What if I told you that flexibility has little to do with muscle length, and everything to do with your nervous system’s protective holding patterns?
How would that change your practice?
Often, muscle tightness, and what is experienced as inflexibility, is the result of deep neurological habits. That is, the nervous system is doing its job of protecting you by tightening the muscles when they give certain feedback. When we push beyond that natural response in order to find a deeper stretch, or to willfully encourage the muscles to lengthen, that initial resistance is only met with greater resistance! Your nervous system intelligently signals the muscles to tighten more when that comfort zone is pushed.
This means that in our efforts to gain flexibility, or to stretch more (especially if we’re already “tight”), we may actually be training ourselves to tighten up even more!
So how, then, do we gain flexibility if stretching is potentially making us tighter?
The answer is not to just stop stretching altogether, but to be much more intelligent about how, how far, and how often to stretch.
Even before looking at your stretching program, it’s helpful to first look at stabilizing your nervous system. Stabilizing the nervous system can be tricky, as we are not usually accustomed to recognizing and listening to its signals. However, finding and creating nervous system stability is not so complicated — at least in theory.
The basic principle of finding stability in your nervous system is creating a feeling of safety. Here is where it can get tricky, because everyone’s conditions for safety are different, and often our ideas of safety are not always congruent with what our nervous system needs to understand that it is, in fact, keeping you safe and alive. In other words what feels safe at the conscious level may not actually be registered as safety by your nervous system. We often learn to find safety, or comfort, in conditions where the nervous system is unstable, and in doing so we may become even more estranged form our nervous system’s signals.
In short, when you are comfortable and stable, the nervous system relaxes. It lets go of the signal to protect and the armoring tension that results in muscle tightness and inflexibility decrease. This happens gradually and in layers. While your nervous system is extremely fast in reacting to protect, it has a much slower timeline when it comes to registering safety — the nervous system is often just beginning to settle at the same time that you feel bored or that you’re no longer getting anything out of the pose.
This is the most difficult part: our sensations are relayed to us via the nervous system, and when it is quiet, we think nothing’s happening because, well, there’s no signal… no sensation of stretch or pain or all of the other sensations we normally associate with “progress.” As soon as we feel a sensation of stretch, especially when we are particularly tight, this is often interpreted by the nervous system as a threat — a threat that the nervous system tries to protect you from by tightening the very place you are trying to stretch!
The nervous system also operates on habit, on recurrence. Once you’ve developed a protective habit against any particular movement or range of motion, anything you do to challenge that range of motion reinforces the habit. While behaviorally, we can often sometimes replace one habit by simply cultivating another, protective habits don’t necessarily respond to replacement and need to be slowly unraveled as stability is cultivated in more productive, conscious ways.
So what to do? How can you settle the nervous system and stretch, how can you settle and stabilize your nervous system in order to become more flexible?
The first step is to take away any perceived threat to the nervous system. This means only moving in ranges of motion where there is absolutely no resistance or restriction — so if you feel a stretch, you’ve already gone too far from a nervous perspective (you *may* still get some muscular and circulatory benefits, but not when working specifically with settling the nervous system).
For instance, in Supta Padangusthasana (lying down hamstring stretch), we often go to the point where we feel a pleasant stretch sensation at the back of the leg. What one person feels as “pleasant,” however, may be “intense” for someone else; and some only find pleasant when sensation is intense. If the nervous system is the restriction (and this may be the case even if you are very flexible and only feel sensation near your end-range), you’ll need to back off of the pose considerably and stay in it for much longer than you are used to.
That will often mean that instead of extending both legs, bringing the raised leg 90º toward your torso or closer, you will bend the bottom leg and rest the raised leg on a support much further away from you: the wall, a chair, or sometimes even a block. The pose won’t look or feel like a stretch at all, *but* it gives the nervous system a chance to adjust to a mild form of the range, making it feel safe and stable. In turn, when that range is revisited, it’s no longer interpreted as a threatening range of motion, but a safe one instead, and the range more naturally increases.
It’s also important in this strategy to support the limbs, so in the Supta Padangusthasana example above, support not only the heel of the raised leg, but if possible support the back of the entire leg. The contact from this support will help stabilize the nervous system, but it will also protect the leg from hyperextending and prevent your hip flexor and quadricep muscles from engaging to carry the weight of your leg. Again, these engagements will aggravate the nervous system rather than soothe it because there is still a degree of fight or struggle — no longer in the hamstrings, but in the opposing muscles.
Another aspect of working with the nervous system if that is the cause of your tightness, is that often tight muscles become weak over time. There is sometimes a misunderstanding that because a muscle is tight and firm, it is also strong. That’s not really true, it’s only habitually contracted in a shortened position — it doesn’t have the full power afforded by a full range of motion. Think of when a soccer player kicks the ball: if they can bring their leg more fully back in hip extension and knee flexion, and continue through to hip flexion and knee extension, the kick has much more power to it than if the knee can only flex 50% and extend 75%, and if the hip can only extend a few degrees back and flex only a few degrees forward. In this example, much of that power is gained through the momentum of the range of motion, not just pure muscular strength.
When we remove momentum as a factor, muscles are still able to exert more force when their range of motion is free — within reason. We are usually weaker at the ends of our ranges of motion, and that’s one reason why we get inflexible, especially if our work or training requires more strength than flexibility.
Then, when there’s weakness, this is also interpreted as instability by the nervous system, and a common tactic to regain stability is to tighten. Again, though, this is a state of struggle, of threat, and though it may lead to a sense of temporary stability and a habit of holding rigidly, it will not lead to greater flexibility. Instead, it feeds the loop of tightening more whenever a threat (stretch sensation) is present.
So the second aspect of addressing flexibility through the nervous system branches from the first: once the nervous system settles in mild, supported ranges of motion, more active stability can be created by resisting against the support temporarily and then releasing — but without changing the degree that you’re resting in the pose. The release phase after activation is just as important, if not *more* important, as once again, the nervous system needs time after resistance to understand that the threat is gone, there is additional stability, and adapt to that.
After resisting into the support (so away from the range of motion), you can further stabilize by resisting in other directions: first, resist toward the range of motion, without actually moving into it. In our Supta Padangusthasana example, if you were resting your heel on a wall, keep the heel on the wall, but engage the legs as if you were to lift the heel away from the wall. Hold this engagement for a few breaths, rest, and engage a second and third time. Again, resting in the supported, reduced range is essential for retraining the nervous system to not interpret that range of motion — or the associated engagements — as a threat.
You can also, without changing the leg position, resist the leg toward and away from the midline.
To both develop a new habit of releasing, and give the nervous system time to adapt, hold these mild positions (I won’t even call them “stretches” because there is no stretch sensation) for anywhere from 5-20 minutes provided they are adequately supported. Repeat them for 7 or more consecutive days before changing the degree. Each day, you will likely feel less and less, and that is *good*!
After the 7th consecutive day, take a day or two to rest completely, and then repeat the cycle in a very slightly deeper range of motion — but again, well before any sensation of stretch.
After 6 weeks of this pattern, notice the differences in your flexibility when you do, finally, move into ranges where stretch sensation is felt.
Practice well, and use this time to develop patience and sensitivity to more subtle sensations. Observe how your body creates a multitude of small adjustments as nervous tension unravels. Deepen your practice by penetrating consciousness through the layers that normally run unconsciously, rather than by finding deeper, more intense sensations.
Your nervous system will thank you.
*Stay tuned for my upcoming book, PAIN in the āsana, date TBA