Let’s talk about stretching . . .

Our bodies are a wonderful point of entry to awareness, to mindfulness. In our Western culture we tend to live in our heads, moving from one moment to the next on autopilot. I like to say we are so much more than brains on sticks, and if we open ourselves to the possibility, the knowledge that can come from the wisdom of our bodies, we can learn so very much. 

I like to understand why something works or does not work, which leads me to ask, what is actually happening, physiologically, when we move?  Today we start with the movement of yoga, or really any stretching practice that increases our flexibility. Let’s talk about three different types of stretching today: static, active, and dynamic. Regardless of type, we can leverage two different principles to increase muscle length, autogenic inhibition or reciprocal inhibition.

Static stretching is the process of passively taking a muscle to the point of tension and holding that stretch for a minimum of 30 seconds. By holding the muscle in a stretched position for a longer period, the Golgi tendon is stimulated and inhibits the muscle spindle (autogenic inhibition). This allows the muscle to relax and provides elongation of the muscle. Golgi tendons are located where muscle and tendon meet and are sensitive to to changes in muscular tension. When excited, the Golgi tendon causes the muscle to relax, which prevent the muscle from being placed under excessive stress. Autogenic inhibition is the process in which neural impulses that sense tension are greater than the impulses that cause muscles to contract, providing an inhibitory effect to the muscle spindles.

Active stretching is the process of using the agonists (prime mover) and synergists (muscles supporting the prime movers) to dynamically move a joint and uses the principle of reciprocal inhibition. Reciprocal inhibition is the simultaneous contraction of one muscle and the relaxation of its antagonist (or opposite). For example, when bending/flexing the elbow into a biceps curl, the biceps actively contract while the triceps relax to allow the movement to occur. Another example, think about lying on the floor, one leg anchored down, long on the floor, the other extending us to the ceiling, activating the quadriceps, making a 90 degree angle, allowing a lengthening of the hamstrings. 

Dynamic stretching uses the body’s momentum to take a joint through the available full range of motion and relies on the concept of reciprocal inhibition. Think of movements like hip swings or walking lunges. Those of you who practice yoga with me regularly might note our chair swings. 

This is just a taste of what is going on IN our bodies when we move, we stretch, next time you are in a yoga class, or warming up before a workout, notice which type of inhibition you are leveraging. This is simply a brief introduction to mechanics, even more important, how do you FEEL after a yoga practice, after you stretch? Physically, emotionally, mentally?

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