Stretching, The Truth

By Dr Laura Latham

Ahhhhh stretching. It’s what everyone who doesn’t do yoga thinks is all that happens at yoga (if only they knew). And it’s what everyone who makes progress in yoga says they’re doing. Like when someone finally touches their head to shin in Uttanasana (fold), finally touches their toe to head in Rajakapotasana (king pigeon), or is able to sink back comfortably into Supta Virabhadrasana (reclined hero) for the first time. You get the idea.

What exactly is happening? First, let’s talk about what stretching is. According to Merriam-Webster Dictionary, Stretch: is to make something wider or longer by pulling. But is this really what is happening in the human body when we ‘stretch’?

You’d be surprised about the amount of bad data there is on this topic floating around the interwebs. Or maybe you wouldn’t be surprised. But, nonetheless, it turns out your tissues aren’t actually changing in length when you ‘stretch’. In order for this to actually happen, physiologically speaking, the actual amount of tissue would have to increase. In other words, it means that the cellular units of muscle, or sarcomeres, would be increasing in number when you ‘stretch’.  Could you imagine if this were the case? All the bodybuilders in the world would quit picking things up and putting them down and they would all show up to yoga… which on a side note would be a good idea for them to do every once in awhile, but that is a whole other blog post all together.

It turns out when we stretch, we aren’t actually stretching at all. So what is happening if your muscles aren’t actually getting longer? How can it be that after a few weeks of consistent folds, where you are actively willing/praying/driving/pushing to touch your toes, and then one day it just happens. What the H-E-double-hockey-sticks happened?

Turns out the current school of thought is that the tightness you feel in your hamstrings that appears to be keeping your fingers from reaching your feet in Uttanasana is actually a brain problem. (No, this doesn’t mean I’m saying you’re crazy. Maybe you are, but I’m not here to judge). Neurologically speaking, your system is in overdrive.

Ya see, the brain puts the breaks on movement when it doesn’t feel safe. Think about it like this… Have you ever stood on the edge of a cliff? Standing on two feet looking down a cliff feels much different from standing in the middle of a parking lot on two feet. The level of ‘safety’ has decreased significantly. You might be clenching your fists, gripping the ground with your toes, holding your breath and even feeling your heart pound a bit. Functionally, you don’t have to do anything different to stand on the cliff versus the parking lot, but it sure doesn’t feel that way. This is a bit of a stretch (pun intended) but you get the idea.

Now sometimes, this type of extra muscle activity is actually a desirable trait. Typically, runners with ‘tight’ calves and hamstrings have better marathon times. This tension provides an elastic ‘spring’ which is more efficient for endurance running. But what if you aren’t an elite runner? What if you just dropped your iPhone on the ground while you’re waiting in line at Starbucks and you need to pick it up without blowing out a hammy? Too much tension here is not a good thing.

So why then, does the brain feel the need to slam on the brakes and limit mobility? There’s a long list of potential reasons depending on your situation.

  • Prior injury
  • Pain
  • Overuse
  • Unfamiliar range of motion – meaning you don’t typically access this level of mobility and the movement is interpreted by the brain as unsafe activity
  • Instability at a joint – maybe one muscle group is not doing its job so the brain again responds with the E-break as a compensatory mechanism.

The list can go on and on.

Ok, you get it. When you feel tightness in your muscles you aren’t actually feeling muscles that need to be longer, you are feeling your brain slam on the breaks as a protective mechanism.

This finally leads me to the question: If we are not stretching, what is REALLY happening? Mmmmm well, it’s beautiful really. We are reducing the threat of movement to the brain.

So to review. It’s not that what you’re ‘doing’ in yoga is wrong, it’s that the explanation of why needs updating. I hope this blog post challenges the way you think, even if it’s just a little bit. The next time you are leaving yoga class and the person next to you says, “that was amazing, I feel so much looser now!”, you’ll know that it is because they’ve used movement to reduce threat and they feel SAFE.

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