No matter how little time we have to work out, preparation time is essential. Before I lay down on my mat, I had rolled both legs with my Tigerstick and my feet on top of a tennis ball. In both cases, I needed to spend more time on the left, because it is tighter, and has more ‘hot’ spots. I lay down and took several deep breaths, but a few minutes into slowly moving my head from side to side I became aware of a great deal of tension throughout my upper body. I maintained my position with my head turned as far as I could go to the left, and actively worked on relaxing all the superfluous muscles. As they stopped holding on, I could feel my neck release and my head ease over a fraction of an inch.
We need to relax to stretch. Stretching is a game of tug-of-war we play with our bodies. The connective tissues surrounding each joint are tasked with maintaining those joints in a certain configuration. Often they do their jobs too well and hold the joints tighter than ideal for good posture and movement. If we have a tight joint with strong muscles holding it in place, we are in danger of injuring ourselves. Therefore, we want to extend the range of those tight joints.
There are three types of connective tissue with which we are concerned when we stretch. Muscles are elastic, able to contract, causing movement of the part of the body where they are attached, and relax back to their original position. Tendons connect muscles to bones, and ligaments connect bones to each other. Most ligaments and all tendons are inelastic. They cannot stretch and regain their original shape. Some ligaments can stretch and come back to an extent. Muscles have blood supplies and can heal. Tendons and ligaments do not have a good blood supply, and therefore do not heal readily.
These are the reasons we want to be sure to stretch our muscles when we are extending the range of a joint. We should feel all pressure toward the middle of the muscle, not the ends near the joints. The muscle might protest, it might feel sore, but it is capable of coming back into its original shape, and healing if there are small tears. Some ligaments can be stretched beyond their ability to regain their original position. Some ligaments and all tendons cannot be stretched, and if too much force is applied they will snap.
Proper stretching is simple. We extend the joint as far as it will go. Then, we stay where we are and let the muscles tire out until they can hold no longer, and we are able to move farther. We do not pulse; we do not force the movement. We simply wait for the muscles to give.
If we are trying too hard to get to our goal, we are working against ourselves. Too quick or intense a movement can damage a tendon which will not heal. Tension in nearby areas will tighten the muscles we need to let go and make that process more difficult. If we do not take the time to wear the muscle out, we will be strengthening it in the tight hold, not changing it.
The ramifications of relaxing came as an epiphany for me earlier this year. My mid-back is one of the areas that I need to change in my body. (I intend to get into this in another blog.) One exercise involves lying on my side with one leg on top of the other, spine aligned, knees at 90 degrees, right hand holding my left knee, and left hand holding my right upper ribs. The goal is to roll to my left and lie flat on the floor.
The movement is supposed to come at the mid-back level, not the waist or shoulders. As in any exercise, the body has an infinite capacity to cheat. While concentrating on not moving beyond where I was actually using the correct pivot, I suddenly realized my entire right shoulder, back, and arm were extremely tense. I was trying to hold myself from ‘over’ turning with completely separate groups of muscles. After I took a couple deep breaths and relaxed the improperly involved area, I was able to turn slightly more at my target point. My entire back felt soft. We need to relax to stretch.
Ever since I have been able to bring myself to the proper degree of tension/non-tension needed for optimal achievement. We learn this in yoga: tensing only one part of the body while leaving other parts soft. It only takes forever. Namaste.