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A Spiritually Enlightening Online Magazine. March's Theme: "Movement"
Volume 3 Issue 3 ISSN# 1708-3265
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Yoga and the Strengths of Flexibility
by Syl Carson

So many people say to me "I could never do yoga, I am not very flexible." I am always amused at this statement. Yoga is so much more than flexibility. It might be said that flexibility is a by-product of yoga; one of many benefits. To overlook the importance of flexibility is, in the words of the Welsh poet David Whyte, "one of the small round coins thrown by those who wished for something else." A secret treasure which glimmers at the bottom of the fountain of life!

During yoga practice flexibility is often envied or sought after in the attainment of asanas. Many times as yogis gaze at someone in a deep posture, they mislead themselves with thoughts such as "I could never do that" or "I want to know what that feels like." The joy of yoga is the journey of transformation! If one becomes attached to attainment (of postures) then the taste and texture of the journey is lost.

Cultivating an understanding of what flexibility is can offer the yoga practitioner deeper self-empathy when faced with so-called discomfort. Focusing on discomfort, rather than opening, calls the mind away from the journey; exchanging awareness for suffering.

So what is it? In truth, flexibility is a hedge against injury, aging and joint deterioration. Why is it that children can stretch, run and maintain endurance? Hydration has a lot to do with it. If you try to tear a sponge when it's wet it is much more difficult than when it is dry and hard. Muscular hydration cannot be achieved by simply drinking a lot of water. Movement and circulation of fresh oxygenated blood are the stimulants in this hydration process. Muscles are groupings of individual elastic fibers. These fibers have the ability, individually, to stretch approximately 150 percent of their resting length before tearing.1 They are separated into varying muscle groups by fascia and attached to bone by tendons. "By the time we reach adulthood these tissues have lost about 15 percent of their moisture content, becoming less supple and more prone to injury… The muscle fibers begin to adhere to each other, developing cellular cross-links which prevent parallel fibers from moving independently. Slowly our elastic fibers get bound up with collagenous connective tissue and become more and more unyielding. This normal aging of tissue is distressingly similar to the process that turns animal hides to leather!"2 It is regular systematic stretching which retards the drying or aging process. As the stretch pulls, the interwoven collagenous cross-links which bind the muscle are detached. This action stimulates the production of lubricants which free the muscle strands to move independently of each other and strengthen uninhibited. As deep breathing is marshaled with movement, oxygenated blood is circulated and saturates the muscle as well as giving warmth to the tissues.

Understanding the benefit of flexibility is half of the journey. There are varying techniques the yogi can learn to employ to trigger a deepened muscular release. Reciprocal Inhibition is a term used to describe how opposing muscle groups work together. When the quads are flexed, the hamstrings automatically relax. When the biceps flex the triceps relax. When stretching a specific muscle the practitioner can use this knowledge to deepen the extension (of the stretched muscles) further than would be possible in a passive stretch. When initially moving into a stretch the extending muscle fibers (or spindles) will contract. As the individual spindles are stretched they record the change in length and send a signal of this to the spine. This triggers the stretch reflex, which is a resistance to the change in muscle length, causing the muscles to contract. "The more sudden the change in muscle length, the stronger the muscle contractions will be. This basic function for the muscle spindle helps to maintain muscle tone and protect the body from injury."3 In short, the slower, more deliberate, and longer the stretch is held, the greater the number of spindles will release, i.e. the journey rather than the goal. This is a clinical explanation of why as a yogi tries harder and harder to reach a posture, it feels the further away they come from it. If patient self-awareness of body and breath are summoned, the stretch will come to the yogi.

A further method of developing flexibility is called PNF stretching. This type of stretching is best done under the guidance of an experienced instructor. Once the practitioner has reached the maximum stretch through the process of reciprocal inhibition, and transcended the stretch reflex, the stretched muscle group can then be flexed at its point of maximum extension. When the muscle is engaged, "pressure is eased on the muscle spindles, and they send signals that it is safe for the muscle to release… the nervous system adjusts, affording greater range of motion."4

Another avenue of increasing flexibility I call the "BOO!" method. This should never be practiced unless there is full consensus between an experienced instructor and seasoned yogi. This method takes advantage of a neurological circuit breaker which overrides the stretch reflex. This is called the GTO mechanism. "The Golgi-tendon organ is situated at the junction of the muscle and tendon. It responds to and monitors tension in the muscle spindles. If tension suddenly becomes too great on the spindles the "GTO sends a warning message which in turn produces a reflex relaxation in the tensioned muscle."5 This reflex takes place so the untrained muscle tissues and fascia will not tear. A great example to GTO use is the cobbler pose. If a yogi were to press their knees out to the maximum stretch, and they did not reach the floor, they could work with a partner to stand on the knees pressing them onto the floor.

This should not be attempted unless both partners have an in-depth understanding of kinesiology, and the practitioner's level in the specific stretch warrants this type of release.

The combination of extension and contraction of the musculature in yogic practice has a profound effect on improving range of motion as well as toning and strengthening muscles. Yoga, as a type of strength training, could be referred to as an isometric exercise. The practitioner increases strength by working against an immovable object, i.e. the floor. It is one of the safest and most effective ways to increase the core strength of the body. Training the muscle fibers to contract in an elongated state creates healthy muscles and more control in everyday activities. Combining the breath work which soothes the nervous system while stimulating the circulatory system puts the body and mind in a truly unique state.

It is important the yogi understand which parts of the body can be improved through flexibility and which can receive greater benefit by engaging muscles and tendons; learning to hold back as they develop the necessary strength to support the stretch. Bringing awareness to the practice of yoga is just as important as practicing yoga itself. It is up to the individual yogi to determine where their practice should play out. The beauty of Yoga is it stays the effects of time on the body, while honouring the wisdom received in the mind and heart.

Copyright (c) 2006 All Rights Reserved

1-2. What Science Can Teach Us About Flexibility. Ruiz. Yoga Journal March/April (c) 2000

3-4. Science of Stretching. Michael J. Alter. Leisure Press (c) 1988

5. A Theoretical Overview of Stretching &38 Flexibility. Kathy Stevens. American Fitness. January/February (c) 1998

Syl is the Founder of White Mountain Yoga & Thai Yoga Therapy, L.L.C Located in Orem Utah. She began her practice of yoga nearly a decade ago, when she was diagnosed with rheumatoid arthritis and fibromayalgia. At the encouragement of her doctor (who was from India) she enrolled in her first yoga class. Syl found much of what she was learning to be familiar. Many of the things which are called yoga she had been practicing her entire life. Syl's yoga practice has restored her range of motion, allowing her to manage RA effectively, without feeling controlled by health limitations. The fibromayalgia symptoms have resolved entirely.

She has a personal sensitivity toward those who suffer both from depression and physical limitations. Syl uses her understanding of the subtle nuances of the body in her teaching. She finds great enjoyment in teaching yoga geared to the individual, encouraging both her beginning and advanced students to develop an intelligent balance of strength and flexibility for body, mind and spirit. Her classes have a welcoming atmosphere and Syl teaches with an attitude of enjoyment and humour.

Syl has produced eight Yoga guide-books, and she has released two Yoga DVDs and four CDs. In 2002 she obtained certification with Saul David Raye as an advanced Thai Yoga Therapist. Syl uses these ancient techniques as she guides her students in their discovery of yoga. In addition to leading her White Mountain Yoga SeriesTM as well as workshops around the country each year, Syl also maintains a private Thai Yoga Practice clientele.

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