Tuesday, January 09, 2007

Deflect the Reflex

Sunday night, I settled back into Supta Baddha Konasana (Supine Bound Angle Pose)—I still haven’t ventured into any standing or balance poses, yet—and immediately felt resistance in my hip muscles. I slid a couple of cushions under my knees, so they could relax, and kept breathing into my hip joints to try and get them to open. In a minute or so I was able to slide the pillows further out and finally I got rid of them all together. At the end of the five minutes, I was flat on my back and my knees were very close to the floor…a turnaround from my position at the beginning.

What is fascinating about this pose-a-day practice is how much the poses change over the five minutes. Moving slowly into a pose is the best way to maximize the stretch of your muscle tissues. You are trying to counteract the Myotatic Stretch Reflex, which is the muscle reflex that makes your foot bounce when the doctor whacks your knee with his little hammer. It is also the reflex that keeps your body upright when you’re engaged in activities that require the muscles to absorb frequent dynamic shocks (jumping up and down on a basketball court, jogging on an uneven surface). The muscles involved in the action immediately contract so they are ready to work, which is great in the moment but can lead to tightness and decreased flexibility (why runners often have tight hip joints).

H. David Coulter has an extensive discussion of how your muscles respond in this reflex in Anatomy of Hatha Yoga, pp. 39-40.

This reflex can also be triggered by forcing your body into a position that it’s not ready to assume. If you can move slowly into a pose, it keeps the muscles loose and receptive and you can come deeper into the final position. As you hold the pose and breathe deeply, you will relax the muscles allowing for even greater lengthening. Here’s an example:

Uttanasana “over time” (Intense Forward Bend)

Roll your blanket—tightly if you have fairly flexible calves, looser if not. Now stand with the toes and balls of the feet on the blanket and the heels on your mat. Straighten and come to Tadasana (Mountain) making sure the tailbone points down to the floor and the shoulders are balanced over the hips. Breathe into this alignment and feel the calves start to open.

-With the hands in the hip crease (where the thighs meet the pelvis) begin to fold forwards from this joint, keeping the lower back long and the chest lifted. Reach down for the floor or your block when you are as far as you can fold. Try to sink your heels and balance your weight between the front and back of the foot. Breathe into the length of the spine and the continued opening of the calves. Hold for several minutes.
-Now, slightly bend the knees and step off the blanket. Stay in the forward bend position, but notice how much further you can bend forward—or how much more comfortable the position becomes. Continue lengthening the calves and, if you want to deepen the pose, release the spine and let the head and shoulders hang down towards the floor. Cross the arms and tuck your hands into elbow crease so the weight of the upper body helps open the spine and increases your stretch.
-Slowly re-engage the spine and, with your hands on your thighs, come back to standing.
©Brenda K. Plakans. All Rights Reserved.

No comments: