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.