A teacher sits cross-legged in an 8′ by 10′ room with almost no furniture. Light from an overcast sky diffuses through windows onto the wooden floor. “Honor yourself for taking this time to show compassion towards your body. Namaste.” The Sanskrit word “namaste” loosely translates to “the best in me bows to the best in you.” Students quietly respond, “Namaste” and yoga class ends.
While retaining many of its positive mental aspects, yoga has been adapted to western fitness regimes and sensibilities. It can be particularly beneficial to the aging athlete (all of us are aging, right?) who recognizes the need to promote muscle and joint flexibility – the need to show compassion towards our hardworking bodies. Yoga classes come in every variety and flavor, from the advanced gravity-defying, human-pretzel to the restorative draped-over-pillows, human-dish cloth. Gentle or beginner yoga lands in between. Classes are designed to reset the mind and body to an alert, relaxed state.
Overall fitness encompasses endurance, strength, and flexibility. Balancing our efforts to include all three becomes more important as we age. Yoga addresses flexibility for the entire body and, to a lesser degree, strength. Let’s say you are a runner or cyclist with tight hamstrings, so you regularly reach for your toes. Though this may be better than doing nothing, a stretching program that includes all parts of the body would be more effective to stretch your hamstrings. How can stretching your back affect your hamstrings? Through your connective tissue, which connects, well… everything.
What happens when you stretch
With regard to fitness, what we generally think of as “stiffness” arises from the joint and ligaments (about 50%), connective tissue in the muscle or “myofascia” (about 40%), and tendons (about 10%). Since overstretching tendons and ligaments can weaken the joint, efforts to increase flexibility should be directed towards stretching myofascia. Fortunately, myofascia is more elastic than the other tissues.
So what, exactly, is myofascia? Myo (muscle) fascia (connective tissue) surrounds individual muscle fibers, bundles of fibers, and entire muscles. Fascia contains elastin and collagen fibers oriented in a wavy pattern parallel to the direction of pull. They are flexible, but able to resist great tension as pulling forces straighten the wavy pattern of fibers. Fascia tissue connects muscle fibers to tendons, and tendons connect to bone. In fact, fascia, or connective tissue, is continuous throughout the entire body, like a flexible mesh from head to toe.
Michael J Alter, author of Science of Flexibility, states that the main reason we become less flexible as we get older is a result of changes in our connective tissues. Aging has some of the same effects on connective tissue that lack of use has. When connective tissue is unused or under-used, it provides significant resistance and limits flexibility. The elastin begins to fray, collagen increases in density, and both lose some of their elasticity. It is believed that stretching prevents formation of adhesions by stimulating the production or retention of lubricants between the connective tissues. Note however, that connective tissue also has its limits. When it is overused, the tissue becomes fatigued and may tear, which also limits flexibility.
Before you stretch
First off, you should not stretch first. Stretching is not a “warm-up” activity. In fact, you need to “warm-up” prior to stretching. You do this by raising the body temperature 2 or 3 degrees F and by moving joints through comfortable ranges of motion.
Raising body temperature makes the muscles and attached myofascial tissue more elastic. To do this, stretch after your regular workout or after a light aerobic workout. Research has shown that stretching prior to exercise, in itself, does not prevent injury. Raising body temperature prior to stretching or prior to exercising is what helps prevent injury.
Joint movement stimulates production of sinovial fluid – a viscous lubricant in the joint which the body produces abundantly when we are young, but less so as we age. That stiffness you feel when you first get off the sofa – lack of sinovial fluid. Move your appendages in slow circular motions to lubricate those creaky joints.
Yoga for stretching
Yoga class may start with “vinyasa” or flow yoga, a series of continuously changing poses with integrated breathing, which can serve as a warm-up. If the routine feels easy and comfortable to complete, this can be a good way to raise your body temperature and lubricate your joints. Feel free to skip or modify any poses that seem difficult; it is likely your body is not yet warm or flexible enough to achieve proper alignment to do those poses. If the instructor discourages this kind of self-advocacy, find another class. One of the most important tenets of yoga is to know and accept your body’s current limitations. We are so demanding of ourselves! Try practicing that compassion-thing.
After you warm-up, class may progress into static stretches or poses. Research (on hamstring muscles in particular) has shown that static stretches are most effective when held for 30 seconds. Again – these should not be the longest 30 seconds of your life. A healthy stretch should go only slightly beyond your comfort. As with much of life, frequency of your practice (minimum: twice a week) yields more improvement than intensity of any single session.
A gentle or beginner yoga class generally avoids poses that cause injury for beginners. Rule of thumb: if the pose is painful and/or you cannot imagine how the movement could possibly help you in your sport – feel free to modify or skip it. Steve Fearing, Yoga/Joga, states that students who skip a pose, modify it, or do a completely different pose during class are often advanced yoga students, but more generally those with good body awareness. Some stretches for beginners to consider avoiding include: the plough (lie down on your back, sweep your legs up and over, trying to touch your knees to your ears), traditional backbend, traditional hurdlers stretch (sit on the ground with one leg straight in front, the other leg fully bent behind you, as you lean back to stretch the quadricep of the bent leg), and straight legged toe touches (it’s perfectly ok to bend your knees!). Tis better to err on the side of compassion and return quickly to challenge yourself, than to overextend and damage tissue.
I do not receive a commission from any yoga affiliate
Realistically, you can stretch regularly without a yoga class. The question is: Will you?
If you decide to try yoga, a class with a qualified instructor will help insure familiarity with poses and correct alignment so you can continue your practice at home, on your own or with a video. In addition, with a class you have a commitment, you learn new routines which incorporate proper breathing, and you don’t just do your favorite stretches – the ones you are good at. The yoga community values quiet reflection, but there is also camaraderie. Perhaps most refreshing, yoga is a fitness activity that yields more benefit if you simply accept whatever you can do. Yoga invites you to leave your competitive drive at the door.
Finding the right yoga class:
Recommended yoga classes (West Linn and Canby, OR):
Yoga/Joga, West Linn, OR. Jo McMahon teaches a beginner class. She accepts a $5 donation per class, which she then donates to the local food bank. Steve Fearing teaches intermediate/advanced classes with fees for 8-10 week sessions. http://www.yogafinder.com/yoga.cfm?yoganumber=42779 .
Canby Community Education. Yoga with Michelle Dahl, Yoga with Steve Fearing. http://www.canby.k12.or.us/uploads/pdf/communityeducation/Spring-2014-CCE-Schedule.pdf See page 13.
Online (free!) yoga classes:
20 minute class (good overall stretch) http://youtu.be/B_725qp3_qo
Unravel the tension (20 minutes – emphasis on hamstrings and shoulders. Note: I skip reclined hero’s pose, an extreme quadricep stretch) http://youtu.be/gQ63nBPHzew
Seawheeze 2013 yoga practice (30 minutes – more advanced – designed for runners and cyclists, but a good all-around stretch) http://youtu.be/QlgDPA9o21A
Yoga videos – even with all the free stuff, I would pay for these
Yoga conditioning for weight loss with Suzanne Deason (45 minutes – a great overall stretch for beginners of all sizes — don’t let the title put you off)
AM and PM Yoga (20 minutes – Patricia Walden gives great overall PM stretch. Rodney Yee does the very, very gentle AM stretch, also about 20 minutes.)
Michael J. Alter, Science of Flexibility, ISBN-13: 9780736048989
MCNAIR, P. et al. (2001) Stretching at the ankle joint: viscoelastic responses to holds and continuous passive motion. Medicine & Science in Sport and Exercise, 33 (3), p. 354-358
How to stretch http://web.mit.edu/tkd/stretch/stretching_5.html
The effect of time on static stretch on the flexibility of the hamstring muscles. http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/8066111