Stretching into Asana
In yoga there is much emphasis on `stretching` the body while holding positions/postures – asanas. In many instances we overemphasise stretching and forget the other components of stability strength and stamina etc.
An ASANA is a position or held position. Originally it usually meant a sitting position on a mat or seat, and ancient yogis often used tiger skins on low wooden stools or platforms. The number of recognised classical asanas is relatively small and most were related to sitting positions used for meditation. Today there are a few dozen which are recognised as important, but there are literally thousands of variations.
When we speak of stretching we need to be aware of the ways in which the body can move. There is no need for knowledge of detailed anatomy. We all know that the spine, including the neck, can move forwards, backwards, and bend and twist from side to side. The shoulders and the hips can rotate, like the wrists and ankles. Other joints such as the elbows, knees, fingers and toes are generally restricted to simple movement in one plane, with only very limited other movements. We must respect what the joints are designed to do. However we must also recognise that with lack of use joints may stiffen. This may be the result of injury, or disease for which we must seek medical advice. Stiffness is not necessarily a sign of old age: it is often a sign of lack of use, or incorrect use of the joint.
When we stretch, or contract, we affect three main tissues – the muscle cells, the tendons and the ligaments.
Ligaments join the bones together and are the toughest of the three, with relatively little ability to stretch. It is very important to be very aware of your own limits, especially when bending those joints which are universally potential problem points – the knees, the low back and the neck. Never force movement by jerking or bouncing (except in some very limited exercises). Ligaments stabilise the joints they connect, so are naturally like tight elastic. Over stretching can leave the joints weakened and open to injury. However it is also important to keep full natural movement. To liberate tight ligaments it may be necessary to hold asanas for over a minute.
Tendons join the muscles to the bones. As we age there is a natural tendency for the tendons to harden and become less flexible. Again it is essential to find the balance between stretching too much and too little. An important side effect of stressing (stretching) the tendons through muscular contraction is that they pull more firmly on the bones they are attached to, causing the bone to resist by becoming stronger and more dense, and thereby helping to prevent or slow the development of osteoporosis. Tendons which are used to being stretched are less likely to tear in accidents.
Muscle tissue appears to be so soft that stretching should be easy, but again with lack of use muscle tissue will shorten and tighten. Fortunately for older people muscle tissue can be retrained to stretch even when the tendons are tightening. It is important that this stretching is regained or maintained alongside strengthening exercises. As always in the body it is a case of use it or lose it. Stretching is a part of the essential working of the muscle cells along with contraction, needed to maintain muscle tone and size throughout life. Injury to muscle tissue which is not treated through a correct programme of physiotherapy, including stretching, can lead to the development of fibrositis and other problems. To stretch tendons and muscles asanas should be held for not les than ten seconds.
With practice and experience you will begin to find specific asanas which are beneficial to individual muscles or body part. This one of the lessons of yoga, learning to become aware of your body by using your mind. Being left or right handed tends to throw our body out of balance. Where one side is `tighter` than the other it may be appropriate to hold an asana for a little longer than the looser side, but never exercise one side only. Excessive use of joints through sport or work, the postural habits acquired through our genes, upbringing or life`s stresses can lead to the development of fibrositis, arthritis and other problems, and play havoc with the ways our bodies move. Almost all physical imbalances create a response in the spine, so pay particular attention there. We are told that we are as young as our spine is flexible.
We should also remember that ligaments, tendons and muscles always work together, to support, permit flexible movement, and stabilise or balance the body. Stretching usually involves the contraction and strengthening of opposite muscles, which along with developing stamina by prolonged muscle use form the 3 Ss – stretch, strength and stamina. All can be developed through correct yoga exercise.
CAUTION If you have any concerns about your health including unexplained aches or pains in joints or muscles consult your doctor or a qualified physiotherapist.
PLANNING Try to include exercises which use both sides of the body, and all the joints. Work to your natural limit of stiffness. With time and practice you will find that those limits may well be extended, but do not force the progress. While feeling a good stretch, you should not feel pain. If you do, try not to collapse out of a posture, but ease back until it is comfortable and come out of the posture in the reverse order to how you got there in the first place.
Enjoy using your body to its fullest extent. Do not be afraid of it, bodies are amazingly tough things – just think what you have already thrown at it so far in your life.