Stretching helps keeps us limber, youthful and healthy!
It is important not only to be active but to also stretch. Our bodies dehydrate and stiffen with age. By the time you become an adult, your tissues have lost about 15% of their moisture content, becoming less supple and more prone to injury. Your muscle fibers have begun to adhere to each other, with the elastic fibers getting bound up with connective tissue, becoming tighter. Unless we stretch we dry up much quicker!! Stretching slows down this process of dehydration by stimulating production of tissue lubricants. It helps muscles stay healthy for longer.
There are many benefits that come with stretching or doing yoga asana ( postures ) – joint lubrication, improved healing, better circulation and better mobility.
For example, when we execute the seated forward bend ( Pashimottanasana ) we stretch a muscle chain that begins at the Achilles tendon, extends up the back of the legs and pelvis, then continues up along the spine to end at the base of your head. It is also said that this asana rejuvenates the vertebral column and tones the internal organs, massaging the heart, kidneys and abdomen – BKS Iyengar Light on Yoga.
The beauty of practicing yoga is the application of engage and release, which is referred to as ‘reciprocal inhibition’. Whenever one set of muscles contract, the opposing muscles release. So in Pashimottanasana, for example, the hamstrings are released or stretched, while the opposing muscles, the quadriceps, engage. This type of stretching helps you improve your range of motion, developing strength in the front of the thigh which then releases the back of the thigh.
Vinyasa ( connecting movement ) type practices, like Ashtanga yoga, emphasize on the sequencing of postures and or repetition of postures, contracting and releasing, moving in and out of the same postures every time you practice, which tends to promote improved flexibility and strength to the muscles over time.
What links all of this together is the deep breathing or Pranayama. There is a connection between activation, stretching and breathing. Physiologists describe this mechanical and neurological connection of movement and breath as ‘synkinesis’, involuntary muscular movement accompanying voluntary movement.
So looking at Pashimottanasana again, when you breath deeply and steadily, you notice the ebb and flow of the stretch strengthen and release with the breath. As you inhale, your muscles tighten slightly, reducing the stretch. As you exhale, slowly and completely, your abdomen moves back toward your spine, the muscles in your lower back seem to grow longer and your can drop your chest toward your thighs, giving length to the back of your legs.
The exhalation deflates the lungs and lifts your diaphragm into your chest, creating space in the abdominal cavity, making it easier to bend forward, and the inhalation does the opposite, filling the abdominal cavity like an inflating balloon, restricting the forward fold. You will also notice that the exhalation helps relax the muscles of your back, which helps tilt your pelvis forward.
Place your hands on your back, just above the hips, and breathe deeply, you can feel the erector spinae on either side of your spinal column engage as your inhale and release as you exhale. You will also notice that each inhalation engages the muscles around the coccyx, at the very tip of your spine, drawing the pelvis back slightly. Each exhalation releases these muscles and frees your pelvis, allowing it to rotate around the hip joints.
As your lungs empty and the diaphragm lifts into your chest, your back muscles release and your are able to fold into your ultimate stretch. Once there, you may also experience a pleasant moment of inner peace.
Yoga does more than just aid in flexibility in the body. It releases tensions from our bodies and minds, allowing us to move more deeply into our Selves. It helps us not only transform the body but aids in transforming the mine.
In my last post I mentioned that I incorporated more functional movement into my practice due to the dysfunction I had developed. I would like to share with you some modifications I made, so I could continue practicing, without steering too far away from the original Ashtanga Sequence.
Firstly, I practice the Sun Salutations with my feet apart, bending my knees as I fold forward and as I come up. I still maintain my hamstring flexibility as I straighten my legs when my hands reach the floor. Bending my knees challenge my legs and buttock muscles, so my forward bend looks like I am transitioning through a semi squat. This movement is more effective with the feet around hip width apart, as your knees are in a better position for the squatting movement and utilizes the buttock muscles more effectively.
The constant forward bending and exiting may put strain on certain joints in the pelvis, which may then lead to this feeling of injury without having injured yourself. By bending your knees, even if it is just a little, incorporates more stabilising muscles which provides greater support to the joints in the pelvic girdle.
I have found that this applies more to females, due to the way the pelvis is designed, as well as the hormones that increase at certain times of the month, causing ligamentous laxity. If you do have pain at your lower back, sacroiliac joints and hamstring insertions, give the above method a go, it may relieve a lot of discomfort and develop a little more stability.
I would also suggest including some side strengthening movements. Stabiliser muscles are found at the side of the body, neglecting side strengthening postures may cause weakness in the hips and obliques, these muscles help stabilise the Sacroliac Joints. ie Reverse warrior, side crow, side plank on the hand, boat pose with arms to the left for 5 breaths and the right for 5 breaths.
Outside of the practice, I have found including a variety of squats and lunges really helped with developing pelvis stability. I also started to include some pulling movement with the use of a TRX http://suspensiontrainingaustralia.com.au or a Dyna band.
A great ‘friend’ to have is a foam roller, as it can help ‘iron’ out some tightness that restrict certain muscles from functioning properly. This technique is called self myofascial release. There are some great online videos that guide you on how to use it. http://breakingmuscle.com/mobility-recovery/what-is-a-foam-roller-how-do-i-use-it-and-why-does-it-hurt .
Some other tools that can be very helpful for myofascial release are miracle balls, spikey and lacrosse balls and also the rumble roller, which gets deeper in its application.
Another great item to have is a fit ball. I use my fit ball at least 4 times a week, incorporating different movement patterns on it, to improve and strengthen the core, which comprises of muscles such as, transverse abdominus, obliques, gluteal muscles, hamstrings and spinal muscles.
I normally allocate 15 to 20 minutes 3-4 times a week, before my Ashtanga practice, to functional movement, whether it be, squatting, lunging, pulling, fit ball work and foam/ball rolling release. My practice now feels more stable and secure where as before I felt a sense of instability.
‘Illness is an obstacle on the road to spiritual enlightenment. That is why you have to do something about it ” T. Krishnamacharya.
The nature of the practice is to strengthen, heal, release, improve flexibility and nurture the body. If there is pain, it is very difficult for your body to function freely in the practice as your mind is constantly being interrupted by the pain.
In the yoga sutra Patanjali states in 11.48 that posture must have two qualities, firmness and ease. As a yoga practitioner it is important to distinguish between discomfort, as postures may be challenging, taking you out of your comfort zone, and pain, were you practice the poses in such a way that it hurts or you have pain. If there is pain, the mind will attach itself to the pain and you will constantly associate yourself with your body, taking away the mediative aspect of the practice.
I am in the opinion that we can bring together the ancient healing traditions together with modern day movement applications and find a complimentary middle ground where all can benefit, physically, mentally and spiritually.
I have been practicing Ashtanga Yoga daily for a while now. I marvel at the self inquiry it encourages you to embark on. At times you want to run away as it is too confronting but at other times you embrace the challenges. The practice demands weaving all parts of your body into different postures however what can be more challenging is what comes up in the mind.
It becomes really difficult when you mind starts to attach itself to the discomforts in your body, you no longer are able to be present with the what is but get caught up with the pain that draws you into a place of doubt.
There is so much to love about the asana practice of Ashtanga yoga, it transforms the physical and mental body. However, due to it’s repetitive type movement it can also cause dysfunction.
When discomfort presents itself, I ask ” What can I learn from this “. What I have learned is that the Ashtanga practice doesn’t incorporate enough Functional Movement – namely pulling, squatting and lunging.
The lack of strength developed in the legs and buttocks can create pelvis instability. When the buttock muscles, namely the Gluteus Maximus, is weak, the Sacroiliac Joints can become unstable. What can also happen is that the hip flexors become overactive which can cause pain in the midsection of the body. Some yogi’s end up with a condition called the “Pelvis X Syndrome”.
The same is true for the upper portion of the body due to the predominately pushing action, front of the chest becomes tight, mid back section becomes weak, resulting in what is called the “Upper X Syndrome”.
If you are experiencing any discomforts in your body without ‘injuring’ your self then it is highly recommended you obtain a thorough assessment to find out what is going on!
I was really reluctant to modify my practice however ignoring the pain did not make it go away.
I set out on a journey to include more functional movement patterns in my practice with successful results.
It is important to remember that a rigid approach to any yoga practice is not conducive to a healthy body.