If your muscles feel tight and they do not seem to respond sufficiently to stretching, you may be stretching in a wrong way.
When new students come to my yoga sessions, I sometimes notice a habit of stretching forcefully. This is done by placing the body in a specific position and keeping it there with a grim face. There is a lot of effort to “do” the stretch: the attitude is one of “wanting to stretch” as opposed to allowing the muscles time to release.
We have to keep in mind that the function of muscles, apart from making us move and keeping us upright, is to protect the joints. When muscle spindles, which are the sensors of muscles, detect a forceful pull, they trigger an immediate protective reaction: the muscles tighten to protect joints and avoid over-stretching.
This means we have to somehow let the muscles know that there is no need to pull back, that the stretching sensation is safe. This demands time and repetition, to retrain the muscles spindles to tolerate more stretch. Calm breathing will help this process by giving the right message to the nervous system.
You may wonder what breathing has to do with stretching muscles. Many people forget that we have such a powerful tool to work with. The breath is a bridge between mind and body: when we feel stressed or upset our breathing becomes faster, when we breathe calmly we induce a feeling of relaxation. No complicated techniques are necessary: simply paying attention to our breath in a peaceful setting will calm the breath naturally. When we breathe calmly, without changing the breath but simply by observing it, the mind gets the message that all is well – i.e. we are not in a fight or flight situation – and the nervous system communicates to the muscles that it is safe to relax.
Use the exhalation
Especially the exhalation is helpful in relaxing muscles. When we inhale our respiratory muscles, the diaphragm and intercostal muscles, contract. The heart rate and blood pressure are temporarily increased. During the exhalation the reverse happens: respiratory muscles relax and there is a drop of heart rate and blood pressure. This means that the exhalation promotes the overall relaxation of the body.
Stretching cannot be done in a forceful way. We cannot “will” the muscles to relax by breathing out strongly and as long as possible. The process of stretching takes time and patience. If we do it willfully and with force, we introduce the element of stress. So all we need is an attitude of quiet attention, allowing the release to happen while being aware of and accepting our limitations.
So next time you stretch those hamstrings, give it time, breathe slowly, and with every exhalation invite the muscles to release a little more. Listen to your body and come out of the stretch when it feels you cannot relax into it.
Tell me how you are getting on – leave a comment below