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As students of yoga, many of us try to view ourselves, and perhaps the world, from the vantage point of wholeness and connectedness. Unfortunately (and quite surprisingly!) we don’t often bring this view into our asana practice. Even if we’re fortunate enough to see the connections between our body and the deeper layers of our being, we still tend to address our flexibility from a reductionistic standpoint.
I don’t know how many times I’ve heard students complain “...I’m flexible, except for my ______” You can fill in the blank with hamstrings, shoulders, neck, etc, but the ramifications are the same. Much time is spent torturing muscles with stretching that has little, if any, effect.
Sound familiar? Have you made an earnest attempt to free a tight muscle, only to see it grow tighter as the years pass by? Have you even injured the very muscle you were trying to free? If you answered yes to either of these observations, may I suggest a modification to your view of “tightness?”
The body is a wondrously sophisticated instrument. Without conscious effort, we digest, assimilate and process the energy gleaned from our food. Can you imagine directing such a process with your thinking brain? How about thinking through the mechanics underlying motions such as walking or running? Of course we trust the genius of our bodies, whether we’ve consciously made that choice or not. The irony arises when we begin to “take care” of ourselves. Generally we reduce the body into an understandable mechanism and act from that model.
Take, for example, the case of tight hamstrings. Immediately we jump to the conclusion that the hamstrings are themselves the problem and decide that stretching is the solution to their tightness. It may well be - but we can’t make that decision without more refined observation. Have we taken into account the relationship of the hamstrings to the rest of our legs, pelvis and back? Do we know whether their tightness is indeed the problem, or our body’s clever response to a deeper problem?
We frequently see at-risk backs accompanied by tight hamstrings. I’ve had many referrals from doctors, chiropractors, and PT’s to help their clients’ back health by loosening their hamstrings. The first question to ask is why does this muscle have to be tight? What function does the tightness serve? The answer to this question is frequently... to help this person’s back be as healthy as it is! If we didn’t have the support of the tight hamstrings, the back would be even more vulnerable!
The body tightens muscles in order to stabilize itself. If a muscle is weak or injured, the surrounding muscles reflexively tighten in order to splint itself. If we overstress or injure an area, we subconsiously lock down the surrounding area. What a blessing! This gives us the ability to remain functional while the injury mends. Like walking and digesting, the genius behind this is staggering! Unfortunately, the reflexive tightening often outlasts the mending process. Even more challenging, the body often perceives the stretching of a muscle as further aggravation to the splinting, and locks down even harder. Even if the injury is years old, this pattern often lingers.
Look at the system when evaluating tightness. Ask yourself what function it serves. Maybe the work occurs in strengthening the core muscles that should be supporting the joints. External, locomotor muscles generally tighten to support a vulnerable core. Perhaps years of car driving has irritated your psoas to the point where it has become like beef jerky - unwilling to extend or contract. (These are the most common causes of tight hamstrings, to return to our example.)
Our bodies are genius. Please don’t undermine this through a reductionistic yoga practice. Revel in the possibilities granted us through all the various schools of yoga. Like our bodies, the answers to the riddles are inherent in every approach to yoga practice and at all times.
Scott Anderson brings Master energy through when he teaches yoga. He combines
that energy with his extensive knowledge of anatomy and a sense of humor. As
a result his sessions are energizing rather than exhausting or depleting. He
is one of the best body readers I know. His attention to strengthening physical
bodies is for the physical bodies in front of him, not an ideal in his head.
The physical work is just one aspect of the yoga Scott practices. He treats the person