This month Smart Asana was featured in the American Chiropractor magazine regarding yoga and the true science of stretch.
Where I attempt to answer the misconception if your muscles really stretch? The short answer is they don’t, they lengthen.
We don’t stretch in yoga, at least not in the Smart Asana System. We allow the muscles to lengthen, only after they are actively engaged. In this yoga system we follow five Universal Principles of Alignment (UPAs) as originally taught in the Anusara style. The first principle reminds us to be open to all the possibilities of a pose and life for that matter. Also to pay attention to the foundation and make sure the part of the body that is supporting us and in connection with the earth is strong. That way, we can build up with great strength. The second principle is muscular energy. With muscular energy we properly tone the muscles. Here is where we can recall our study of anatomy and physiology. We have muscle spindles and golgi tendon organs in the muscle belly and tendons. These proprioceptors report changes in tension on muscles to the brain. When the muscle is engaged and not too tight, the brain sends the message back to the muscle that it is safe to lengthen. With that we get the “stretch” most people talk about. The muscle has an easier time lengthening, we become more flexible which allows us to maneuver though life with greater ease. If the muscle “stretches” without engagement, the proprioceptors send the message to the brain that the tendon is pulling away from the bone. The brain then protects the muscle and tendon attachment by causing the muscle to tighten up, so it stays attached and avoids injury. The muscles tighten and the person continuously feels the need to stretch. You can see how it becomes a vicious cycle. Just to briefly mention, the third and fourth principles deal with proper alignment, especially in the lower back. And the last thing we do in a pose is allow for the muscle to lengthen without force. It is a small subtle movement that feels really good.
In our poses we don’t hang the head or hang in a forward fold. In standing poses we don’t let the legs fall toward the floor. We don’t just move the body, instead we move with strong intention. For example, sit or stand with your arms out in front of you. Lift the arms over head and back down a few times. Now, bring your arms out in front of you, lift your shoulders toward your ears and then straight back. Your shoulders will line up with the base of the neck and your rhomboids will be engaged. Arms out with palms facing toward each other, imagine you had a beach ball between your hands and give it a squeeze. Keep the squeezing action and lift your arms overhead slowly, with purposeful action and then lower them again. Feel the difference between just moving them and doing it with meaning. That’s how we practice yoga. Now, lift the arms again so they are over head and straight, make sure the hands are not too far back. Slide the shoulder blades down toward the waist and lengthen the fingers toward the sky. That lengthens the muscles without over stretching or pulling on the joints. Another example is our high lunge pose. Right leg forward between your hands with your knee directly over your ankle and left leg straight back with the knee lifted. Do the action of dragging your feet toward each other and feel how that strengthens the legs to the core. Stay strong through the core and lengthen all the way down the back leg out through the heel and out through the front knee. It is a safe stretch without over stretching the psoas. Understanding the muscles and working them with intelligence is key in our system. This provides an effective practice for our students.
As Chiropractors, we want the best for our patients. With as many as 37 million people practicing yoga, some of your patients are going to yoga class. You want them to find well educated yoga teachers who teach in a safe environment. Studios provide that environment for their students. They are not distracted by loud music and crashing weights. However, even in a great environment, you may not have the best teachers. Many yoga teachers do not understand basic principles of anatomy and physiology because they have been taught by teachers who never learned proper techniques. SAS makes sure our teachers are properly trained to work with the body and support the care chiropractors provide for their patients. We don’t force any movements and move slowly into and out of poses to reduce the risk of injury and give the muscles time to respond to changes in body position.