Is stretching good for you?

Ever since we can remember we’ve been told to stretch but is stretching good for you, really?

 Frantically searching google for things like How do you get flexible fast? and How to do the splits in a a week? Stretches for splits, stretches for backbends and so on.

Stretching – This word is used so much in the yoga industry as it seems that calisthenics and gymnastics had merged and created some kind of hybrid which is still labelled as yoga.

Is stretching good for you?

How many times have you been told to stretch if your muscles feel tight, stretch before and after your run or gym session, stretch if your back hurts? The majority of us have been taught what’s known as “static stretching.” Static is still, where we hold a particular pose and stretch and pull, with the intention of releasing the pesky tight tight muscle(s).

Now if you’ve ever come along to one of my yoga classes, you will know that I avoid the word stretch like most of my students avoid the toe squat! The reason behind this is because a) one of my wonderful teachers ingrained it into my brain,  and that in recent studies, scientific evidence is telling us that static stretching has been proven to be ineffective in the prevention of sports injuries and creating safe range of motion. 

Why can stretching be dangerous?

OK, to help get our head around this a little more, let’s begin with some basics about muscle function:

So our brain and central nervous system controls our muscles and our movement. Muscles have no control of their own; they only respond to electrical signals from the brain and nervous system to contract and move. The brain can teach you and your muscles to walk, dance or ride a bike.

The brain can also teach you and your obedient little muscles to stay tight and involuntarily contracted due to many things such as emotional trauma, accidents, injuries, repetitive tasks, or even on-going psychological stress.

This muscle tension accumulated over a period of time makes it nigh impossible for muscles to contract efficiently and fully, and to relax completely. They’re stuck in limbo. You have forgotten what it feels like to be tense or relaxed. This is known as Sensory Motor Amnesia: the loss of voluntary control of a muscle group and its synergists. I recall a number of times to have had this problem with my mouth and the words that come out of it sometimes haha! 

Sensory Motor Amnesia: the loss of voluntary control of a muscle group and its synergists

So let’s say you sit at a desk staring at a computer all day long, then you go home to sit in your sofa to watch TV all night long, your muscles can learn to stay contracted in your “chair sitting posture,” ready to hold that same position again the next day, and the next day and so on.

Our muscles are obedient, unless there is an underlying condition, our muscles form a habit to whatever it is we do repeatedly. I mean we only have to look at the difference in muscles of a trained sprinter to a professional long distance runner. The sprinter has the powerful, short twitch muscles, the long distance runner has the slender and long slow twitch muscles for endurance. Our muscle length can become set by the brain, at a slightly shorter or longer length depending upon the holding pattern or repetitive movements we’ve become subjected it to. If a muscle is tight, it’s normally because its being held tightly by the brain and sensory motor system. ( underlying conditions may vary this statement) 

So we know that the general intention of static or passive stretching is literally to pull a muscle into a specific length or relaxed state. Most of us will have experienced at some point the feeling of pulling a muscle farther than is comfortable. Some of us even stay in the stretch for a while, breathe and hope for the best. The reason this doesn’t work when it comes to creating more flexibility is because it can, in fact, result in over-stretching injuries such as herniated disks, muscle trauma, and muscle dysfunction – is because the brain, the command centre of the muscles, is not engaged in the action. In static stretching there is no sensing so to speak- no feedback loop to the sensory motor cortex because there is no contraction. In order to change what the muscles are doing the brain must be fully and consciously engaged in the process.

What do I do instead of stretching? 

Since the beginning of time, we were born with the knowledge of nature’s “re-set” button – a way of restoring full muscle function and length to a muscle. You do it when you wake up, you see cats and dogs doing it after a snooze, you even did it in your mother’s tummy! It’s heaps more effective and I would say much safer than stretching. It is called pandiculation. Oh I love that word and I know my students know I do too haha. So, pandiculation is like a “software update” for your brain: it kinda “re-boots” the brain’s sensation and control of your muscles every time you do it.

Patanjali yoga sutras describe this well

The first is

Sthiram Sukham asanam – to hold a posture with strength and ease. From the beginning, middle and end of the posture (asana) we are figuring out a way to do this by listening to the sensations of the body and adjusting accordingly.

The sutra that follows is;

Prayatna shaithilya Ananta Samapattibhyam –This basically translates as to move into the posture with not too much physically effort but more of a mindful movement, finding the space and moving into then space consciously.  Prayatna means effort, shaithilya means relaxation, dropping, looseness. Samapattibhyam means a coming together of the body and mind. So basically slacken off a bit, effort may be the usual way to achieve but mindful movement, the body-mind connection is a more subtle and gentler approach.

Think about it, we’ve all seen animals doing what we thought was them having a good old stretch. They are pandiculating. Look at their feet when they do it, they contract, the same as the rest of their body. They do this pandiculation around 40 times a day. They move into these shapes with little or no effort applied and no goal of achieving the next level! Do animals walk around with chronic pain, receptive strain injuries etc?

There are three elements to a pandiculation:

Firstly you move into a posture with active contracted muscles. It doesn’t have to be full on like your loading your usual 80kg on the leg press kinda contraction, just enough to bring your awareness to that body part.   This is then followed by a slow, controlled lengthening….a complete relaxation of the area you’re focusing on. This will give your brain time to integrate the new feedback you just gave it.

So its kinda like a yawn, but for the body. It re-sets both muscle length and function at the brain level; it “reminds” our muscles that they don’t have to stay stuck in a particular state. The pandiculation “flicks on a light on” in the sensory motor system and helps improves proprioception, which basically means it helps you to sense your own body more accurately. When you contract a muscle tighter than its present contraction rate, the brain (the command centre of the muscles) receives strong sensory feedback, which allows it to “refresh” its sensation of the muscles. By slowly lengthening from that initial contraction, the brain can then lengthen the muscle past the point of its former, tighter length and into a new, fuller range. The result is a more relaxed muscle and renewed voluntary muscle control and coordination.

Because muscles only learn through movement (the riding a bike comment earlier on) , new information has be sent to the sensory motor cortex if the muscles are ever going to learn to release the built up tension and allow them to move freely and intelligently.

Static stretching is a passive movement and can cause what’s know as a stretch reflex, where your body basically tries to protect your body and contracts back against the passive stretch. It is a safety reflex so therefore doesn’t have a feedback loop to the brain. This leads to no memory of where the muscle moved to and in worse case scenario, an injury. When we pandiculate (the active stretch if we are still trying to get your head around it), the action is directed and information goes straight to our brain: we basically contract the muscle, then slowly lengthen it and then completely let go. This requires focus and awareness. Note back to Patanjalis sutras above.

When you think about it, animals pandiculate; they don’t stretch! Animals rarely sprain their ankles, nor have chronic back pain. The fact that animals pandiculate approximately 40 times a day means that they have full, voluntary control of their muscular system at all times. Doesn’t it make sense that we should do the same?

So next time you want to stretch or you are instructed to, try first contracting the muscle that’s tight and then slowly lengthening it. Then completely relax. Notice the difference not only in sensation and control of the muscle, but also in your range of motion and sense of ease in your body. You may even feel more “connected,” less tense.

Home of Alchemy yoga classes have a method, and my students will confirm that in this method, I constantly reaffirm throughout practice to find space in the body and then move into that space with control and ease!

The next time you find yourself pondering I stretching good for you?, I urge you to listen to your body and feel the sensations as they arise with breath and subtle movement. The pelvic tilts, the forward fold uttanasana, and even mountain pose tadasana, will all help you to improve your somatic awareness. Your proprioception of your body and how you move it on a day to day basics NOT just when you’re on your mat. This in turn will prevent injuries in the long run as your daily repetitive movements are done in a safe and conscientious way.

This approach can really benefit you by not only preventing injuries but also helping to avoid old injuries that seem to flare up from time to time and make you go sit in time out while they shout at you for not listening when you kept repeating a misaligned movement haha! I can help teach your body and mind to connect and move in a conscious and safe way.

For more in depth information on this or if you would like to book in for a 1-2-1 session or group class, please contact me via the button below or on this link.

Much love, Lea