Wednesday, November 2, 2011

Yoga for increased range of motion and better resting mucle length

I was chatting with another massage therapist last week who said something which caught me by surprise, in a big way. He said that he doesn't believe that yoga is all that useful for stretching or increasing range of motion, and that if one wants to improve those things, they ought to simply do "traditional" stretching.  I happen to disagree with him.  Based on personal experience.  Allow me to be clear - I believe that just regularly stretching a couple times a day, using established stretching techniques can probably do a wonderful job of helping one gain flexibility and range of motion.  So, if that works for you, then go for it.

But I still think that yoga is likely to work better for many people.  For starters, I think that because most people are likely to do yoga along with a video or in a class, there are some fringe benefits.  I think that since there is structure, many folks are more likely to stick with it.  Because there is an instructor (even on video), there is a better chance that poses or stretches are done correctly.  And, assuming that the instructor is making the right efforts, there can be a better chance for the ego to be taken out of the equation, hopefully lessening the chance that one pushes themselves too far or hard and hurts themselves.

But on a physiological level, I have a reason to believe that yoga is not only effective, but potentially more effective than what many consider "just stretching."  That reason is
a phenomenon called reciprocal inhibition.  For every movement we have available at a particular joint, we have an opposite movement, and there are muscles that create each movement.

Let's use the elbow as an example:  When we flex our elbow, our biceps are working, and when we extend our elbow, our triceps are working.  In order for one of those to do its job, the other must not be simultaneously contracting.  So, when the brain tells the biceps to contract and flex the elbow, it also tells the triceps that it's time to relax and lengthen. Hold that thought - we'll apply it in 3 sentences.

A "tight" muscle is one that's holding some contraction while at rest, so breaking that holding pattern can be the key to increasing flexibility.  Many yoga poses call for engaging a muscle group while stretching the opposite group.  Thus, the opportunity to take advantage of reciprocal inhibition.  When the pose is held for 30 seconds or so, the proprioceptors (a type of nerve cell) in the muscle get to being retrained a bit, and reset themselves to a new, longer resting length.  Relax for a moment, and then hold it for another 30 seconds again, and you gain even more length.

Reciprocal inhibition is also used in this way in an assisted stretching technique called "PNF" stretching (Proprioceptive Neuromuscular Facilitation).  Hence the physiological reason that I believe yoga can be a tremendous way to increase flexibility and range of motion - it's essentially a self-administered PNF Stretching.

Before I wrap up, a word of caution: as wonderful as yoga can be for help increase flexibility, it's like any other stretching or any other physical activity.  If you push too hard, or too fast, then you stand a pretty good chance of hurting yourself.  So don't be a super hero - in yoga, "regular" stretching, weight lifting, running, or anything else you choose to do for exercise.  That is all.