Stop Stretching... How Our Brain Works
For the love of yoga, I encourage you to STOP STRETCHING! Yes, that is right, I'm a yoga teacher who wants you to stop stretching.
Now that I have your attention, let me explain ... See this beautiful image of me at the beach with the sunrise and a bird flying over head? It looks like I'm so flexible and yes, that is the truth, I am pretty flexible but it is just an illusion. This pic was taken 4 1/2 years ago after teaching a beach yoga class. It was hot out and I was fully warmed up. I had my iPhone on video and was just messing around with poses I had seen on Instagram.🙈 I'm embarrassed to admit that but I often would see something and then just throw my body into a shape trying to recreate it. I loved photography, beautiful images, extreme yoga poses ... and in my defense, I was just trying to create a beautiful image - that is the absolute truth. What I didn’t know was how my life was going to change in the matter of a split second - all for this "instagram-able" image. Even though I had the “flexibility” to do this pose, I didn’t have the mobility.
Mobility is a fancy word that basically means to be able to control the joint through a range of motion. it is your strength and flexibility combined. Sure, I can pull my leg this high but can I lift it this high and hold it there using my strength? No, I could not. Not even close. But, that doesn't matter, right? Actually, it matters more than you might realize.
While "performing" this pose (you know, grabbing my foot and stretching it up to my ear), I felt no pain and I didn’t struggle to get into this but I was stretching past my active range (the range that my strength could take me to). Just as that beautiful bird flew over my head, I heard a loud pop in my hamstring and just like that, life had changed. I instantly came out of the pose realizing that I had just injured myself. This began my journey of finding out how I could not only heal myself, but also prevent this from ever happening again.
I had been taught over the years things like “stretch before you workout” or “you just need to hold it longer”. I had even let my yoga teachers smoosh me into poses beyond my "active" range. They would lay their entire body weight on me and I of course loved this (when they said "is this okay?" I said "yes!") because I was deeper into a stretch then I had ever gotten on my own. I thought that if your body could move into this range, then it was fine to do. What I didn’t understand is how the brain/body work together to protect you.
The brain is the most complex, incredible organ in our body. It literally functions like a computer and sends signals to the body to tell it was to do. Our brain's main job is to keep you safe, organize tasks to help you perform better and ultimately keep you away from danger. The brain protects muscles from over stretching (past your active range) by sending a signal to “tighten”. So, here I am in this pose that I can only do if I grab my foot and stretch it there (over stretching) and my brain says "DANGER"! It immediately sends a signal to the body to "TIGHTEN" to protect itself from letting you snap your limb off your torso. lol Funny, but not really. When the muscles and ligaments tighten to protect themselves it can result in injury and actually make you tighter ALL THE TIME. This is what happened to me. I stretched and stretched and stretched and somehow I'd get tighter and tighter and tighter. It seemed like I was making no progress at all.
I have been lucky to find some amazing doctors and coaches to help me learn and heal. I learned that my entire body needs to be equally strong as it is flexible and vice versa. Our entire body works together to perform tasks to create unity. We can't just assume that it is our hamstrings inflexibiity for example, and think that stretching them is the answer. We need to address the quadriceps, hip flexor group, glutes, caves, back and even our shoulders.... the entire body needs to work together to create harmony!
I use to work with a circus coach named Eugene. He always made us work our strength with regard to the flexibility. If you look at the best contortion coaches out there, they train flexibility & strength because without it, they know you will just be a noodle. The most amazing circus performers are also extremely strong and able to move within their active ranges. They aren't forcing their bodies into poses or extreme shapes. They are moving them into those positions using their muscles.
To only stretch is like drinking saltwater when you are thirsty. It might quench the thirst but it makes things worse.
I believe we in the yoga community and those that teach yoga need to be aware of the dangers of teaching postures that only "stretch". We can create classes that include mobility with the vast amount of postures that are available to us. We can also modify our yoga poses in a ways that allows students to activate the muscles instead of just "stretch" them. I do also feel that although some students love to be assisted and smooshed into poses, it might not always be the best idea. I personally do not assist in an agressive way but I know that is a very controversial topic. Logically, to me it doesn't make sense but maybe in the years to come I will learn more information that convinces me that laying your full body weight on a student in a forward bend is healthy for them. But for now, I'm going to pass on that adjustment. :)
To my students: I have taught classes in the past of pure “stretching” to which I’m so sorry. As a teacher and a student myself, I am always seeking more knowledge and wanting to grow in my practice. This injury has humbled me and I’m really so grateful because knowledge is power. Through injury we learn some of the most insightful lessons. This is my story and what I’ve learned. I hope not to offend but to just share what was on my heart.
Take what you like and leave the rest.