HOW TO BE MORE FLEXIBLE AND THEREFORE MORE RELAXED
This may come as a huge surprise (especially coming from a yoga teacher), but the fact is we can’t make our muscles 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 pulling on it, you can strain or tear your muscle. (Please don’t do this.)
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.
This pulling and contracting is a game of tug-of-war you’re playing with yourself, a fight to see which side can win.
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 length 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, your computer, meals, books, sink full of dishes, steering wheel, etc – we all do it), you’re holding your head forward of its neutral position on the top of your spine.
To make this possible, the muscles on the sides of your neck reflexively contract to shorten. (This is a deliberately simple explanation.)
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 the reflex necessary by your nervous system and muscles to hold your head up and in position.
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 a physical practice of surrender.
As I explained in the blog post, the one thing you absolutely must do to relieve your stress, surrender is not about giving up, it’s about ending the fight.
The fight of your pulling/stretching and your nervous system contracting/pulling back is a tug-of-war you will not win.
So working to relax your muscles is about learning to stop fighting your nervous system’s reflex.
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 yourself to stop fighting your nervous system and relax your muscles.
A relaxed muscle has more range of motion.
It’s really true: when you’re under anesthesia your body has it’s 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 surrender, to end the fight with your nervous system.
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 with the purpose of preparing your muscles to fight or run.
If stress is a chronic issue for you, physical tension will need to be addressed regularly.
Like brushing your teeth, relaxing your muscles is part of the daily maintenance of relieving tension.
And because of the mind-body connection and their influence over each other, getting into the habit of relaxing your muscles will help ease tension in your mind, reduce your inner struggle, and learn to work with instead of fight against the circumstances of your life. (Yes, please!)
Surrender truly is essential to relieving tension and stress and affecting positive change.
And check out my Gentle Yoga class in Baltimore, MD where you can practice surrender on the mat with me.
NOW YOU TELL ME, WHERE DO YOU HOLD YOUR TENSION? HOW DOES IT AFFECT YOUR STATE OF MIND? 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.
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