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Have you ever heard anyone say they were too dirty to take a bath?
Yeah, me neither (with the exception of maybe toddlers who say all kinds of crazy things to get out of having to take one). That’s what I think of when I hear people say they are not flexible enough to do yoga.
In fact, practicing yoga regularly will help improve your flexibility. You don’t have to be flexible to begin with in order to start doing yoga. But you have to be willing to get uncomfortable.
Progress is Never Made If We Stay Where We Are Comfortable
You can sit in Baddha Konasana (aka Bound Angle or Butterfly) all day long and never get your knees closer to the floor or your hips to open more if you just sit at your comfort level. Just as a muscle only grows after it experiences micro-tears, it will not learn to stretch unless it is stretched just beyond its level of comfort.
Stretching is regulated by a spinal cord reflex. “When a muscle contracts or stretches, receptors within it alert he central nervous system (CNS) to this event. The central nervous system then signals the muscle to respond appropriately, either by relaxing or contracting.” (Ray Long, The Key Poses of Yoga) The response to stretching is actually to contract and resist that stretch to avoid injury.
This is why pushing yourself into a yoga pose can actually be dangerous. So if pushing yourself isn’t the answer, how do you actually gain flexibility?
You need to reach just inside of discomfort. That being said, if you feel pain, then you’ve gone too far. There is a saying in the fitness world, “no pain, no gain,” but this is far from the truth. Where there is pain, something is wrong. Pain means injury. It’s important that you know the difference.
3 Ways to Increase Flexibility
It’s good to have a little anatomical knowledge when talking about muscles, strength and flexibility. Without going into unnecessary detail, there are a couple parts to know.
The Muscle Spindle- a set of muscle fibers located at the center of the muscle. Its job is to detect change in length of the muscle. When the muscle has reached its set length, it sends a signal to the Central Nervous System (CNS) in your spine. The spine then sends back a reflex for the muscle to contract, thereby protecting the muscle from tearing. This is called the Stretch Reflex.
The Golgi Tendon Organ- sensory receptor located at the junction of the muscle and tendon. Its job is to detect change in tension of the tendon. When a muscle contracts it creates tension within the tendon. In order to protect the tendon from tearing, it sends a signal to the muscle to relax. This is the Golgi Tendon Reflex.
You’re probably most familiar with Passive stretching. This is the kind that uses the force of gravity on the weight of your body to create the stretch. Poses such as Uttanasana (aka Standing Forward Fold) use this kind of stretch.
There are 2 ways that you can help increase a muscle’s flexibility when doing a passive stretch.
1. Hold the Pose
When doing a passive stretch, hold the pose for 30-60 seconds. This modifies the sensitivity of the muscle spindle, which then decreases its transmission to the CNS, thus allowing the muscle to relax. You can read this article on muscle spindles, for a more detailed description of this action.
2. Back Out
The second method, one I use often in my classes, is to “back out” of the stretch briefly before returning to the stretch. When you back out of a stretch, it acclimates the muscle spindle to the stretch thereby decreasing the intensity of its firing. This allows the muscle to relax, allowing you to deepen the stretch.
For example, In Upavistha Konasana (seated straddle pose):
- Exhaling, keep a flat back while you walk your hands out as far as you can comfortably
- Inhale, lengthen the spine, backing out of the pose very slightly
- Exhaling, walk your hands a tiny bit farther than you did before
For every action of a joint, there are agonist and antagonist muscles. Remember the signal that the muscle spindle sends to cause a muscle to contract? It also has a secondary signal that it sends to inhibitory receptors in the opposite muscle, that cause it to relax. The muscle(s) contracting is/are the agonsist(s), and the muscle(s) relaxing is/are the antagonist(s).
It is possible to consciously use this action to deepen our stretches.
Take, for example, paschimottanasana. The goal of this pose is to stretch the hamstrings. Remember that when you stretch a muscle, the reflex is to inhibit the stretch. In order to pacify this reflex, try contracting the quadriceps; you’ll notice that the hamstrings then relax.
Facilitated Stretching (to be used with utmost caution)
Another important anatomical structure of the muscle is called the Golgi Tendon Organ. It’s job is to detect changes in muscle tension. Its purpose is to prevent injury to the tendon it’s attached to when the tension in the muscle gets too high (during contraction). When it fires, the muscle is signaled to relax. Note that this is opposite of the muscle spindle. For more information on this action, read this article about the Golgi Tendon Organ.
In order to use this technique, you must be careful, and only use it sparingly (2-3 times). You must allow the muscle a couple of days to recover from this technique before using it again. If you are new to yoga, use the other 2 methods for a a while before using this intense method.
Let’s use a variation of Supta Padangusthasana (Hand-to-Big-Toe Pose) for example:
- Lie on your back.
- Straighten and raise your right leg.
- Grasp the foot with both hands.
- As you exhale, gently bring the leg closer to your body.
- Contract the hamstrings of the right leg, as if you were going to bend your knee. Don’t use a lot of force or you could end up injuring your knee joint.
- Hold the contraction for 1-2 full breaths
- Contract the quadriceps of the right leg, bringing the leg to its new stretch point
- Repeat 1 or 2 times on the right
- Repeat steps 1-9 on the left
It’s important to remember that, although flexibility is an effect of yoga, it is not the end-all, be-all. While I have described a few ways to help you increase yours, do not be caught up in your ability to achieve the full expression of any pose.
Do not be discouraged if your flexibility is not what you think it should be, even based on how it might have been yesterday. Our bodies change from day to day and sometimes, it is necessary to back off before you can move forward. Remember that forcing your body to stretch is a good way to injure yourself. Sometimes today is not the day.
As one of my teachers always says, practice in the body you have today.
Note: I know that Wikipedia is not technically a “scholarly source” of information as anyone can edit any article. However, I use Wikipedia articles that are well annotated, and therefore the accuracy of such information is considered more valid.