Butterfly pose
Deep holds to release and renew the body

So, I started yoga in 2000 – for the same reason many people come to my classes now – because I felt stiff and inflexible.

But what causes this common phenomenon of feeling stiff, achy and ill-at-ease in our bodies?

It’s partly about tight muscles. But it’s also about the tightness of the joints themselves.

Stiff muscles and joints lead to discomfort in the body which we brace ourselves against – leading to more tightness, especially as this tends to be accompanied by shallow-breathing. Add to the mix anxiety and stress and we end up feeling as if we’re tightly bound by ropes and afraid to move!

Of course, this is where yoga comes in to the rescue.

Yoga stretches and lengthens the muscles, encourage us to breathe deeply, contributing to  that delightful sense of release and relief at the end of our yoga practice.

However, many yoga practices are based on constant flowing movements. This is great for the muscles, because muscles love to move.

But it overlooks the joints themselves.

The role of your joints

To create space and keep ease of movement in our bodies we also need to focus on our joints; on the connective tissues which bind and stabilise the bones (ligaments) or attach the muscles to the bones (tendons) to allow movement.

These connective tissues don’t like to be stretched quickly or repetitively, but they are designed to allow movement. It’s the ability of the joints to move with ease, fluidity and through their range of motion that contributes to our sense of whether we are stiff or whether we are flexible.

Supported Child's Pose
Rest to release

I’ve recently been trying different styles of yoga – Yin Yoga and Restorative Yoga.

Restorative yoga uses blocks and bolsters to completely support the body allowing your body’s tissues to release and relax.

Yin Yoga places beneficial stress on the joints, through compression, stretch and twist, held with stillness and awareness, to promote renewal and rejuvenation of the cells and tissues.  It emphasizes longer-held, passive stresses on the deeper connective tissues of the body, particularly the lower back and hips, again to encourage the tissues to release.

Why you need stress

Now, the word “stress” comes with baggage. But our bodies DO need stress.

Stress simply means the tension we place on our tissues.

If our body never experienced any stress it would atrophy. We would become weak. Our joints would become stuck as our connective tissues become dry, lose their ability to stretch and we would eventually seize up. Our bones would lose their density and osteoporosis would be the result.  (Astronauts loose more than 1% of their bone density for every month in space where they are not subject to the stress-effects of gravity.)

The key is to apply intelligent stress to our joints. To listen to our body. To move slowly into what feels like a stretch but notice the effect on the joints we’re working.

So easing into and holding therapeutic poses focuses on the joints helping them to release toxins, break down old scar tissue, encouraging the flow of blood and lymph; it stimulates our body’s rejuvenation and renewal systems.

By promoting renewal of the connective tissues they become stronger, thicker and longer, thus protecting the joints better, but also helping to maintain and create space in the joints – essential if we are to stay supple and mobile throughout our lives.

Breathe. Rest. Let the body heal itself.

An exercise in physical and mental awareness

This is a quiet, still, mindful practice where you really notice the sensations in your body and the fluctuations in your mind.

Holding a deep stretch in stillness give the mind opportunity to shout and tell you all sorts of reasons to come out of the pose and do something else 😉

*As long as there’s no pain such as burning sensations, sharp stabbing or tingling pains* it’s an education to remain in the pose even if it feels unpleasant.

You may begin to notice patterns of behaviour. You may notice you dissociate – mentally run away and think about other things. You may feel angry or frustrated – with yourself or the practice. You might come straight out of it and do something else. Or you might stick with it and feel sorry for yourself.

Does your reaction in the yoga pose mirror your reaction to situations you label challenging or unpleasant in your life?

This practice will help to keep your mind flexible. Creating new neural pathways in your brain as you observe and experience new challenges.

What we need from yoga changes with age

Newborns are incredibly flexible – they have no internal stability. We gain stability as we grow through our childhood and teenage year but we are often still very flexible, as such we need to continue to focus on developing strength.

Around our mid-twenties to mid-thirties we reach our optimal balance of stability and flexibility.

And then, we begin to lose our flexibility. Without care, we can become too stable – and inflexible!

So once we pass our mid-thirties we certainly need to focus on maintaining our flexibility.

If we don’t keep moving we WILL seize up! Joints will get stiff. Our bones will lose their density. Our body will contract and shrink. Our tissues will dry up making movement difficult.

This doesn’t have to be your future though!

A regular, balanced yoga practice will keep your muscles long and strong, your joints mobile, and your body’s tissues hydrated so the cells continue to renew.

We need both styles of yoga – the movement AND the longer-held passive stretches to encourage your body’s systems to flow, to release blockages and toxins to allow your body to heal itself.

Try this

Try this approach to Butterfly Pose to access the hips and lower back.

{I repeat, any pain as described above, come straight out of the pose}

If you’re feeling stiff and inflexible and unsure what to do about it, I’ll leave you with this quote – and encourage you to try, or practise more, yoga!

“People understand their cars better than their bodies. If we get a new car, we assume it will work without trouble for a while, then things will begin to wear and tear and need attention. It is the same with the body, If we give it the right attention when needed, rather than ignoring it and hoping it will go away, our body need not be a source of pain and discomfort” Dr Friedrich Staebler, doctor/acupuncturist/herbalist.

What next?

In the Southampton area? Come along to my next Saturday morning yoga workshop: “Stretch & Release” on April 11th 2015 10am-12.30pm.

We’ll be stretching tight muscles, getting into those tight joints and moving through our natural range of motion to tease out tension and to release trapped and stagnant energy from your body to feel that wonderful inner glow of wellbeing and joy which yoga brings us.

Find out more and book your place here.

{First photo credit: Nicholas_T / Foter / CC BY}

{Second photo credit: amyjirsa_yogini / Foter / CC BY}

Why you want to stress your body {in a yogic way of course!}
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