Though there are many reasons why individuals attend yoga classes, lengthening and flexibility are some of the main reasons why people attend. This is great for those who take the time to slowly transition from pose to pose and who have an educated instructor who can lead them gracefully and mindfully through the practice. However, it is possible to shorten and tighten the muscles while practicing yoga! What?!? You say. Well, here is why…
Often times if one is just beginning their yoga journey there is a natural tendency to allow the ego to takeover. We try to push ourselves into poses to look more like the instructor or the other individuals in the room. We don’t listen to our bodies and we just try to force our bones and muscles into the shapes that we see rather than gradually allowing them to find their own expression of the pose. This not only can lead to injury if pushed too far but it can also lead to shortening of the muscles and therefore creating the opposite of flexibility and length.
Within our nervous system we have unconscious motor responses to sensory stimuli, another word for this is our reflexes of which there are multiple different types. One type of reflex that will cause our muscles to shorten is called the myotatic stretch reflex. The purpose of this reflex is to protect the body from impact and to absorb dynamic shocks. Think of when you jump down from a three foot vertical. When your feet hit the ground the myotatic stretch reflex prevents your posture from collapsing by flexing the muscle fibers in the legs to contract them and create “strength” to keep you stabilized. Well stimulating these myotatic stretch reflexes repetitively will shorten the muscles. Just as in weight-lifting where repetitive contraction will shorten the muscles.
Any dynamic movement in yoga activates this myotatic stretch reflex. Think jumping in and out of standing postures (i.e. plank to standing forward fold), rigid and bouncy sun salutations, or inconsistent movements through a yoga flow. All of these actions will stimulate the myotatic stretch reflex. So, how does one avoid it and ensure you are lengthening during yoga?
Well, for one, there is no way to completely avoid it and building strength is not a bad thing. When you are doing a warm up in class or moving through some transitions you will activate this reflex. However, if you wish to lengthen muscles and increase flexibility follow these guidelines:
1. Move slowly and intentionally in and out of each pose.
2. Set the breath and the intention at the beginning of your practice. Focus on lengthening the breath to at least 3-4 seconds on each inhale and 4-5 seconds on each exhale.
3. Use the breath to guide the movement. If you are moving one breath to one movement then it will naturally take you 3-5 seconds to move in and the out of each pose.
4. Don’t bounce in poses. When you are holding a pose such as a seated forward fold don’t bounce. Hold yourself steady and on every exhale just sink deeper into the pose.
5. Don’t push past the edge. Find that place in the pose where you feel sensation but never go to a place of pain. If you reach a place of pain your reflexes will notify the muscles to contract and you will be shortening the muscles rather than lengthening. This is something to be especially conscious of in poses like half pigeon pose.
By following these 5 simple pointers you are setting yourself up for length and flexibility. If you have any questions about the myotatic stretch reflex or anything else related to this post please do not hesitate to reach out to me. Leave me a message and I will get back to you soon.