People think of stretching muscles as pulling an elastic band. As you put more force on the muscle it stretches and gets longer. WRONG! Excess force on a tense muscle may lead to injury. A study in the Journal of Bodywork and Movement Therapies showed that yoga can cause injury in a significant number of people. Gentle stretching is the way to treat injury.
Now I am not against yoga, far from it, I recommend that my patients go to a yoga class, but they should practice with a teacher who is experienced in working with injuries.
If a muscle is tight, it is tight for a reason; it may be trying to protect an inflamed joint or it may be protecting itself so that damaged fibres can repair. Excess force on such a muscle may stimulate it to become more tense, shorter and, at worst, cause it to tear away from the bone.
In the long term, muscles can get into the habit of tension. The original problem may be cured but the muscle’s protective function remains. In fact the tension now becomes a problem in itself, putting pressure on joints it covers. Chronic muscular tension may lead to serious conditions like arthritis of the hip.
So short term muscle tension has a protective function but chronic muscle tension can lead to more serious injuries. We want to leave short term tension alone but we want to get rid of chronic tension. However, forceful stretching can make things worse. So what do we do?
Gentle Stretching with Awareness
I give people a set of simple yoga stretches for their low back and I tell them to stop and rest as soon as they feel their muscles begin to lengthen. There should be no sense of pain or forcing. Resting in the position of minimal stretch, they should start to breathe deeply. As they breathe, the rib cage and abdomen expand and contract. This rhythmical movement imparts a gentle massage to the muscles in the back. Muscles treated like this will relax and lengthen naturally and more easily than muscles forced to stretch.
To improve the quality of this stretch it can be helpful to apply mindfulness. This means exploring the quality of how it feels around the stretching muscle. Be interested! Make micro movements into and out of the stretch; observe how the quality of sensation changes. This Focussing the mind with a gentle interested awareness can improve the healing in your body immensely.
When you try to force a muscle to stretch you are exerting mind over matter and this creates a false mind/body separation. Mindful stretching is working mind in matter or mind with matter. It is a coming together of mind and body and consequently is more likely to result in healing.