Stretching/Yoga

Date: 2006-Jan-19
Author: Mike Orr <sluggoster@gmail.com>

Stretching is the flip side of weight training. What goes up must come down, and what contracts must expand. You may think the hardest muscles occur by always contracting, never expanding, and remaining tense throughout the day, but healthy muscles need both contraction and expansion. Tendons and joints need to be stretched and moved into all positions. The spine compresses from a variety of stresses; it needs to be stretched back into alignment. Make a little more "space" between the vertebrae and within the joints, as the yogi say. Stretching eliminates unhealthy tension you may not realize you're holding; it makes you more relaxed and calm. A stretched and neutral muscle can perform more work. There are two ways to loosen up: by stillness and by movement.

Yoga is the most comprehensive form of stretching, and it's also a core muscle workout. But we'll discuss general stretching first and then leisurely make our way back to yoga.

My favorite stretch is to lean forward, legs bent, normal stance or wide, back curved with the middle highest, then relax and let gravity pull your back apart. Or "Head forward, butt back!" as the avant-garde yogi say. My second favorite is to have the legs slightly bent and let the head and arms hang down forward relaxed. This stretches the back too though not as much, and also the neck and shoulders. Relax and enjoy the feeling of stretching.

If it's uncomfortable you're going too far. That's counterproductive because it triggers the stretch reflex, which pulls you back and causes tension and stress -- exactly what you're trying to eliminate. But sometimes pain is good. I do these extreme wrist movements where you bend the wrists down as far as you can (90 degrees) and rotate your hands in a circle, wrists bent the whole time. This is significantly uncomfortable during the movement but the wrists feel so loose and wonderful afterwards for several hours that you know it's good for them. Experience will show which "uncomfortable" stretches are good and which are excessive. If you feel better afterward they're good.

Many people speak of "release points". Stretch slowly until the resistance rises and hold it there. Thirty seconds, one minute, two minutes -- the experts disagree -- but thirty seconds minimum if it's your main stretch of the day. Maybe the stretch point will "release" after a time and you can go farther to the next resistance point. Maybe that one will release too. Your tendons can stretch very far; bending as pretzels like the yogi is supposed to be the norm, not the exception. Everybody can be flexible like a gymnast unless you have something abnormal like a fracture or scar tissue. But stiffness builds up if you don't use the extreme positions, and you have to give it time to reverse. Go slowly, at whatever pace your body says.

Here's my standard stretching routine that I do before workouts. I don't do all of these every time but I do most of them. Some advocate doing this morning and evening.

Stretching and deep breathing is also a good way to relax when you can't sleep. Remember to rotate the neck and shoulders in circles. Rotating the neck feels like a nice massage, and rotating the shoulders can help with "sore shoulder syndrome". Some people (e.g., jiu-jitsu artists) also rotate their knees and feet in a similar manner before practice.

Yoga

Most yogi are stick thin, which is a drag if you're trying to build muscle. But ignore that and do it anyway because yoga will kick your ass. Some of it is 3-way ab crunches, and the stick-thin yogi will probably run circles around you. Some of the poses help with balance, like when you lift one foot off the ground and lean forward and do hand motions and stand in a 4-shape with one ankle on the other knee.

Most classes at gyms start with ten minutes of relaxing stretches, then introduce a few movements, then repeat the poses at "journeyman level" or a fast pace, then end with ten minutes of relaxing stretches and closed-eye meditation.

A longer class at a yoga clinic may start with thirty minutes of breathing, because breathing is the key to everything in yoga. Everyone can do it, and being aware of your breath and controlling its pace helps make you more aware of the rest of your body's organs. If a pose hurts in one bodypart, the yogi say to "breathe into" that part. You can also imagine your exhaling carrying out all your stresses and worries.

Yoga is not about bending as far as the instructor or other students. That's a totally false myth. It's about bending as far as your body wants to, because over time you will bend further as you create more "space" in the joints, and this is healthful. Sometimes the instructor will come around and move you into the correct position, but tell him/her if that's too hard, and also him/her at the beginning if you have any injuries.

Instructors differ on whether they use the Sanskrit names or the English names for the poses, and how much religious terminology and mantras they use. Some use none; others use a lot. Just like some classes are more laid-back and others faster and more strenuous. Find an instructor you're comfortable with. My favorite instructor treated it like, "Let's just do these movements because it's fun."

The movement yoga ("hatha yoga") known in the west is just one piece of Hindu yoga, which also includes other meditation and dance practices. There's disagreement on how much hatha yoga depends on Hinduism; that is, whether you have to accept the Eastern mindset to get the most out of yoga. Some say the Eastern mindset is a necessity; others say hatha yoga is intrinsically secular but evolved in a society where "everything" was religious so religious ideas inevitably crept in. Those who are especially uncomfortable with Hinduism (e.g., Christians) should find a secular instructor or translate the phrases in your head (e.g., "The divine in me acknowledged the divine in you" to "I who am made in God's image respect you who is also made in God's image"). And you can reconcile chanting "Ohm!" with your religious beliefs by just declaring it a non-religious act for you, a meaningless sound.

There are other forms of movement yoga taught in the west such as bikram, which involves a hot room, holding poses for a shorter time (thus more movement), and sweating. I think there's also a form that holds a pose for three minutes. Confusingly, these are constrasted with "hatha yoga", meaning the normal western kind, even though all of these are technically hatha yoga.

Pilates may also have similar benefits to yoga. I've never seen Pilates, but it was originally designed to rehabilite injured WWI soldiers and get them back into service quicker. So it's not just a girlie exercise.