What Every Yogi Needs to Know About Flexibility

“Flexibility” in yoga refers to a mindset that invests in and changes both the mind and the body. In Western physiological terminology, however, “flexibility” simply refers to the ability to shift muscles and joints across their full range of motion. It’s a natural talent that the rest of us lose.

You don’t need exercise scientists and physiologists to persuade you of the advantages of stretching if you already practise yoga—but what about flexibility and how it applies to going deeper in your asanas? Can science tell you what’s going on when you fold into a forward bend and are pulled up short by tightness in the back of your legs? Is the information able to assist you?

Understanding your body
“Yes” is the answer to the above two questions. A simple understanding of physiology will assist you in visualising the inner workings of your body and focusing on the precise mechanisms that assist you in stretching. If you know whether the tightness in your legs is caused by poor skeletal balance, rigid connective tissues, or nerve reflexes programmed to prevent you from injuring yourself, you can increase your efforts.And if you know if any unpleasant feelings you’re experiencing are warning signs that you’re about to injure yourself or simply signals that you’re entering exciting new terrain, you can make an informed decision about whether to press ahead or back off—and prevent accidents.

Understanding flexibility Flexibility refers to the range of motion of the joints. It’s possible that some joints are more flexible than others. Flexibility can be enhanced by daily exercise and various forms of stretching. You should work on making less flexible joints more flexible.

Of course, yoga does far more than keep us limber: It releases tension from our bodies and minds, allowing us to drop more deeply into meditation. In yoga, “flexibility” is an attitude that invests and transforms the mind as well as the body.In Western physiological terminology, however, “flexibility” simply refers to the ability to shift muscles and joints across their full range of motion. It’s a natural talent that the rest of us lose. Dr. Thomas Green, a chiropractor in Lincoln, Nebraska, says, “Our lives are restricted and sedentary, so our bodies get lazy, muscles atrophy, and our joints settle into a narrow range.”

The effect of muscles on flexibility
Muscles are muscles, which are biological units made up of specialised tissues that work together to perform a single purpose.Smooth muscles of the viscera, advanced cardiac muscles of the heart, and striated muscles of the skeleton are the three types of muscles recognised by physiologists; however, in this article, we’ll just look at skeletal muscles, the familiar pulleys that drive our bodies’ bony levers.Muscle fibres, bundles of specialised cells that change shape by contracting or relaxing, cause movement, which is the specific feature of muscles. Muscle groups work together to create the broad variety of movements that our bodies are capable of by contracting and stretching in specific, synchronised sequences.

What factors hinder your ability to be flexible?
What restricts your ability to stretch if not your muscle fibres? There are two main schools of thinking in science on what limits versatility the most and what can be done to boost it.The first school focuses on increasing the elasticity of connective tissues, the cells that tie muscle fibres together, encapsulate them, and connect them to other organs; the second school focuses on the “stretch reflex” and other autonomic (involuntary) nervous system functions. Yoga is beneficial to both. That’s why it’s such a powerful tool for increasing productivity.

To maximise versatility, how long do you keep stretches?
This type of practise involves holding a pose for long enough to change the plasticity of the connective tissues. Long stretches like this will improve the consistency of the fascia that connects your muscles in a safe, long-term way.At her clinic in Portland, Oregon, Julie Gudmestad, a physical therapist and accredited Iyengar teacher, uses extended asanas for her patients. “People get a good sense of release if they keep the poses for shorter periods of time,” Gudmestad says, “but they aren’t going to get the fundamental improvements that add up to a lasting improvement in flexibility.”Stretches should be kept for 90 to 120 seconds, according to Gudmestad, to adjust the “ground substance” of connective tissue. The nonfibrous, gel-like binding agent in which fibrous connective tissues like collagen and elastin are embedded is known as ground material.

Is the stretch reflex the key to increasing flexibility?

The secret to overcoming one’s weaknesses, according to physiologists who see the nervous system as the greatest barrier to improved flexibility, is another built-in function of our neurology: the stretch reflex. Small, progressive steps that encourage us to go a little deeper during a single session—and that significantly increase our flexibility, according to scientists who research flexibilityImagine yourself walking through a winter landscape to get a sense of the stretch reflex. Your feet tend to splay apart as soon as you walk on a patch of ice. Your muscles tense up right away, trying to pull your legs back together and regain strength. What happened to your nerves and muscles right now?Muscle spindles are a network of sensors contained in every muscle fibre. They run perpendicular to the muscle fibres and detect how long and fast they are elongating. The tension on these muscle spindles increases as muscle fibres lengthen.

How breathing will help you become more flexible
In any kind of neurological work, Kraftsow emphasises the value of the breath, pointing out that breathing is a connection between our consciousness and our autonomic nervous system. “This standard of breathing qualifies it as a primary tool in any science of self development,” says Kraftsow.The fourth limb of a yogi’s path to samadhi is pranayama, or breath control. It is one of the most important yogic practises because it enables the yogi to regulate the flow of prana (life energy) in the body. The relation between relaxation, stretching, and breathing is well known, whether viewed through esoteric yoga physiology or Western scientific physiology.

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