a reflex that goes to your brain for you to think about how to move. Just like when you put your hand on a burning hot surface the neurons that fire send a signal to your spinal cord only and the response that goes back to your hand is to move it. This signal goes to your spinal cord only and not up to your brain for you to make a conscious decision on what to do, it's automatic and just happens without your decision making process getting involved.
Well, the stretch reflex is just like that. If a muscle is stretched to it's limit and beyond the automatic reaction is to recoil so as to protect the muscle. And you can feel it of course, because when you stretch to your limit it hurts! That's the signal for your body to put the brakes on and fight against the stretch. So if you're stretched to your limit like this then you're in a constant tug of war with yourself, not very relaxing, nor I would say beneficial.
So, practicing like this will leave you exhausted, as you're struggling the whole time expending energy instead of inviting it in.
What to do?
Start where you find ease. Take a few breaths to find alignment. Do some small adjustments to different parts of yourself to see what feels good, or in better alignment. Take a minute to find your focus on where you would like to feel the stretch/lengthening and find a prop if you need some assistance to find what works for you there.
As you take the time to find this alignment and keep asking yourself 'what feels good', you will find that your body responds by letting go into the pose. It opens up, it is allowed to open to more possibility and when you come out of the pose you feel energised and not depleted like you've just done a whole lot of hard work.
I hope this helps you in your yoga poses or any type of stretching you choose to do. For the second part of this article read here.