The science behind flexibility, and how to go deeper in your asanas

When I first started doing yoga, I was quite inflexible; touching my toes was an achievement. After deepening my practice, I started to marvel at how I became more and more flexible. But after awhile it seemed as if I hit a roadblock. My right thigh started to hurt when I stretched it too much, and it got frustrating as it was hindering my goal towards greater flexibility. I started to think, did I overstretch my right thigh? Did I injure some muscle or deep tissue? Is it that important to reach our belly to our thighs, or is it the effort that counts? I realized the importance of understanding our body in yoga practice.

As babies we are very flexible, but as we grow older, the body dehydrates and stiffens. By the time we become an adult, our tissues will have lost about 15% of their moisture content.  Muscle fibers will start to bond together, preventing parallel fibers from moving independently. Regular stretching helps by stimulating the production of tissue lubricants and slowing down the dehydration process. It also helps to keep the parallel fibers of our muscles intact.

However, overstretching of muscle fibers may also injure or cause a tear to our muscles. To understand this better, we look at 3 types of connective tissue: 1) Tendons, 2) ligaments and 3) muscle fascia.

1)      Tendons connect bones to muscle, and because of their function, they cannot stretch much. If they are overstretched, they may tear or lengthen beyond their ability to recoil, leaving us with less responsive muscle-to-bone connections.

2)      Ligaments bind bones together inside joint capsules, and we should not overstretch them too. This is why in forward bends or side splits, we should micro-bend our legs to avoid stretching the ligaments in our knee area too much.

3)      Muscle fascia separates muscle fibers and groups them into working units, providing structure and transmitting force. Stretching stimulates the fascia, and helps in joint lubrication, improved healing, better circulation and enhanced mobility.

Another thing is our mindset when we go into a pose. Are we tensing up our body before even going into a pose? In our mind, do we already have a picture of how deep we should be going in this pose? I feel that at times when I relax into a pose with no expectation and get in a meditative state, I manage to stretch deeper. We should understand that our body is different every day, as it is changing every day. Some days we may be able to stretch further, some days it may just be enough to stay where we are and breathe. We should accept our body and know when we are near our limit. Breathing not only helps us relax, it also relaxes the muscles. E.g. in Paschimottanasana (intense forward bend), breathing helps to relax our back muscles and tilts our pelvis forward.

In yoga, I constantly remind myself that flexibility comes with time, and it is not something we can achieve overnight. Sure, it does help with many yoga postures, but we can also derive full benefit from yoga postures by taking note of muscles we are trying to stretch or strengthen. After some analysis of my leg muscles, my conclusion is that my right iliopsoas and semimembranosus /semitendinosus seem to be very tight. Thus, I find it difficult to do Utthita Hasta Padangusthasana and forward bends with the right leg. This could be from the days when I used to jog regularly and train for running competitions. My right knee hurts when I run, I believe due to the structure of my leg, and that the muscles around my leg (vastus medialis/lateralis) were not strong or balanced enough to support my knee. As a result, my right leg muscle became very tight. This could be a self-defense mechanism of my body as well. I will try to stretch out my right hip and hamstring more, in a slow and steady manner with breath, and hope that it works! At the same time, will do more exercises to strengthen my quadriceps. With a deeper understanding of our muscles, this will cultivate the patience and precision in improving our flexibility for yoga practice.

Ho Hui Lin 200hr Weekend class Jan to May 2014