Yoga is a wonderful practice and it has many benefits.
A couple of years ago, I spent a good chunk of time teaching soma system® at various yoga studios and Wanderlust yoga festivals. This gave me the opportunity to hang out and chat with many yogis and yoga teachers, and I noticed how many of the yogis were fascinated with flexibility and increasing their range of motion (ROM).
This fascination is quite natural. With all the amazing and beautiful selfies of yogis doing asanas on Facebook and Instagram, it’s no wonder many of us also long to be able to comfortably get into all kinds of tricky asanas. Many of these Asanas require flexibility and a high ROM!
There is also a deep-seated belief that precedes the yoga selfies and flexibility craze. This is the belief that flexibility is awesome for you, and you should strive to be flexible and stretchy because it, somehow, makes you healthy.
In fact, according to Google word frequency, people have been interested in stretching for over 300 years! In the graph below, notice how the frequency of “yoga” starts to pick up only in the early 20th century, while stretching has had a fairly high frequency since at least the 1700s.
At first glance, this interest in stretching and flexibility seems to be quite natural. After all, humans are evolutionarily programmed to move. We move to achieve a variety of goals ranging from acquiring food and water, all the way to finding romantic lovers. To move effectively, we need a certain level of flexibility.
Imagine an ancient hunter running after an antelope. If his hip flexion and extension were severely restricted, his movement would be compromised, along with the likelihood that he would catch up with the animal he’s chasing.
This ancient hunter’s circumstance then raises the question, what restricts movement? The answer is pretty obvious. Movement is primarily restricted by muscle tissue. Remove all the muscle tissue, or more specifically, soft tissues, and the resulting skeleton will acquire a much higher range of motion.
The unfortunate downside, of course, is that a skeleton would not be able to move without muscles!
Since soft tissues facilitate and can also restrict our movement, it’s rather natural to think that all you need to do is to stretch out your muscles to get the perfect ROM.
The stretch-to-flex model then raises another question, is stretching the most effective way to improve ROM?
Either you answer YES or NO to the previous question, there is another, more subtle, question lurking behind. If you have a reduced ROM, it could mean that something happened to your muscle tissue that is interfering with your optimal movement. So, what happened to your tissues that resulted in the reduced ROM?
You will soon discover that focusing on stretching and flexibility in order to improve ROM is a fallacy. Let’s dig in and learn what is it that you stretch to become more flexible.
Healthy Neuro-Myofascial Tissues
You are probably familiar with your muscles and might have heard of the type of connective tissues called fascia. Each muscle cell lives within a layer of connective fascial tissue called endomysium. A bunch of muscle cells form the so-called muscle fascicle, which also lives in a layer of fascia, called perimysium. Finally, a bunch of muscle fascicles get together to form muscle, and this muscle once again is surrounded by a layer of fascia called epimysium.
The names are not really important here. What is important is to be aware that muscle and fascial tissues are intimately connected. If you have ever seen an uncooked meat, you must have observed fascia, which looks white, as in the picture below.
Here comes a very important point.
The fascial layers that house muscle tissue are densely populated with neural receptors . These receptors record biochemical information around them and send signals to the brain. When your myofascial tissues are healthy, the receptors live a pretty good life.
Unhealthy Neuro-Myofascial Tissues
When you sit at your computer for too long, meditate in a poor posture, or get injured and stressed, you may start feeling muscle tension or pain all around your body. Your neural receptors pick up the presence of inflammatory factors [1-9] in their vicinity and send SOS signals to the brain: “Ouch! I’m in pain!” (It is much more complicated than this, but for the purpose of this article, this is all we need to know.)
We tend to ignore these signals of discomfort since we think whatever we are doing is much more urgent and important, and assume our bodies can wait. Of course, we can ignore these signals for as long as we want, but they signals will still reach the brain, and by incessantly bombarding the brain, they will eventually overstimulate it and make the nervous system agitated and hyper-aroused.
As we grow older and accumulate more of these tight and painful spots, our nervous system becomes more and more hyper-aroused. Hyperarousal reduces sleep efficiency and may lead to insomnia , which has detrimental effects on a host of health factors, such as the immune system, decision making, emotional reactivity, and many others .
If we do not take care of the tightness or pain the first time we notice it and continue ignoring it, our tissues’ structure starts changing. For example, let’s say you have neck pain because you tilt your head forward while working on the computer. This forces your upper back and neck muscle to overwork in order to support the weight of your head. To lighten the pressure on these muscle tissue, your body starts laying out stronger collagen fibers to replace muscle tissue [1-9].
Chemical bonds start forming between neighboring collagen layers. If there is not enough movement in the tissue, it starts shortening . Of course, even people who do yoga or sports still spend most of their days sitting, thus not getting enough multi-directional movement. Soon, the tissue starts feeling hard to the touch.
Now, that we understand how our muscle and fascial tissues change, we can understand why we lose flexibility and ROM.
The thing is, for a long time we’ve had a misguided idea of how our soft tissues work. Many people think of their muscle tissue as a kind of a special rubber band. If you repeatedly stretch this magical rubber band, it elongates. This model has two misleading components.
First, research has shown that our muscles (i.e. rubber band), when stretched, do not really become longer. Instead, by stretching, we train our nervous system to allow our muscle to stretch more. To actually change the length of soft tissue, we need to change our posture and allow plenty of time for soft tissues to rebuild and adjust to the new length.
For example, when you are habitually slouched, some of your upper back muscles become too long, and some of your chest muscles become too short. When you permanently reduce your slouching and have a habitually less-slouched posture, your body gradually rebuilds itself, chest muscles become longer, and the upper back myofascial units become shorter.
The second misleading component of the ‘muscle-as-a-rubber band’ model above lies in the assumption that our muscle tissues are like a perfect rubber band with no structural flaws. The reality is that we age, and as we do, our muscle and fascial tissues start feeling more like a rubber band produced in an underground Chinese factory in the 1980s: full of imperfections.
The myofascial tissues accumulate trigger points, muscle knots, and long tight myofascial strands. The composition of soft tissues also changes with a higher proportion of collagen fibers. All of these factors reduce pliability.
So, the reason we lose range of motion is partly due to the structural changes that occur in our soft tissues! But this is not the whole story.
Let me give an example. Fishes swim in lakes. When the water is clean, the fishes are healthy. When lake water gets contaminated with chemicals, the fishes get sick.
The same thing happens with our nervous and myofascial systems. Our peripheral nervous system lives within the fascial system. When the fascial system is healthy, the nervous system feels great. But once we start accumulating muscle knots and strands, the biochemical environment housing our peripheral nervous system undergo changes.
Just like contaminated lake water negatively affects fish health, a tight and painful myofascial system negatively affects the health of the nervous system.
If we go back to the topic of stretching, you may now be wondering: Can I restore my myofascial system’s health with stretching?
Stretching Tight Myofascial Tissues
How do you get rid of muscle tightness?
Intuitively, we want to stretch these tight spots. Indeed, stretching can bring us a temporary relief and we feel better. This is one of the reasons we feel so awesome after yoga classes. We stretch and exercise so many of our tight and painful spots, which improves blood circulation and mobility, and temporarily quiets down those SOS signals!
We lose range of motion (ROM) due to structural changes in our soft tissues!
However, an intuitive stretching of tight and painful muscles does little to heal our soft tissues and bring them back to a healthy state. Imagine a muscle with an embedded muscle knot. You feel tension and pain around the knot, so you try to stretch it out.
The tissues within the knot are much tougher than the surrounding healthy tissue, so when you stretch this muscle, the healthy part of the muscle is going to get stretched disproportionately more than the unhealthy knot!
We often think that if we stretch tight and achy muscles, feel better, and become more flexible, then we somehow get healthier. And this is where our rational mind makes a mistake! Stretching muscle tissues and the resulting flexibility does not make myofascial tissues healthy. Flexible muscle tissues are a consequence of healthy myofascial tissues. So, the fallacy is in confusing cause and effect!
If you start from healing the soft tissues, then you will gradually improve your ROM. Even more important, is that you will enjoy a healthy nervous system, refreshing sleep, and emotional stability.
If you yank on your muscles to stretch them out, disrespecting the soft tissues that have been asking for your help to resolve pain, then your nervous system will stay hyper-aroused, and you’ll have a sub-optimal quality of sleep and heightened emotional reactivity.
And this is exactly what I’ve seen happen to so many yoga practitioners!
What we really want are healthy myofascial tissues, because healthy myofascial tissues result in a healthy nervous system, good sleep quality, tons of energy, and a great mood!
How to Heal Myofascial Tissues?
At soma system®, we take a comprehensive full-body approach to healing myofascial tissues.
- Firstly, soft tissues need to be healed in the entire body, not just where it hurts.
- A soma system® therapist uses self-bodywork methods to open up a client’s inner ocean of sensations and teach the client how to create pleasant sensations. This leads to creating a sense of deep body safety and benefits both the client’s physical and psychological well-being.
- The therapist uses special self-bodywork methods to gradually resolve trigger points and tight strands, thus making soft tissues more pliable and creating a healthy environment for the nervous system.
- The therapist uses special multi-directional mobility exercises to introduce gentle movement into the tissues. This helps to deliver nutrients to the tissues and remove metabolic waste, thus helping the tissues to heal. This also prevents reoccurrence of trigger points and tight strands in soft tissue.
- The therapist works to gradually shift a client’s posture to a more balanced state. This helps the client’s body to further change soft tissue structure. For example, once slouching is reduced, the body starts slowly replacing tough collagen fibers with muscle tissues, thus making myofascial tissues softer and more pliable to the touch.
- In parallel, the therapist works to build up the client’s psychological, emotional, and social well-being. Imbalanced skills in these three areas result in a sense of dissatisfaction with oneself, conflicts, lack of affectionate relationships, and many other side effects. All of these factors strain the nervous system and negatively affect posture, muscle tightness, and pain. *
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