I am not flexible enough to do yoga….really?

You may very well be right, but why not try a class and find out? One thing is pretty certain, you will most likely not become more flexible if you never do any kind of stretching exercises.

Flexibility isn’t a given and neither is strength

Both require effort on your part. Granted depending on your converging histories (reference: Functional Anatomy of Yoga, D. Keil. 2014), such as genetics, activities you may have done or currently do, as well as injuries you may have sustained previously will influence your ability to find space, freedom and flexibility in your body. I would also hasten to add that age and nutrition may play a part too.

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Takes effort and commitment to find space in your back…back bending can be a slow process, but it feels really good to release all those years of tension!

Short anatomy lesson               

That said, flexibility is a complex topic, as are our bodies. Our bodies are made up of fibres and fibres of connective tissues which include bones, cartilage, muscles, fascia, ligaments, tendons and scar tissue. We have more than 100 joints, 200 bones and 630 muscles in our body which work in tandem to help us stand, move, dance, walk, run, work, exercise, practice yoga, etc.! Approximately 40% of our total body weight is made up of muscle.

What are we stretching and why does it feel good to stretch?

Muscles (part of connective tissue) are the main soft tissue which is stretched when practising yoga. However we are also stretching fascia (again connective tissue), which can be likened to the small garlic mesh bags found in the supermarkets.  Fascia wraps around our muscles and holds everything together (sometimes a little too tightly hence why a stretch can feel good as we start to release tension through yoga.

What else impacts our flexibility?

Other body systems that impact our movement include our skeletal system and our nervous system. Our skeletal system provides structure, protection, enables movement and impacts the functional aspect of our bodies. The nervous system aids the communication between our different body parts and helps control movement.

Five breaths for a stretch in Ashtanga Yoga

In Ashtanga yoga, we hold a stretch for five breaths (deep inhalations and exhalations) in any given posture. Why 5 breaths you may ask? Five breaths roughly equates to 20-30 seconds which is recommended by many body workers as a good length of time to hold a stretch. This stretching is repeated as we move through postures of the Ashtanga Yoga Primary Series during the typical 90 minute class.

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Freedom in movement

How far to stretch?

Our bodies will naturally warm up through the yoga practice and the stretching towards the end of the practice will generally feel much more pleasant than at the beginning of the practice. Five breaths is a good half way point for a decent stretch (and not too long to get bored)! Eventually it may feel good to hold a stretch for even longer as we increase our flexibility. When stretching it is advisable to get to the stretching point where you feel some tension and stay there; there is a fine balance between pushing yourself too much and never going into a stretch deep enough to experience the change.

Mobility matters too

In addition to flexibility, our range of movement is also affected by our mobility (i.e. the range in in which our knee, hip or shoulder joint moves which depends largely also on the evolutionary process). Our knees, for example, can’t bend forward; Mother Nature has made it that way. However certain joints in our body may be more loose or fixed depending on our genetic make-up. It is really important to be aware of this in order to avoid comparison with people who are genetically more pre-dispositioned to be able to do a broader range of movements. Of course, it goes without saying, that with practice we also can all become more flexible within our own anatomically safe range.

Stilling the mind

Once we learn the order of the postures, we can start to move with more awareness of our body. We use the breath to help settle our busy minds. It’s a concentration tool that can become very therapeutic to our bodies, hearts and minds.

Why the rush?  

In the end, as we anything in life, Ashtanga Vinyasa Yoga is a process (note to self)! Process that starts with our bodies and physicality and hopefully ends in a place where we are filled with joy, happiness, open hearts, inner wisdom, peace and hopefully a little more flexibility as well as strength.

No magic cure I’m afraid.

 

 

 

 

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