Category Archives: Hatha Yoga

S-T-R-E-T-C-H-I-N-G

move into spirit

“Common wisdom is generally neither common nor wise”

–John Kenneth Galbraith

“Justifying improved practice on scientific evidence is a dynamic process. With new evidence, the foundation will change…Be prepared to challenge current thoughts and rethink currently accepted practices.”

–Stuart McGill

Over the past several years, there has been an increasing level of controversy regarding stretching and its role in health, athletics, injury prevention, rehabilitation and back health. The amount of information out there is vast and often conflicting.

Some of the most recent controlled studies have found that passive (“static”) stretching—which requires no voluntary muscle activity—prior to training does not reduce or prevent injuries. In fact, it may have the opposite effect. It has been shown that less force is needed to rupture “stretchy” muscle than “stiff” muscle. (Voluntary muscles, also called skeletal muscles, are the ones that require some level of intent to move them: they move the bones, as in moving the arms or legs. These are different from involuntary muscles, which are primarily stabilizing, as in the postural muscles of the spine, which keep you upright and stable).

This does not mean that “stiff” muscles are good, and that we shouldn’t implement stretching into our routines. What it does mean is that we need to pay attention to “dynamic flexibility”, the ability to move joints through a range of motion during active movement with strength as a key component requiring voluntary muscle involvement.

Another very important piece is that we need to pay attention to the fact that we are not a conglomeration of distinct and separate segments, that flexibility and strength is a whole body, continuous necessity, from the soles of our feet to the top of our heads. Each part of our body has a part in supporting the body as a whole. Any part of our bodies that do not have flexibility and strength is a weak link in the chain, and can be injured or cause injury in some related part of the body.

In every sport, indeed, in every movement, mobility is a requirement, but loose joints without precisely controlled strength are unstable. This decreases such things as strength, balance and reaction time and increases the likelihood of subsequent injury. A reduction in strength or performance is clearly not what most people are looking for be they athlete, laborer, or weekend gardener.

Studies have shown that skeletal muscle damage can occur when stretched only 20% beyond its resting length. There is evidence of this damage hours after a bout of stretching, which has led scientists to conclude that stretching causes delayed-onset muscle soreness.

Dr. Ben Benjamin presents an explanation as to why prolonged periods of static stretching (60 seconds) are problematic. This is that it initiates what is called the “stretch reflex”, a defensive mechanism designed to prevent muscles from stretching too far. In response to over-stretching the muscle reflexively contracts, which creates tension and pulling on the tendons and ligaments at the joints which can reduce the stiffness they must have in order to stabilize the joints.

One of the major issues people face is maintaining and/or regaining back health. According to Stuart McGill, Ph.D., one of the world’s leading researchers of spinal mechanics and spinal health, there are no studies that have shown that working to increase back flexibility increases performance or healing. He goes on to explain that back flexibility is prescriptive on an individual basis, but not as a general prescriptive requirement to rehabilitate a bad back or maintain good back health. But strength endurance training is necessary for both.

In conclusion, the commonly assumed wisdom and perception of stretching as a panacea for pain and injury reduction, back health issues and performance improvement does not meet scientific reality. Dynamic warm-ups and strength building using ranges of motion, as well as whole body exercises that connect and work through the whole body to develop functional ranges of motion, will substantially contribute to function, performance and injury reduction.

–with thanks to Michael Reams, of the Rolf Institute of Structural Integration

Thoughts about Yoga

 

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It seems to me that we are all part of an unseen community, walking on many paths, yet climbing the same mountain. We are gazing upward, moving toward, and sometimes struggling, trying to attain our own individual experience of spirit and light-ness. If we are fortunate, we find this while still able to “be in the world”: loving family and friends, fulfilling work, jubilant playtime, and even challenging times that offer opportunities for growth. Living Life Itself, with all its diversity.

In my life, this climb is my biggest joy and my biggest challenge. It is certainly not always easy to walk this path up the mountain. Maybe not always easy, but it is always simple (get the difference?).  And once you get the hang of it, it can be pretty straightforward.

Still, there are definitely times that I forget where I’m going, or where I want to be. At times I become tired and discouraged. Sometimes I drop my practice altogether for a while. Why? I have a jillion excuses for that one! It’s during those times that I watch myself creep past my Hatha Yoga and meditation room, in the hopes that whatever is in that room (which, really, turns out to be only me) won’t notice my attempts at escape! Yeah, right…that’s cute…

Sometimes I drag myself into that room kicking and screaming. Fingernail scratches on the floor. But I’ll do it (I think I’ll have to do that today: the kicking and screaming thing…), and once I re-commit, and do my practice, even for a little while each day, I get this immense feeling of release, of joy, of being deliciously filled with….something Awesome.  Then I always ask:  why had I been resisting? Whatever…   I always return because sooner or later I get hungry: for a deeper relaxation, a “touching into” for something more vast than my little body/mind can really get to in my day-to-day life: a sinking into a deeper reality. Ahhhh….

There is no doubt that our journeys are all different, our goals different. I’ve seen in my life that these goals change over time, even in my individual life, as I open up to new experiences and expand my capacity for growth, broadening my vision. A lesson to be taken from this is that not just me, but all of us are always changing, life is always changing.

I don’t think that we are meant to take our journey alone. We are a community of seekers, as scattered as we might be. On some level, we are all asking similar questions: “Who am I?”, “Where am I going?”, “Why am I here?”

In Hatha Yoga, you can open yourself–in community if you wish– to these questions through the medium of the body. In meditation, you can learn to sit in a dynamic stillness–also in community if that suits you– that truly connects you to something magnificent. But really, either way will “get you there”, whatever “there” is for you.

You don’t have to adopt any particular philosophy of yoga to enjoy the improved physical and mental well-being that is available with the practice of Hatha Yoga and meditation. That being said, because your body and mind becomes more supple and open, you may gradually and naturally move into a higher, more refined awareness that will lead to living life with more ease, more presence, more joy.

And the right community may make this journey oh so much easier and more delightful!