Ever wonder why you're not becoming more flexible even though you stretch? Did you know there is mechanism in your body that detects stretching and tells the muscles to resist the stretch?
The muscle spindle stretch receptor is a cell in the heart of every skeletal muscle (i.e., NOT smooth muscle such as in your stomach). Its job is to detect stretching in the muscle. When it does, it sends a message through the spinal cord--it doesn't even reach the brain. The message reads "Hey, we're stretching now!" Upon receiving the message the spine sends instructions back to the muscle to contract.
Wait, I thought we were stretching. Why on EARTH would the muscle contract?
The purpose of this automated feedback loop, called the spinal reflex arc, is to protect you. It's a default setting to prevent injuries if something were to happen unexpectedly. If you were to fall and you braced yourself with your left hand, your shoulder may be pushed back really far really fast. The muscle of concern, which would likely be the anterior deltoid in this case, immediately receives a message of stretching and before you even know it, that muscle is resisting the stretch and pulling the shoulder forward again. Injury is mitigated, but of course not necessarily avoided. The body does its best to keep us safe.
This is really important for us when we're stretching. If your stress levels are very high or you are being too aggressive, this feedback loop is going to be harder to disarm. The muscle spindle stretch receptor can also become oversensitive and overreact, but as far as it is concerned it's responding appropriately (YES that is a life metaphor!). This can cause increased stiffness in the body and makes stretching less effective and more likely to cause injury.
The autonomic nervous system needs to believe that you are in a safe setting or it's going to be reluctant to let you stretch. But it's the autonomic nervous system--it's unconscious. We have to work through the somatic nervous system (voluntary action) to communicate with the autonomic nervous system. Buckle up buttercup!
So how do you get the nervous system to cooperate?
1. Proper warmup. A systematic warmup tells the body that we are doing intentional training. The more times you do this, the more quickly the body sets itself for the activity.
2. Massage tools. Tools like the peanut communicate with your nervous system (more on that another time). They can be used to prepare muscles for stretching.
3. Stress reduction. Whether through breathing, meditation, massage, spending time with animals, or being outside, frequently, intentionally reducing stress is going to be helpful for disarming this feedback loop when you want to stretch. This is part of what makes flexibility a holistic practice. It feeds into and draws from many different areas of your life.
4. PNF. Proprioceptive Neuromuscular Facilitation is the practice of gently contracting and then relaxing the muscle you want to stretch. This helps dissolve the block created by the muscle spindle stretch receptor.
5. Breathing while stretching. Lengthening and deepening the breath triggers a cascade of messages through the body and also increases blood flow and oxygen levels. It helps muscles reduce their contractile states.
6. Be intentional. Flinging your foot into your hand for 5 seconds after you run is not enough to give your quads and psoas the care they need.
Flexibility involves more than stretching muscles, tendons, and ligaments. Hydration, stress, and inflammation are some of many factors that play into your limits and potential for developing flexibility--on the scale of a day as well as a decade. This blog post focuses on stress.
Check in with intentions
Before we dive in, I want to reinforce an important point in my philosophy of flexibility: the point is not to achieve a particular depth in a particular pose. Training flexibility is a way to deepen body awareness and stimulate healing processes within the body. Training flexibility is a universally available course of action for correcting imbalances in the body, clearing the mind, and grounding. I say this because popular attitudes toward flexibility over-emphasize physical achievement, glossing over the deeper, subtler values and benefits of this intimate practice.
Okay, now that we've oriented ourselves in a healthy and open way toward flexibility, what does stress have to do with how much we can bend?
Long story short and stripped of the anatomical details, when we perceive a threat, the body engages our muscles in preparation for self-defense. When we strengthen our muscles, we protect our vulnerable organs and tissues--this is not a time to be bendy! For the nervous system to allow muscle length, we need to believe that we are safe. Your outer environment (social, weather, airflow, temperature, sensory input, etc.) and inner environment (emotional, mental, physical, spiritual, etc.) are both contributors to your nervous system state and therefore muscle state.
If you are under constant stress, whether inner, outer, or both, the nervous system instructs your musculature to remain permanently contracted just a bit. Then as you become more stiff from that perma-contraction, that stiffness makes you uncomfortable and leads to more stress. Thus is born a perpetual cycle of increasingly tight muscles. Sounds exhausting doesn't it? And I'm not even touching the adrenals in this article!
In this self-protective state, you are likely to find limited results from attempts to stretch. When dealing with chronically tight muscles, it is helpful to approach flexibility through the nervous system before approaching the muscles.
Nervous system intervention
To interrupt the cycle of muscle tightness, we need to regularly calm the nervous system. This is simply re-training your body. The more frequently you practice calming the nervous system, the more accessible relaxation will become. Intentional relaxation exercises are more effective when practiced consistently over time.
Do not make peace conditional
Why are you stressed in the first place? This could be a question that has a practical solution or launches you on a spiritual quest. But important to note is that you do not have to resolve all of your stressors to abide in a relaxed state. If you tell yourself you can never be at peace unless x, y, z, you will never be at peace. It can seem absurd to abide in perfect calm when we know all the things wrong with ourselves and the world, but it's essential to reach beyond this mentally constructed limitation. Being at peace is not a logical matter--it arises as a result of a transformation of consciousness. We can embody peace without resolving or denying our problems, confusions, and fears.
Meditation teaches us that we do not need to muscularly react to our inner stressors, or to most of our outer stressors. Meditation helps us to be present with everything that would normally make us tense up. Remaining at ease in the midst of stressors is a skill. Anyone can train this skill.
Slow, deep breathing is one of the clearest signs the nervous system recognizes to mean: safe. Initiating intentional breathing patterns can redirect a fight-or-flight response, bringing greater clarity and calm in just minutes.
Yoga systematically challenges the stress response and then returns the nervous system to calm. Moving through a variety of postures, some challenging and some relaxing, is helpful for familiarizing with the nervous system response and becoming more skillful in directing inner energy.
Practice relaxing when already relaxed
As you become more familiar with nervous system regulation, you will start to recognize when you are being triggered into tension. You will remember techniques to calm the nervous system. This is great, but will be more effective if you also practice calming the nervous system when you are already at ease. Not only does consistency in this practice help you shift states more easily, but it also makes it more difficult for you to be triggered in the future. Many people will not feel motivated to practice calm when already calm, missing the point that it is a powerful form of prevention. Prevention may not feel as explicitly rewarding as resolving an anxiety spike, but it is exactly what will empower you to be able to do just that.
Work with Sara on a personalized integrative flexibility program.
Some people are hesitant to start a meditation practice because of a fear that it will "change" them. Well everything "changes" us and as far as I can tell, the changes brought by meditation are welcome.
By being present with myself quietly for twenty minutes a day for months, I have come to be able to see much more clearly the emotions, sensations, and thoughts that unfold within me. As I become more consistently intimate with my inner landscapes, I can better recognize patterns. I realized I can actually play with those patterns. I can follow them to where they lead, I can build on them, and I can change them. My overall experience of myself and my life has become brighter and gentler. Here's a glimpse of some of the changes I've enjoyed:
1. Improved emotional intelligence (the cereal incident)
Having a chance to sit with my emotional experiences as they were opened my eyes to their patterns and subtleties. Periodically I found myself first in acute irritation, only to find that if I could be present with that aggravation and wait a little longer, then I would burst into tears. So I started to understand that I shouldn't take certain emotional states at face value, and that I needed to be careful not to blame the closest, most likely culprit for how I feel. For example, once I thought my housemate eating cereal was the cause of my extreme irritation. "Why does he have to eat cereal all the time!?" (It had never bothered me before). After a few moments of listening to his spoon clink in the other room while I sat on my cushion, rage and tension gave way to sadness - tears began to flow and my lungs reopened. I discovered that I was actually overwhelmed by the general moment in my life. It wasn't the cereal--it was my fears, sadness, and hopes around my career, heart, and dreams that were expressing as irritation. But why was all that fear, hope, and sadness coming off as irritation? Now, thanks to emotional awareness, I understand that when I don't attend to my deeper feelings and provide a sufficient outlet for them, I get an uncomfortable buildup of energy. I needed to have conversations and to work creatively to mobilize the emotional state beyond its surface layer of irritation into its more salient depths of sadness, hope, and doubt. Irritation needs to be understood as a sentinel, even if we don't like the way it delivers its message.
2. Body awareness and body love (includes not getting hurt while training)
I used to be so caught up in my head that I was rather desensitized to my body. Even though I was athletic, I was not particularly attuned to my body. Interoception is a word for sensing your inner body experience--hunger, temperature, emotional states, and more. Meditation has given me time and space to notice what the heck is going on in my body, and has made me realize it's very important and pleasurable to do so. I have become a better communicator, finding that I can adjust my posture when I need to express something important. I have become a better aerialist, have remained uninjured while training contortion on my own, and haven't been sick in a year. I have also become less tolerant of things like sitting indoors for forty hours a week, which has prompted me to rearrange my life so my body can have what it needs. I'm dedicated to better responding to my body's signals, and have come into a beautiful relationship with my body. Check out the Body Connect meditation program to set that process in motion!
3. Social comfort and calm
Calm is becoming more and more a default state and reaction for me. I'm more comfortable around people than I used to be, and that change expresses in the fullness of my voice when I speak, the relaxation in my shoulders, and the willingness to allow silence. I'm better at noticing when I start to get overstimulated/overwhelmed by people (which has also improved). I definitely still get worked up by things people do and say, but more frequently, I am able to meet inappropriate or anxiety-inducing exchanges with a calm demeanor. It doesn't mean I am not anxious at all, but that I am able to pause and be silent before deciding what to do or say. As a very reactive person who often feels the "pressure to speak," this has been very helpful and liberating. I now feel I have permission not to respond to everything people say. I still experience panic when I have confrontation, and find it very difficult to physically speak, let alone organize my thoughts, but on the whole I feel more comfortable around others and I am eager to connect.
4. Positive framing (and keeping species healthy)
I believe this one was influenced by meditation because meditation has made me more sensitive generally. I have always been sensitive to the meanings and connotations of words, and have been inwardly cringing at harsh language all my life, but now I have had a chance to see how certain words make me feel inside. Lately I've been enjoying a creative mental game of postively reframing negative statements (which is particularly fun as an editor!). For example:
"I hope she doesn't mess up" vs "I hope she executes all her moves well!"
"I hope I don't get sick" vs "I hope I remain healthy."
"If the project fails, the species might go extinct." vs "If the project succeeds, the species could one day thrive again."
Sometimes negative language is the best way to express something, and I am by no means suggesting we should try to make everything positive all the time. But often, we can spin what we say and avoid giving ourselves and/or other people little ripples of tension. This change was also inspired by the IUCN Green List - instead of listing species' statuses relative to extinction, species are listed relative to their highest thriving potential. This encourages funders to support maximum recovery rather than just getting a species afloat. Positive framing uses the power of the mind and the imagination to help us feel happier and do the best we can with our circumstances. Negative thinking and framing easily becomes a habit we are not well aware of, but just the slightest adjustments make a big difference.
5. Higher self encounters
Meditation, combined with strong emotional experiences, unlocked my higher self. I now receive guidance and comfort that express through my own words, spoken or on paper, and enjoy imagery of the version of me that is devoid of attachments.
6. Empathy and connection (and not being as sarcastic)
Since taking up meditation I have become better aware of and attuned to the depths of the difficult emotions in my life. This has been paired with an understanding that everybody has difficult experiences to work with, which leads me to be gentle to myself and others by default. I recognize the insecurity in arrogance, the ignorance in condescension, the depression at the heart of aggression, and so on. I see the cover-ups and don't take them at face value. I used to be pretty sarcastic and I was proud of that part of my identity. I worried it might go away if I did too much yoga and meditation. It DID go away (mostly), and I'm happy about it after all! I take different approaches to interacting with people now, and I have never had more positive connections in my life. And I now know, thanks to experiences like the cereal incident, that what we see on the surface is just the tiniest hint about what's going on below. When people interact with me in strange or irritating ways, I'm usually able to see what's going on and have the patience to wait until we can connect more authentically. So I'm less quick to push people away, and have a higher tolerance for the time people take to feel comfortable to authentically connect. It's really worth it--to me when someone finally opens up, it feels like breathing after holding my breath for a long time!
7. Sense of humor (will laugh for money for novice stand-up comedians)
I laugh...a lot. Even when I'm alone my mind will give me hilarious memories and I get to laugh all over again. This often happens before I fall asleep, which is really nice because I used to just go through all my stressors before falling asleep. I'm sure at times this is irritating to people, but I try to be mindful of others' emotional states when I'm feeling giggly, and overall, I'm really grateful for this change. It feels amazing to laugh. Laughing uncontrollably makes me feel like the day was fulfilling, a success, I am content.
I've been writing prose and poetry and consistently journaling since I started up a consistent meditation practice. All my writing reflects features of my emotional life, which I am attuned to because of meditation. I have learned when I am in a condition for writing; I can feel when I'm getting the creative spark, so I know to gather my materials and take time to myself so I can create an outlet for what's unfolding in me. I feel inspired and purposeful every day, and really enjoy feeling that my creative work forms a connective thread between my life experiences. I am currently working on two poetry albums that I hope to publish on Spotify. Stay tuned!
9. Gratitude (without complacency)
I actively feel grateful. I even sense the absence of bad things as an actively good thing. I don't have everything I want in life by any means, but it has become easier and easier to recognize and thoroughly enjoy what is good. Even looking at trees or walking in nature feels wonderful. This sense of appreciation hasn't made me complacent, as some people worry might happen to them. I still strive for my highest goals and seek fantastic experiences. It just means that in the lulls, in the difficult times, I still feel connected to the goodness. I am not overcome by negativity.
10. Discomfort tolerance (this is not an emergency)
Becoming more body-aware through meditation led me to realize that my mind very much overreacts about physical sensations. Basically, my brain sounds the alarm prematurely when pain or anxiety are detected. I didn't realize all this at the time, but I experienced an interesting example of this in late 2017 I went to a private contortion lesson in San Francisco. My teacher assisted me into a backbend that did not hurt, but created an extreme sense of pressure throughout my torso. I was thinking I couldn't possibly endure it and it couldn't possibly be safe, even though I fully trusted my teacher. My alarm bells were ringing! When I came out, I felt wonderful. No pain that day or ever! So sometimes if I get some strange tension or pain in my body, or start to feel slightly depressed, I notice the red lights and the SOS signals going off. Now I tell myself, "This is not an emergency. If it were, I'd know." Nothing has ever seriously debilitated or killed me. I've overcome every injury and illness in my life. It is unlikely that some new discomfort is going to be anything significant, and if I know anything, it's that human experience fluctuates, so soon I'll feel different, back to myself again. Having this attitude prevents me from making the pain or discomfort WORSE by getting anxious about it, and lets my mind and body do the necessary work to heal and come back to equilibrium.
Meditation starts to bring us what it is we need. It doesn't always work like magic (though sometimes it really seems like it does)--we still need to put the work in in the particular areas of our lives we see room for change. I think ultimately, meditation helped me to see where I was experiencing difficulty, and helped me see my options for expressing myself and relating to myself and others differently. It helped me understand what was happening within me and showed me what I need to do to accommodate that.
Check out the online meditation programs available through Pattern Shift, and contact anytime if you have questions!
A simple guide for effectively bringing yourself down from mental overdrive.
You know how to connect conceptual dots. You can handle complex abstract ideas and follow intellectual queries to their logical conclusions. Mental gymnastics is your main event.
Intellect in action can be beautiful, exciting, and fascinating. But the mind can also get carried away, wrapped up in abstractions, paradoxes, and thoughts flowing so fast that if they were a river there would be a warning sign on the bank - Danger: swift current.
For times that thoughts and ideas feel overwhelming--too many thoughts happening too fast and making themselves seem urgent--body presence is an effective way to ground, center, and restore tranquility in the mind and body. However, many people who experience mental overdrive are not aware that a shift of awareness into the body can help them feel better. In fact, a common reaction to mental overdrive is to try to solve the problem through more thinking, which results in mounting anxiety and a self-perpetuating cycle of distress.
Body presence to liberate yourself from cycles of the mind
Body presence is a form of awareness that focuses on sensation. If you find your mind becoming overactive and are feeling anxious, take that experience as a clear, compassionate message to take sanctuary in the body.
Three important messages for you:
For moderate anxiety: Feel the ground beneath you. Relax around your forehead, jaw, and shoulders. Notice where you can feel your breath--and encourage that breath to slow down and deepen a bit if you can. Put one hand on your chest and one hand on your belly to feel yourself breathe. Breathe in through your nose, and out through pursed lips as if through a straw. Acknowledge what you feel and encourage calm.
For high anxiety: Feel the ground beneath you. Relax around your forehead, jaw, and shoulders. Take a full, deep breath in and exhale in sharp short intervals. Repeat until you feel more calm. Flow between two or three simple yoga postures (see video below). As you become more calm, come to a seated or reclining posture. Put one hand on your chest and one hand on your belly to feel yourself breathe.
For panic: Go into child's pose or crocodile pose if you can. If you can't, do what you can to make yourself comfortable. Drop your shoulders. Feel the support of the ground beneath you. Take a full, deep breath in and exhale in sharp short intervals. Repeat until you feel calm taking root within you. When you feel more calm, begin to flow through two or three simple yoga postures while focusing on breath. Move slowly. As you deepen calm in your body, come to a seated or reclining position. Put one hand on your chest and one hand on your belly to feel yourself breathe. As you do, repeat this mantra, inwardly or out loud, recommended by mental health advocate Malia Bradshaw to yourself slowly: "I am safe, I am loved."
After calming yourself, find a simple, light activity that requires your hands and gentle focus. A few great options include:
Later on in the day, or the next morning if you feel comfortable being still, consider making yourself a cup of tea and journaling about what's on your mind, or curl up with a book or a podcast. Being able to shift awareness from mental activity to body presence is a powerful and helpful skill for everybody. Ultimately, this skill, and time spent in body presence will support you not only in feeling at peace, but also in nurturing a thriving intellect. I encourage you to bring meditation into your life to support yourself--the 14-day online meditation program "Body Connect" is a great place to start.
For immediate guidance and support, I recommend this video: