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Finding Your Maximum Flexibility in Yoga By Dr.

Adam Cohen, Tureya Ashram One of the more common physical benefits that students pursue within the practice of the yogasanas is flexibility. But what is flexibility and how can we create it? Typically when we talk about flexibility we are discussing the mobility of the joints and the muscles, ligaments, tendons, and bones that surround these structures. For instance, one may measure advance flexibility of the hips as the ability to enter into a split in which the length of the legs are in contact with the earth from toe to toe. But while flexibility is beneficial to those who know how to obtain it in a healthy and self-supportive manner, the vast majority of yogic practitioners have a wrong perception of flexibility which usually leads to numerous forms of injury and structural weaknesses some of which can be irreversible. Healthy flexibility arises from a gradual lengthening of muscle fibers, fascia, and nerves that surround the muscles. Unhealthy flexibility is marked by breaking the cartilaginous restraints in the joints and stretching ligaments and tendons, damage which can only be repaired with surgery. Therefore stretching towards flexibility is a refined approach to physical health that must be pursued with wisdom and knowledge of the fundamental components of the human body. For the physical trainers, there is no general standard for flexibility: flexibility is typically dependent upon the anatomical composition of each individual in association with their own physiological needs. Every human body is different and flexibility and mobility of a joint will vary drastically between different individuals. A common example of this is to observe people practice forward and back bends relative to the spine within a yogasana class. Some people are notably good at back bends while lack the flexibility of a forward bend, and at other times the reverse is true. The differences lie primarily in the length and pliability of ligaments and joint capsules, the length of a muscle, the ability to control a muscle, and the shape of the joint surface among other things. A flexibility program is usually selected by assessing the physiology of the individual in association with their life style needs. For instance a gymnast will require different flexibility than a professional body builder. But in yoga, we typically undertake a yogasana practice that will promote dynamic mobility, strength, and flexibility throughout the body. Flexibility should be relative to strength and both should be in harmony with spiritual dynamics of the individual. Interestingly, flexibility training is age independent and can be developed at any stage in life. High levels of flexibility can be achieved at any age, the only limiting factor being that of the health of the joint and joint surface. Most yoga teachers, from the assessment that we have made through interaction with yogic practitioners around the world, remain generally unaware of the true science behind flexibility. When it comes to flexibility there are right and wrong ways of doing things. The right way of exploring flexibility is to approach it with background knowledge of how the muscles respond to

different stretches at different points within a physical practice and over a course of a day/week. The wrong way of practicing for flexibility is to ignore the physiology of the body and simply force the body into a stretch. A common example of a wrong approach to flexibility, or even general physical health for that matter, is to go into a full static stretch at the beginning of a yogasana practice. This type of practice does not raise muscle temperature nor does it warm up the joints which are both essential for healthy flexibility. Research has shown that pre-exercise static stretching show no benefit towards greater flexibility or prevention of injury and is often detrimental to physical strength and flexibility (Shrier 2000). And yet many asana practices begin with a static stretch or series of stretches to muscles and joints that have not be properly prepared for the stretch. A continued practice in this manner will eventually lead to injury; the question is how sever. Flexibility can be divided into six forms which cover a range of physical stretching (Shrier 2000). These are: Dynamic active flexibility Dynamic passive flexibility below pain threshold Dynamic passive flexibility over the pain threshold and up to pain tolerance Static active flexibility Static passive flexibility below the pain threshold Static passive flexibility up to pain tolerance

Together these outline the parameters of flexibility. However we typically condense these six into three practical forms: dynamic active flexibility, static active flexibility, and static passive flexibility which fit the context of the yogasanas. Dynamic flexibility includes the ability to do dynamic movements according to ones joint mobility working to full range of motion. Dynamic flexibility arises from the ability to relax the extending muscles while contracting those muscles which support and create the movement. Static active flexibility is relative to the agonist and antagonist muscles of a stretch. Assuming and maintaining a static position which stretches the antagonist muscles supported by the agonist muscles defines static active flexibility. Finally, static passive flexibility is capitulated by the ability to hold a position in which both the agonist and antagonist muscles are released into the stretch. Typically the static passive stretch demonstrates the full flexibility of a joint. For each of these types of flexibility are corresponding stretches. These are used in order to accomplish the healthy maximum of each of the three forms of flexibility. They include: dynamic stretches, static active stretches, and isometric stretches. Within the yogasanas these types of stretches vastly affect our ability to perform the various postures that are outlined within classical yoga, from the most basic asanas like tadasana to the more advance postures like padmasana. Here are some general ideas to consider before we get into the discussion of the details of each of these different categories of stretches.

Dynamic flexibility and its corresponding stretches, when practice in a balanced manner, are ideal for individuals who want are looking for a form of flexibility which is supportive of dynamic movement. Of all the forms of flexibility, dynamic flexibility is the only one within the group that also increases the other two, that of static active flexibility, and static passive flexibility. For anyone who is series about flow-like asanas, such as the variety of Surya Namaskara (sun salutations) variation, dynamic flexibility is critical to a healthy and sustainable practice. Static active flexibility and the stretches associated with it are used in situation in which the practitioner wishes to develop flexibility which can sustain a static active physical posture, like holding a raised leg in the air with only the support of the leg muscles, .for an extended period of time. This type of flexibility is most notable in postures like adho mukha svanasana (downward facing dog pose) in which the shoulder joints are fully extended while the muscles surrounding the joints are contracted to support the extension or in a posture like bhujangasana (cobra pose) in which the lower back muscles are contracted while the abdominal muscles are fully extended, creating the extension of the trunk. Static passive flexibility and isometric stretches are applied when the practitioner is looking to find the full extension of a particle joint or muscle group within the body. It is applied in deep, static stretches where ones intention is to fully lengthen the muscles through extended muscular release. Common examples of postures that fit the context of static passive stretching are paschimottanasana (intense stretch of the west/seated forward bend pose), prasarita padottanasana (wide-legged forward bend pose) and supta padangusthasana (reclining big toe pose). Dynamic Stretching Dynamic stretching is an extremely versatile form of active stretching because it creates both isotonic (moving) and isometric (static) flexibility. As a mind/body practice, dynamic stretching is a vitally important component of the yogasanas because it teaches us about our own strengths, weaknesses, and limitation through movement that can be easily monitored and quickly adjusted in the event of excess strain or pain. Therefore, dynamic stretching should be an integral part of every yogasana practice because dynamic stretching has the greatest capacity for warming up the muscles and increasing range of movement in a joint both of which are essential for creating dynamic strength and flexibility in the muscles. Neglecting the dynamic stretching at the beginning of the practice exposes you to high risk for injury of the muscles, ligaments, tendons, nerves, bones, and joints, especially if the central theme of the practice is stimulating flexibility. Have you ever tried to create a complex movement that involves both sides of the body? A very simple example of this is to gently hold your hands in the air with the palms facing upwards, holding the hands in a fist, and try to independently lift figure at a time, but lifting the thumb first in the right hand and the pink first in the left. Return the finger to the palm before lifting the next

finger in line (the pointer finger on the right and the ring finger on the left). As you do this slowly increase the speed and see what happens. For most of us such advance coordination is difficult. We try to lift the pointer finger but suddenly the ring figure pops up. What this suggests is that our motor control has room for improvement. Dynamic stretching is unique in that it requires from us concentration and coordination of the physical body on a level that exceeds our day to day activities (unless of course our occupation is a gymnast or trapezes artist). Inter muscular coordination is improve as the connections of the motor neurons within our motor cortex greatly increase. In affect we are proactively altering the depth and integrity of our mind/body connection. Another significant benefit of the dynamic stretches is that of decreasing the amount of resistance of the muscles throughout the range of motion, increasing the overall mobility of a joint (McNair and Stanley 1996 et al. 2001). Greater mobility is highly advantages in that it reduces the risk of injury and also alters the effects of aging which result case degenerative disease like arthritis. The body is also in motion within the dynamic stretches which, unlike the static active stretches and isometric stretches, has the potential to create aerobic activity within the body, increasing the metabolic rate which builds physical endurance. Muscular flexibility can be accomplished in short intervals of time when dynamic stretches are applied because of the versatile and active nature of the stretch. Research has show that eight to ten weeks of dynamic stretching can vastly improve muscular flexibility, leaving only the limitations of bone, tendon, and ligament structure within flexibility which can be address through a long-term training program (Matveyev 1981). Scientifically increasing dynamic flexibility through the dynamic stretches requires a few central guidelines. First, the stretches should be done in intervals of 5-15 rounds(with a maximum of 40 for advanced practitioners) with 2-3 sets (resting in between), starting from within at a level of around 20 percent full mobility and gradually working up towards the maximum range of motion within the last few rounds. Next, the maximum range of motion should be explored until flexibility begins to decline. The moment range of movement decreases the practice should be stopped as no additional benefit to flexibility will be received by continuing further. Finally, if the muscles are fatigued or sore it is not beneficial to extensively practice the dynamic stretches as the muscles need time to rebuild and regenerate. Practicing on sore or tired muscles will only debilitate the rebuilding process necessary for the muscles to heal and rejuvenate themselves. Take rest and resume the practice once the muscles feel well rested. During the practice the range of motion and velocity of the movement should gradually increasing, working toward 90-100 percent maximum comfortable range of motion and 60-75 percent maximum velocity. This will help to build dynamic flexibility while also increasing the strength and endurance of the muscles.

Dynamic stretches are the prequel to every yogasana program that is based around increasing flexibility. It has been found that the most effective dynamic stretching program involves a practice that is done at least one or two times a day (Ozolin 1971). This helps to maintain and increase dynamic flexibility. However, once substantial progress has been made in dynamic stretching, a maintenance program of practicing every alternate day is sufficient for sustaining the present level of flexibility. Also, dynamic stretching at the beginning of the day will help to maintain flexibility through the course of the day, and if one is planning to practice the yogasanas twice a day than beginning with the dynamic stretches will properly prepare the body for a more advanced practice later in the day. Later in the book we will explore some examples of dynamic yogasana stretching, but it is important to mention that few yogasana classes today teach dynamic stretches in a way that is observant of the guidelines we have mentioned above. Such parameters for comprehensive flexibility training are not subjective opinions but scientific facts that have proven to be the healthiest and most progressive means to developing flexibility. While some may argue that dynamic stretches of this nature are omitted from contemporary yoga because they lack spiritual content, it should be apparent by now that any practice that best sustains physical health and promote mind/body communication and integration is unarguably yoga. Static Active Stretching Holding the body in a stretched position through the tension of the antagonist muscles with the extension and relaxation of the agonist muscles is referred to as static active stretching. For those who wish to build strength that does not inhibit the full potential of flexibility, static active stretching should be intelligently applied within the yogasana practice. Intriguingly static active stretching is an inbuilt feature of the yogasanas. Such postures as dwikonasana (double angle pose), urdhva prasarita eka padsana (upward facing dog), and sarpasana (snake pose) are just a few examples of static active stretching. But a component of static active stretching that is elementary to flexibility and usually far removed from most yoga classes is the envelopment of basic transitioning. First of all, static active stretches should only be done after dynamic movements once the muscles have been properly heated. Neglecting to do so will lead to muscle cramp and soreness that could have easily been avoided with proper preparation. Next, as a tool for flexibility, static active stretching is best done in intervals of at least 3-6 rounds. These are usually done one-after-another, gradually increasing the degree of flexion on each round. The length of the stretch will vary, from 5 seconds to 15 seconds, with the longer durations inducing greater active range of motion (Shrier 2000). Both short and long durations will increase passive range of motion that extends beyond that of the active range of motion. Finally greatest muscular performance and flexibility can be stimulated by finish the static active stretch with a static passive stretch that isolates the same muscle group (the agonist muscles).

Body wisdom is an essential feature of static active stretching. This is true because in order to properly practice static active stretching you must be able to both flex the muscles responsible for the holding the posture while relaxing those muscle which are to be stretched. This sounds easy, but in application many students struggle with it. One of the more common scenarios in which people fail to properly apply static active stretching is within the standing forward bend yogasanas like padha hastasana (hand to foot pose) as called uttanasana (standing forward bend). In this posture the front of the thighs are typically engaged (raise your kneecaps) while the hamstrings are lengthened. Bilateral activity through the anterior and posterior sides of the legs helps to maintain support for the knees so that the knees are straight but not hyper-extended. The difficult falls in the space in which the hamstrings are relaxed into the stretch but the knees are being supportive by active muscles surrounding the joint. Typically people either over relax which cause hyperextension of the join (or in some cases the knees are relaxed and held bent), or over activate which stiffens the hamstrings preventing the full extension into the forward bend. Static active stretching could be considered the bridge between the dynamic stretching and isometric stretching in that it facilitates an expression of the body that contains elements of both: muscular activity component of static active stretching represents the power and strength needed in dynamic stretching and the static element resembles the extended flexibility training of the isometric stretching. For the practitioner who is looking to build muscle mass that can sustain postures that require both strength and flexibility, the static active stretching will be one of the more commanding tools used in their training. This is especially true for those who find the balancing poses attractive (for their capacity to develop inner balance) who depend upon both the power and flexibility of the muscles. Isometric Stretching Perhaps some of the most audaciously misused forms of yogasanas are postures which involve isometric stretching. When applied correctly, isometric stretching can increase flexibility towards the maximum range of motion beyond that of the dynamic and static active stretching. It allows for us to explore the full depth of our bodys pliability. However, when practiced incorrectly, isometric stretching can quickly lead to irreversible damage to muscles, joints, bones, cartilage, ligaments, tendons, and nerves; muscles are torn, joints are dislocated, bones are broken, cartilage is lost, ligaments and tendons over stretched, and nerves damaged. Many of the injuries that occur within yogasana classes are related to improper use of isometric stretching. A big misconception about isometric stretching is that is the best way to increase flexibility. The truth of the matter is that isometric stretching expresses its greatest potential when practiced in relationship to other forms of stretching, especially dynamic stretching. In fact, static flexibility can reach its maximum once the muscles have been fatigued through practices like the dynamic stretching.

When applied properly isometric stretching increases active flexibility and strength within isometric, concentric, and eccentric activity (Handel et al. 1997). It is the most effective form of stretching for increasing the depth of relaxed stretching including postures like paschimottanasana (seated forward bend) and supta virasana (reclining hero pose). However isometric stretching is not for everyone. Weak muscles, rigid joints, or improper health can diminish the value of isometric stretching. Before isometric stretching begins, the muscles of the body should be relatively strong and also have good nutrient supply from the diet. If the muscles are weak or have been over strained through improper stretching than isometric stretching will only further harm or damage the muscles. In the event of weak muscles, strength training (through such asanas as yogic squats for the legs, triyaka tadasana for the core body, and chataranga dandasana for the arms) in addition to dynamic stretching should be practice until muscle strength has developed. For rigid joints, dynamic stretching like the pawanamuktasana series should be done to open the joints. Once muscular strength and joint mobility has been established, and the muscle properly warmed-up through dynamic stretching, isometric stretching may begin. Isometric stretching for a particular muscle group should be practiced with concentration upon one particular posture. More than one posture per practice for a particular muscle group has shown to give no additional gains for increasing flexibility. For instance, if we wanted to stretch the hamstrings within our practice, we would pick one posture like uttanasana (standing forward bend). Once selected, the posture will be repeated two to five times, each time working a little deeper into the stretching. The stretch should be held for five to 15 seconds gradually increasing the depth of the stretch as time passes. Once the maximum stretch has been reached, the posture can be held for upwards of 30 second or longer depending upon the capacity and desire of the practitioner. In terms of frequency of stretching, research has shown that the most effective form of isometric stretching for increasing flexibility it to practice four times a week for ten to fifteen minutes each practice, holding postures for five to six seconds (Matveyev 1981). Depending upon your focus, the same muscle group can be stretched every practice or one can interchange the muscle groups each day or even make a dynamic compilation of stretches for several muscles within each practice. The decision will vary upon the intentions of the practice in addition to ones physical aptitude. Another variable in the isometric stretching is the degree of tension and intensity that is used within the stretch, tension referring to muscular contracting and intensity on the depth of the stretch. For beginners it is important to use a range of intensity from low to medium to ensure that the anatomical structures are not damaged. Over time, as the muscles become suppler and body awareness increases, the intensity and duration of the stretching can incrementally advance. Too often beginners, and even advance practitioners, over stretch the muscles with unnecessary force which inevitably leads to physical injury. Therefore, one should keenly observe the responses of the body to the stretches. If muscle or joint pain arises from an isometric stretch, the

practice should be stopped. Isometric stretching can begin once the pain has passed. Practicing on sore or torn muscles (muscle tear can be both minimal and advanced) or paining joints can lead to irreversible damage. It is for this reason that we strongly enforce the concept of body wisdom because without knowledge of the physical bodys limitation we cannot know for certain whether our practice is really benefiting us or not. For maximum isometric stretching, a combination of tension and relaxation should be applied relative to muscular physiology. Thomas Kurz in Stretching Scientifically defines the most effective isometric stretching as (stretching) the muscles, but not to the maximum, then tense for three to five seconds, then relax, and preferably within the first second and not later than the fifth second, stretch again. Alternatively, prior to stretching, maximally tense the muscles about to be stretched for a few seconds and then relax and within the first second stretch them. At the near maximal stretch, tense again for a few seconds to once again trigger the postcontractive stretch reflex depression and lower resistance to the stretch. Stretch further and further until you cannot increase the stretch. This form of stretching is the optimal way to achieve maximum isometric flexibility in a time that is sensitive to the bodys needs but also utilizes the bodys fullest potential. Isometric stretching should not be considered a full practice if the intention is to develop a holistic health of the body. Instead, isometric stretching should occupy a space within our yogasana practice that designates the role of cultivating full-body flexibility to the maximum range of motion. The benefits of such flexibility are not limited to the joints and muscles; in fact, advanced flexibility has many physiological benefits, one of the more well researched being the fact that such flexibility tones the nervous system and also decreases the likelihood for cardiovascular disease (due to the flexibility of the veins and arteries). Nevertheless isometric stretching is best expressed in relationship to dynamic stretching and static active stretching which together for the triad for advanced physical suppleness, agility, resilience, strength, and dynamism. Sequencing and the bigger picture Speaking generally and relative to the scientific approach to a healthy anatomical structure, 3 phases will outline the progression of practice from an unhealthy body to a fine-tuned and resilient one: 1. Develop technique, form and body wisdom 2. Build strength and stamina 3. Work towards maximum flexibility

First, technique, form, and body wisdom (the capacity to respond intelligently to the bodys needs) should be grasped and integrated into the mind/body relationship. This means refined motor skills and cognitive awareness of the bodys response to various physical postures and activities. From this perspective, the dynamic forms of stretching should be mastered first and foremost. Once technique, form, and body wisdom prevails, strength can be the next point of focus and occupies the second phase of anatomical development. Here, the bodys muscles are built with strength and stamina that can withstand the physical trials of advanced strength training and flexibility. It is from here that advanced dynamic stretching and static active stretching are integral to physical development. Physical strength gives way to supportive flexibility which is the third phase of the physical progression and is the point at which the isometric stretching can be practiced integrally within the yogasanas. At this stage, one can consciously observe the elements that support healthy stretching and therefore have the freedom to explore the boundaries of their physical potential. Progression is important because it considers the long term process of body evolution. Starting from where we are now and working towards a healthy balance of strength, flexibility, and stamina are the goals of the physical dimension of the practice of the yogasanas. Rushing this process or disregarding signals from the body will undoubtedly put us in harms way. Evolution should always be steady, constant, and consciously monitored. Absentmindedness, aggressive force, and impatient are counterintuitive to yoga and therefore should never be present within a yogasana practice. Additional factors that contribute to our flexibility are many. One, for instance, is our emotional state. Anger, sadness, and frustration will significantly affect the quality of our stretching. This is because there is a direct relationship between cerebellum (responsible for coordinating muscle responses to maintain balance and produce smooth, coordinated movements) and the centers of our brain responsible for emotions. Other things like diet can also alter the amount of flexibility we can develop in a set period of time. The muscles need many different forms of nutrients in order to rebuilt and restore themselves and improper diet will lead to unnecessarily longer periods of time needs for muscle recovery that could be avoided with proper diet. As a physical component of the yogasanas, flexibility becomes the manner through which the full potentials of the anatomical body can be realized. Increased flexibility means greater range of motion within the joints. This increased range of motion allows for healthy maintenance of the joints and ensure their health throughout life. Shrier, I. 2000. Stretching before exercise: an evidence based approach. British Journal of Sports Medicine vol. 34, no. 5. Pp. 324-325. Handel, M., T. Horstmann, H.H. Dickhuth, and R.W. Gulch. 1997. Effects of contract-relaxed stretching training on muscle performance in athletes. European Journal of Applied Physiology and Occupational Physiology vol. 76. No. 5, pp. 400-408.

Kurz, K. 2003. Stretching Scientifically. Stadion Publishing Company, Inc. Pp. 3. McNair, P.J., and S.N. Stanley. 1996. Effect of passive stretching and jogging on the series elastic muscle stiffness and range of motion of theankle joint. British Journal of Sports Medicine vol. 3, no. 6. Pp. 398-414. Matveyev, L.P. 1981. Fundamentals of Sports Training. Moscow: Progressive Publishers. Ozolin, N.G. 1971. Sovermennaya systema sportivnoy trenirovki. Moscow: Fizkultura I Sport.