HOW TO INCREASE YOUR FLEXIBILITY. HINT: YOU CAN’T ACTUALLY STRETCH YOUR MUSCLES
This may come as a huge surprise (especially coming from a yoga teacher), but the fact is muscles are not elastic and we can’t make them longer by stretching. (!?!)
When you pull on a muscle, as you do when you’re stretching, if you’re lucky, nothing at all will change.
But it’s quite possible the muscle will actually pull back and get tighter.
Or if you’re really pushing (or pulling) it, you’ll strain or pull your muscle. (Ouch.)
Imagine your neck muscles are tense from looking down at your phone.
You might not have to imagine, this is super common. (It’s even got a name: Tech Neck!)
To relieve this tension you push your head to one side to stretch the other side.
The nerves in the muscles being stretched send a signal to the brain, which signals back to the muscle to contract.
The more you stretch, the more the muscles contract.
You won’t win this tug-of-war.
The truth is, your nervous system is in charge.
To be most efficient and effective, your brain has a set length for the muscles of your body.
This set point is changeable and directly related to the way you use your body.
Like your neck when you hunch over your phone (or whatever you hunch over – we all do it), you’re holding your head forward of its neutral position on the top of your spine.
To do this, the muscles on the sides of your neck shorten.
When you use your neck this way repeatedly (like many of us do), instead of the nervous system constantly being involved in this shortening, the shorter length becomes the set point.
Then, when you pull on (aka stretch) these muscles, the brain signals them to contract because the movement is beyond the range of their set point.
This is your nervous system and muscles working together to hold your head up. (Which is a lot of work because of our insistence on hunching!)
The good news is you can train the nervous system.
Instead of stretching, if you want to release tension in your neck muscles, you have to work with (not pull against) your nervous system to relax your neck muscles.
Or any of your muscles.
This is where the breath becomes critical.
You know about the mind-body connection and how you can work with either the mind or the body to influence the other. (More about that here.)
The breath is the bridge between the mind and the body and the key to training the nervous system.
The primary breathing muscle is the diaphragm, which is unique in that it acts automatically (like the heart) and can be used voluntarily (like using the neck muscles to bring your head forward.)
When you take control over the diaphragm, which is usually working on its own, and breathe consciously, you influence the nervous system.
By slowing the breath down, especially by deepening your exhalations, you can train the nervous system to relax your muscles.
A relaxed muscle has more range of motion.
It’s really true: when you’re under anesthesia your body has the full range of motion.
But I don’t recommend this as a way to increase flexibility, there’s a more practical way.
If you just barely create the sensation of stretching in a muscle and breathe slowly and steadily while consciously letting go of the pattern of pulling back, you’ll find that muscle relaxes and, as a result, lengthens bit by bit. (No anesthesia necessary.)
With conscious and consistent attention, the longer length of the muscle becomes the new set point.
The ability to stretch, therefore, is really the ability to relax your muscles.
But even with the increased range of motion, stress causes tension in your muscles. (It’s a natural part of the body’s stress response.)
If stress is a chronic issue for you, physical tension will need to be addressed regularly. Like brushing your teeth, it’s just daily maintenance.
And because of the mind-body connection and their influence over each other, regularly relaxing your muscles will help ease tension in your mind. (Yes, please!)
And check out my Gentle Yoga class in Baltimore, MD.
NOW YOU TELL ME, WHERE DO YOU HOLD YOUR PHYSICAL TENSION? HOW DOES YOUR TENSION AFFECT YOUR STATE OF MIND? AND WHAT DO YOU DO TO REDUCE TENSION? LET ME KNOW IN THE COMMENTS BELOW.
HI, I’M STEPHANNIE.
I’m a Certified Yoga Therapist on a mission to make yogic wisdom, movements and breathing practices simple so that you can make them part of your routine and be less stressed, more confident, and experience more cam every single day.
LEARN MORE ABOUT:
GET A SIMPLE, THERAPEUTIC YOGA PRACTICE THAT'S JUST RIGHT FOR YOUR UNIQUE STRESS TYPE.
LET ME HELP YOU
Subscribe to get my latest content, full of free guidance and support, delivered directly to your inbox.