Wednesday, July 30, 2014

An Approach And Possible Checklist To Help With Greater Ease of Movement

A yoga teacher posted a question about how to increase the flexibility of a student's calf muscles, which were feeling stretched in purvottanasana.

In this post I describe a mental checklist and framework I use when I receive similar questions from students.  The video above demonstrates the how I have applied the technique in the past to assist students feel greater ease and less tension in their hamstrings.

Whether or not you are a teacher or student you have probably wondered how to increase your flexibility so that you can move in greater freedom.

There are many approaches to flexibility training.

Active Movement
The system of yoga I practice is based on active movements to help safely and effectively improve mobility while ensuring you have the strength to support the movement and posture.

This means that we encourage students to move into postures and hold them using their own muscular activation without relying on external forces or supports for assistance.

External forces or supports include things like gravity, momentum, pushing or pulling a single body part, and props.

Active movement minimises the chances of over-stretching, which is a common cause of injury and source of joint pain as the supporting structures around that joint can become lax and weak through incorrect practice.

Using active movements to take you into postures helps you to achieve a balance between strength, flexibility, and relaxation in yoga.

Simon and Bianca, amazing teachers, note that "the safest way to apply the principle of strength with flexibility is to commence a stretching posture with the muscles around the joint to be stretched already toned (i.e., in an active state).

Although a stretch initiated with muscular strength may not be as intense as a relaxed muscle stretch, the balance between strength and flexibility will be maintained, and the risk of over-stretching other structures such as ligaments and nerves will be avoided." (Borg-Olivier and Machliss, 2011, p.51).

So, what does this all mean for a student's calves or hamstrings or iliopsoas or any number of other bits that they might want to stretch?  And how does this relate to the practice?

First, remember don't lose sight of the bigger picture of the practice as a whole.

While I practice a system of yoga based on active movements that safely and effectively improves strength and flexibility, my main aim is to apply this system in a way that moves circulation and energy through my body so that I can minimise suffering, increase calm and focus, and find a better connection to myself and others.

So, having reminded yourself of the bigger picture, have a think about why it is important to stretch.

While some people might say  that yoga is not about stretching (and they are right), it is important not to forget that too much tension in muscles can manifest as feelings of tightness in particular postures and in daily life.  And muscles that are tense can, over time, become a source of pain.

With this in mind, it might be useful to think more about our aim as promoting movement.  We want firm muscles but not tense ones.  We also want muscles that can be lengthened and relaxed rather than ones that are feeling stretched.  Too much sensation of stretch (along with too much tension) will actually block movement.

This idea of lengthening and relaxing is really important.  You are already very flexible. We are all very flexible when we are completely relaxed.  Just look at the things drunk people can do and what happens to your musculoskeletal system under anaesthesia.
If you are a yogi one of your friends or family has surely sent you these sorts of pictures, showing the relaxed state drunk people can get themselves into.
Our nervous system regulates our muscle tone, and in yoga we use a variety of tips and techniques to try and regulate our nervous system to influence our muscle tone.  This is an important point and can perhaps help you appreciate why a lot of 'stretching' is ineffective in the sense that you do not end up with more movement around the joint and remain just as stiff despite daily stretching.

The point is that mechanically pulling or tugging on two ends of a muscle may not have any effect on your nervous system.  Using active movements will have an effect on the nervous system, which is why it is more effective at improving mobility when used correctly.

A Little Detour
Here I make a little detour and note some yoga styles and well respected yoga teachers (like the Yin Yoga approach) encourage a more passive approach to posture and I do not want to suggest it is incorrect or improper.  At different times of our lives and even of our day we need to do different things.

You just need to understand what you are doing and why and appreciate the potential consequences and make sure you are working with an experienced teacher who can explain to you what they are doing and why.

I have made this little detour as I hope not to sound dogmatic.  I don't wish to suggest something is always wrong (or always right) or make people fearful of practicing (or not practicing) in a particular way.  I do encourage some sort of reasoned approach, which is why I take the time to write this all down and refer you to other authors so you can see my point of view (point of bias?!).  I have written this here deliberately as someone recently told me I sound like I think everyone else is doing things wrong. I might have to insert this disclaimer into every post!

Reciprocal Relaxation
Anyway, thinking back to what you can do to apply active movements to promote lengthening and relaxing in an active rather than passive way.

This is a big topic and best always to come to a teacher qualified to talk to you about it.

There are many things you can do to promote active relaxation and below I talk about one particular technique that really helps to create relaxation of the muscle and ease of movement around the joint.

This technique involves activating an opposing muscle group prior to entering a posture (can also be while in the posture).

This means you activate the muscle/muscle group that is opposing the action of the muscle/muscle group that will be lengthened in a particular asana.  This triggers a relaxation response known as reflex reciprocal inhibition.

It is called a reflex because it is something that will happen automatically or unconsciously.  For example, and very simplistically speaking, if we want to bend our knee the muscles that cause knee bending will be activated while the muscles that straighten our knee will be inhibited (unless we consciously over-ride this).  This needs to happen otherwise the knee would not bend if the muscles that straightened the knee were being told to work.

Using this principle we can suggest that activating muscles that bring the top of the foot closer to the shin (dorsiflexion) will cause relaxation of the muscles that push the sole of the foot away from the shin (plantar flexion).

The muscles commonly called 'calf muscles' work to cause plantar flexion.  Some can also contribute to knee flexion (knee bending).

Therefore, if we want to create a relaxation response in the muscles of the calf to help them relax and lengthen we could activate the opposite muscles, in this case the ones that cause dorsiflexion.  You can feel these muscles if you try to pull your toes towards your shin.  You should feel the muscles across the front of the ankle become firm.

Because some of the calf muscles also cross the knee joint they have some influence on bending the knee.  This means you could combine dorsiflexion with straightening the knee to enhance the relaxation response.

A Mental Checklist
Here is a mental checklist I follow whenever I get a question about how to stretch a particular part or help increase flexibility or give greater ease in a posture:

  • identify a posture where the particular discomfort, tension, or stiffness is felt.  This is used as a baseline to be able to test whether the technique you use actually worked.  That is, you attempt the posture immediately before using the technique and then immediately after and see if there is a difference. 
  • identify the muscle group that feels tight or feels like it needs to be lengthened (target);
  • identify the main joint complexes the target muscle/muscle group crosses remembering that for some muscles/muscle groups there will be more than one;
  • identify the movement/s that place the target muscle/muscle group in a lengthened position;
  • identify the muscle group that works to position the joint so that the target muscle group is in a lengthened position (i.e., the opposing muscle group);
  • actively position the body so that opposing muscle group is working without the assistance of gravity, supports, or props;
  • hold the position in a way that is firm but not tense, and breathe naturally.  Hold for at least 10-15 seconds if possible or as long as you can while not suffering or causing tension;
  • enter the pose that previously caused strong sensations of stretch (i.e, the baseline posture).  It should now feel less like it is being stretched and more like it is being lengthened and relaxed and you should feel you can move more freely into that posture.

Application Of The Checklist
I used this type of approach and checklist successfully on students who wanted to feel greater ease in parsvottanasana so their hamstrings were not tugging and so they could have greater ease of movement.

Using the steps above I:

  • identified that the muscles across the back of the front leg in parsvottanaasana felt tight in the pose;
  • identified that it seemed to be the back of the hip joint that was the main joint that was being crossed but also the back of the knee joint;
  • identified that the movements that seemed to place the target muscle group in a lengthened position were hip flexion and external rotation with knee extension;
  • identified that the opposing muscle groups that worked to help create the above movements were the hip flexors and external rotators, as well as knee extensors;
  • found a position for the body that required the hip to be flexed and externally rotated with the  knee extended and held this position against gravity while remaining calm.  In this case the position was a one legged standing balance with a leg raised straight out in front;
  • had the student enter into parsvottanasana slowly with the leg that was raised acting as the front leg.  In almost all cases students found that they were able to go deeper and feel more at ease in the posture.  The most common reason this did not happen was when students emphasised taking the leg high rather than on straightening the knee fully.  Because the hamstrings cross two joints, hip and knee, you need to make sure the knee is completely straight.  You need to encourage the leg coming up only so high as is possible with the knee straight and focus on straightening the knee. 

The raised leg hip is in flexion and external rotation with the knee extended.  This means the muscles that cause those actions are working and the muscles that oppose those actions are given a cue to relax.  In this case, the muscle that contributes to hip extension, knee flexion, and hip internal rotation is given a cue to relax.
The video at the top of this post shows how I applied this technique for the case of hamstrings in parsvottanasana.

Answer To The Original Question
Now, I do realise I have not given the yoga teacher a specific answer to her question but I think I have contributed something far more valuable, which is a tool or generic framework that you can reason with so you come up with your own answer.

This technique is not something I came up with.  I learned it from master teachers Simon Borg Olivier and Bianca Machliss from Yoga Synergy.  They learned it from their advanced practice and studies.  The 'checklist' is something I dotted out though and I am sure it could be improved.  Any errors are, of course, my own.

Hopefully this has inspired some thoughts about how you could help improve feelings of ease in the calf muscles using active movements and I am happy to discuss any ideas with anyone.  I have my own ideas of what I would do and maybe you have some to share as well!  Ideally it might have inspired thoughts on how you can use active movements to precede other postures as well to generate ease and freedom of movement.

A Word Of Warning On This Approach
When I first started this way of practicing I tended to over-tense.  This is an example of incorrect application of the practice as it made me feel tired and sore rather than fresh and energised.  You need to make sure you create firmness without tension.  Over-tensing and over-stretching are both undesirable. It's a delicate balance and one best learned under the guidance of an experienced teacher.

Happy and safe practicing!

More Reading
Borg-Olivier, S., & Machliss, B. (2011).  Applied anatomy and physiology of yoga. Yoga Synergy: Sydney.

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