by Stacy Kamala Waltman
“Our senses enable us to perceive only a minute portion of the
outside world.” ~ Nicola Tesla
The title of my blog post was Is Yoga a Religion or Cult? The body of the article answered this question yet in the approximately 20 places I posted; only one person actually read the message and responded within the context of the missive.
On the other hand, eleven people replied to the question, Is Yoga a Religion or Cult without reading the content of the blog’s message. Their answers lead the conversation over to their preferred arena; a particular website or educating me about yoga.
While I am always open to new information, it was clear from their remarks that they did not know the extent of my 30+ year yoga training. It was simply an opportunity for them to “teach” and apparently they “needed” to teach. Some call it pontificating, I call it pouncing. The ancient’s called these reactionary tendencies to blindly respond, samskaras.
Samskaras are simply a reaction waiting to happen; an auto-pilot. Samskaras are our tendency to interpret information in a certain way or look at a particular view of the whole while the ego locks on to a small facet and launches a reaction. Unchecked these behavioral loops of bias repeat and behaviors become more entrenched. Oh, and by the way, we all have samskaras and most are hidden from view; blind spots.
Sometimes, after much thrashing about, Stress Management Programs like yoga catch our eye and we begin to consider what it would be like to perceive the world with a new lens and respond in a different, non-habitual way.
Yogic Stress Management tools of cultivating awareness, breathing practices, and self-reflection help us de-magnetize the power of our samskaras/tendencies.
The first step in pulling away from samskaras is gaining awareness of these habitual responses. This in my opinion is nothing short of a miracle. Often people get to this place after they have tried over and over again to see their blind spots but they miss what they can’t see. They are able to consider the edges of their periphery but their blind spots are…blind.
Yogic practices to cultivate awareness include but are not limited to: Meditation,Yoga Nidra, Pranayama, and Life Alignment Coaching. Each of these programs teaches you how to slow down, take pause and become more aware.
When you take a moment to pause and notice the desire to pounce, check in with yourself and ask, “Have I missed, skipped or ignored something?” or “Am I looking at this situation, person or event with fresh new eyes or dull biased ones?” and “It may be or feel unfamiliar, but I am going to do my best to respond differently to this situation, right now.”
Please enjoy one of my favorite quotes:
“Thoughts can create such a barrier that even if you are standing before a beautiful flower, you will not be able to see it. Your eyes are covered with layers of thought. To experience the beauty of the flower you have to be in a state of meditation, not in a state of ‘mentation’. You have to be silent, utterly silent, not even a flicker of thought – and the beauty explodes, reaches to you from all directions. You are drowned in the beauty of a sunrise, of a starry night, of beautiful trees.” ~ Yogic Wisdom
My thanks to the eleven people who “needed” to teach me about yoga as a result of my previous blog. It provided us with a worthy topic for discussion. For those of you who missed the original article, here it is: Is Yoga a Religion or Cult?
Please share your thoughts on this topic. It is so lovely when people respond from their own experience in a conscious way.
By Stacy Kamala Waltman
What exactly happens when we stretch? We all know something gives. The longer we reach for our toes, the easier it is to grasp them.
What we’ve learned through science is that it isn’t just one thing. Stretching is actually pretty dang complicated.
First the Anatomy
Each muscle fiber is wrapped up in fascia, a material a little like the plastic wrap you could see surrounding a leftover chicken leg in the fridge. Each individual muscle fiber wrapped up in its fascia is then collected into a group with another coating of fascia holding the group together. Then several of those groups of muscle fibers are bundled together in one big group of muscle surrounded by a bigger, thicker layer of fascia.
As the muscle nears a bone, it thins and becomes tapered. The fascia covering each fiber as well as that surrounding the groups of fibers continues and becomes a tendon that forms the connection of muscle to bone. Scientists call this entire structure the muscle-tendon complex. It’s considered one unit because muscle and connective tissue (fascia and tendons) are so intimately connected and intertwined that studying only one or the other is difficult. Having said that, they’ve been able to tease out what is happening to each of them when we stretch.
The Muscle Component
Stretching muscle causes a reflex mechanism in the spinal cord– sort of like the reflex a doctor elicits when she taps your knee and your leg jerks. Sensitive receptors known asmuscle spindles are located throughout the length of the muscle. Muscle spindles note a change in muscle length during a stretch as well as how fast the stretch has occurred. They send this information to the spine. That triggers the stretch reflex which attempts to resist the change in muscle length by causing the stretched muscle to contract. The more sudden the change in muscle length, the stronger the muscle contractions will be. (And that is one reason you want to go slowly into a stretch without any rapid sudden movement.) This reflex helps to maintain muscle tone and upright posture and to protect the body from injury. The longer you hold an asana and stretch the muscle, the less the muscle spindles can do their job. They only work for a short while. After time, their effect goes away. When that happens, you get a little more length during the stretch because the muscle stops contracting.
There’s another reflex mechanism involving sensory receptors called golgi tendonswhich lie at the tapered ends of muscles where the tendon is forming from the fascia. These sensors are activated when a muscle is stretched a little farther. Their job is to send information to the spinal cord to elicit muscle relaxation to prevent excessive strain and subsequent injury.
Hundreds of sarcomeres make up each individual muscle fiber. They are divided into bands composed of either actin or myosin. During contraction of a muscle, those bands slide over one another causing the muscle to shorten. The actin and myosin bands are connected to each other by chemical bonds. Stretching causing some of those bonds to break allowing the muscle to lengthen.
Sarcomeres are also elastic. Over half of each sarcomere is composed of a protein called titin that gives it elasticity. Titin acts like a rubber band. It has the ability to increase the length of a muscle when stretched and then to shorten to the original length when the stretch is released. First its overall shape changes to become elongated and then with increasing force of a stretch, the protein unfolds from its three dimensional structure. The result is a lengthened sarcomere and therefore a longer muscle.
Connective Tissue Component: Fascia and Tendons
More than half of an initial change in length, the give of releasing into a stretch, is due to elasticity of the connective tissue. It’s like a rubber band.
In addition to its elastic component, connective tissue creeps with longer duration stretches. That is, stretching for a few minutes causes a reorientation of the collagen fibers within it to a more ordered array. They line themselves up in parallel to provide more lengthening.
Tendon fibers are pretty much already in parallel to one another, but fascia fibers are more willy-nilly. Most of the creep is due to reorientation of the collagen fibers in fascia to an ordered parallel arrangement. The fibers begin to line up like rows of soldiers coming to attention, providing additional lengthening and stretching.
Creep is what gives connective tissue its ability to maintain length, and therefore flexibility, over the long term. The effect doesn’t go away a few minutes after you release the stretch. It’s the more permanent aspect of increased flexibility.
All those other stretch mechanisms occur first. Then, with time, the creep of connective tissue begins. Exactly how long one needs to maintain a stretch to produce creep isn’t clear. It may occur in four or five minutes. By ten minutes it is more likely to be happening.
Fascia creep can progressively increase length at time frames of at least up to one hour. In fact, in one experiment, an entire third of the total lengthening from a stretch took place during the latter part of the hour.
The mind plays a role here. Some researches believe that much of our ability to lengthen muscle-tendon complexes and to increase flexibility comes from our brains’ ability to alter how we feel in response to a stretch. Usually our stretches are stopped by a sensation of discomfort or even, when the stretch is forced beyond that point, outright pain.
Over time the exact point at which a stretch makes us feel uncomfortable may tend to increase with a period of repeated stretching exercises. In other words, the maximum amount of stretch we could tolerate last week might be much less that we can tolerate today because our mind simply doesn’t act to stop the stretch because of a perception of pain.
Pain is a protective response. We quickly pull our hand away from a burner because the brain knows that a burn that will destroy our tissue. Maybe the brain actually “learns” that a stretch to a certain point is ultimately not harmful and so it has figured out that stretching to that point is okay and it no longer elicits a sensation of “ouch.”
Are longer duration stretches beneficial?
Stretching fascia is the primary way to increase the range of motion of joints in a lasting way. While the other stretch mechanisms provide temporary lengthening, it is the creep effect of fascia which contributes the most to long-term flexibility.
Especially for those with a reduced range of motion from disease or an extended period of inactivity, prolonged stretches can greatly improve function. This has been seen clinically with stretches of the rotator cuff and with a tendon on the bottom of the foot that often shortens and tightens causing pain and disability. Longer stretches incorporating the creep effect can be very healing.
There’s also some evidence that gentle stretching elicits an anti-inflammatory response within the muscle and connective tissue. With more forceful stretches, there’s a counterproductive pro-inflammatory effect. Long gentle stretches may help to reduce inflammation leading to tendonitis.
Bit of Caution
Bobbing stretches that are rapid and short can strain the muscles and connective tissue resulting in tears. Don’t bounce.
Warm muscles stretch better than cold ones. Temperature can significantly influence flexibility. A five minute warm-up period of general increased activity is wise for best effects and less injury.
There may be a relationship between long duration stretches and the maximal amount of force a muscle can provide. If you really need absolute maximum power, longer duration stretches may not be for you. One group of researches found that a small surgical release of fascia resulted in a 15% reduction in force production due to a lowered compartment pressure. That may translate to a reduction of maximum strength after prolonged stretching. Some body builders, though, like to stretch their fascia to make room for greater muscle growth since their concern is bulk and not power.
Traditional Yoga texts suggest that asanas were initially intended as postures for meditation. The greatest yogis spent prolonged periods of time in classic postures like pascimottanasana, padmasana, and bhadrasana.
Holding a stretch for an extended period in a relaxed manner provides an opportunity for meditation and allows for a deeper level of awareness of the energy body. On a musculoskeletal level, these longer duration stretches primarily release fascia, and they can significantly improve long-term flexibility and function.
Stretching the mind by keeping it out of forgone conclusions and repetitive thought processes is similarly intricate and beneficial. We’ll discuss these benefits in another article.