When is a stretch not a stretch?

When is a stretch not a stretch? How to optimise your yoga practice

So you’ve perfected that tricky yoga pose , then you look round at the rest of the class and realise that everyone else is moving much further into it than you. They must be moving further because they are better than you and they want it more, right?

Believe it or not, we once had a patient who had ripped her hamstring tendon from her pelvis, taking a piece of bone with it – while doing yoga!

I would like to eliminate the ‘stretch’ word from the vocabulary of yoga. It conjures up visions of hyperflexible, effortlessly bendy people that flow into extreme poses without breaking into a sweat. Unless you are hypermobile (which brings its own problems), when you force any area of your body, especially if you move into pain, your body responds by tightening up to protect itself. So then nothing gets stretched and you end up in pain or even injured.

The Fascia

Each one of your 37.2 trillion cells is connected via a continuous network or web of connective tissue. Everything that happens to you from the moment of conception is recorded within this fascial network – that’s physical and emotional events and traumas.

The web responds to trauma (even overstretching) by tightening up, and the resulting restrictions cause pain, tension and inflammation, not only in the immediate area, but potentially anywhere in your body.

Unfortunately the ‘no pain no gain’ approach is still prevalent in the exercise world and even if the instructors don’t push them, class participants still put themselves under pressure to go as far as possible and then a bit further.

It has been shown that by sustaining a slow gentle stretch at the point of resistance, the fascia is able to open, releasing the tissue and reducing pressure on the cells and nerve endings. This approach will allow you to work with your body rather than against it and you will get much more out of your yoga practice.

Top Tips

  1. Feel your way in: Each time you move into a pose, remember that your body is approaching it from a slightly different starting position. This will vary depending on what you have done that day; how tired you are, if you in pain, what the temperature is, how hydrated you are and even how stressed you are feeling. This means that sometimes positions that you would normally find easy and flowing might feel stiff and awkward, especially if your body is compensating for something.  
  • Hold at your barrier: No matter how far you have moved, as soon as you become aware of resistance, stop. It is surprisingly hard to feel this subtle barrier, but it is the most important aspect of any release. Pushing through it will force the fascia to stretch, causing it to tighten up against the potentially damaging impact. But the resistance will not necessarily be in the area that you are working. Because your fascial system connects your whole body, opening one area can put strain on a different area. By respecting this resistance and stopping at that point, your fascia won’t need to compensate elsewhere and you won’t force anything.
  • Wait for the release: Once you have found your barrier, wait until you feel an opening or softening. The difference with myofascial stretching is the slow, sustained release at the point of resistance. This is the bit that is harder in a class setting, but can be indulged in at home. The difficulty in doing this with other people is that each release will take a different amount of time. It also takes practice to be able to feel as the release can be quite subtle.
  • Follow your body: Often one release will lead onto the next, especially as you become more practiced at feeling what your body needs and how it is changing. So when you have felt a release, stay with it and take your awareness to the area. Then soften your focus and feel where the next restriction is. In this way the poses will flow into each other, giving you the exact combination of releases that you need at that time.
  • Check your pelvic alignment: If the muscles attaching into your pelvis are tight or scarred, they exert a torsion effect on the bones and over time they rotate. Most of us are living with a ‘wonky’ pelvis, but because it creeps out of alignment, it feels normal. But once it has rotated, it causes stress on the rest of your body and can even make you feel that one leg is longer than the other. It is the most common reason for asymmetry in poses and why one side of your body will go further than the other. So if you have any symptoms it is very important to check and correct your pelvis before trying to treat elsewhere in your body.
  • Get niggles treated: As every part of your body is attached to and affects every other part. So if you have any pain, tension or inflammation that is not being relieved by your own releases, it is important to receive treatment. This is because the longer you have to compensate for a problem, the more the stress is on the rest of your body and the more likely you are to suffer long term problems.
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