I'm athletic and have practiced yoga for over a decade. I am always on the move, running and climbing and jumping. My job has me walking over 10,000 steps daily before traditional exercise. Yet I had hit a plateau in my flexibility. The lack was not because I did not stretch. I was doing it daily. This got me thinking, and so the first topic I wanted to revisit was flexibility and stretching. What was I missing?
Flexibility in fitness: the ability to move throughout the joint's range of motion without restriction (definition is my own summary from several articles and textbooks, and there are several types of flexibility). I wanted to improve my flexibility, because there was restriction in my range of motion. My personal goal = assume and maintain an extended muscular position.
**side note: please do your research and talk with your physician before attempting anything on your own; I am not a physician or physical therapist, only explaining what I did and the reasoning behind it**
There are three types of stretching:
1) static stretching: achieve tension and hold yourself there
2) dynamic stretching: controlled movements through your range of motion
3) ballistic stretching: trying to force a muscle slightly beyond its current range of motion
4) passive stretching: focus on relaxing with gravity or partner assistance
What type of flexibility you want to improve determines what types of stretching you should use. So, I observed myself and made note of a few things. First, I noticed that I did not drink water regularly throughout the day, and I read that increased water intake may help range of motion. My first step was to drastically increase my water consumption. I then realized that "being athletic" had created part of my problem. I ran a lot and used weights, but those things without compensatory movement simply created shorter and stiffer muscles. Flexibility and strength work together. I had not been doing both evenly. I needed to focus on hydrating AND lengthening my muscles.
The MIT article below states: "The fastest and most effective way currently known to increase passive flexibility is by performing PNF stretches." PNF is proprioceptive neuromuscular facilitation. Some of my favorite words! While there are several ways to do this, it typically involves periods of contraction and relaxation. The passive stretch after a period of contraction trains the muscle to accommodate greater length. Also, because the muscles were fatigued in contraction, they are less likely to be subconsciously engaged during the passive stretch. Your body has a built in inhibition at a certain point of stretching in order to prevent injury. Shorter muscles means that inhibition activates sooner, and so you have to slowly and carefully re-teach your body its true length.
I assembled my routine: extra hydration, early morning stretching, evening stretching, and a set plan of warm up (joint rotation plus jogging in place) and cool down before any athletic activity and piano practicing. While stretching, I used controlled, long, deep breathing with "om." That was my personal choice due to the feel of the syllable. In my next post, I will explain which stretches I used and why. They are all from the yogic tradition and involved the use of gravity for lengthening. However, I chose to stay in each one for 5 minutes to really be aware of the contraction/relaxation cycle. Since I experienced no muscle soreness the day after stretching, this time limit worked for me. It may be longer or shorter for you, so listen to your body.
The results have been fascinating, and I'm continuing to listen to my body and make adjustments. I'll post more of the results along with the poses. Let's just say for now that I was surprised by how quickly my body adapted and showed measurable improvements.