Yoga For Flexibility
Workout fads come and go – for example:
When the movie 300 was released, the Spartan workout had become immensely popular among enthusiasts. Now, nobody is talking about it – it has become ‘Spartan’ (pun intended). Yoga, on the other hand, has been around for more than 5 millennia. Of course, it has evolved over the years – Bikram Yoga became popular only during the 70s and Iyengar Yoga involves use of straps, blocks and other equipment to target specific muscles of the body. Yoga rejuvenates the body as well as the mind – it aids in weight loss and increases strength. It is also one of the very few workouts that improve flexibility.
Conventional exercises such as deadlifts and squats don’t really contribute to making the body flexible. This is precisely the reason why many bodybuilders (not all) are stiff and have an unnatural gait. Even the most commonly practised forms of aerobic exercises such as running, walking, jogging cycling etc. do little to enhance flexibility. Over the years, humans have become less and less flexible – owing to modernization. Back in the day, when we hunter-gatherers-farmers, our bodies got more than enough exercise to keep us flexible and healthy. Today, our lifestyles are sedentary – as a result, we have become lazy and our muscles have atrophied (to a degree). Our joints have a very limited range. Most ‘modern’ humans cannot even sit cross legged on the floor – they need a reclining sofa to feel comfortable. Poor flexibility limits range of motion and causes joint problems. Yoga is a safe, stress-free way to improve flexibility without risking injury. Compared to other sports, Yoga is a non-competitive form of exercise. Students of yoga are encouraged to stretch only as much as their bodies allow them to – this minimizes the chances of tearing a muscle, ligament or tendon.
All people are born with flexible bodies. At birth, a human being has 270 bones but upon reaching adulthood, this number reduces to just 206. Smaller bones fuse to form larger ones. As you may have noticed, children fall often but they immediately get up and continue playing – they don’t get hurt easily. On the other hand, if an adult falls, he/she usually gets injured and is rendered immobile for a day or two or at least for a while. This is because apart from having lesser bones, an adult’s muscle tissues are far less flexible than a child’s. They contain 15% less moisture – they are not as supple and more likely to get injured. Yoga trains the muscles to gradually accept greater load. The breathing techniques greatly improve circulation – oxygenated blood is sent to the muscles so that they can perform at their maximum capability.
The western definition of flexibility is the ability to engage muscles and joints up to their maximum range of motion. The Yogic definition is to engage the mind and the body to the maximum limit and then to cross that limit. This seems vague – so let us look at it from a scientific perspective. In yoga, the students are taught how to anticipate and move past the neurological mechanisms of the human body.
One such example is reciprocal inhibition. When you contract (use) one set of muscles, the body’s natural reaction is to release the complimentary set of muscles. For example: when you contract the triceps, the biceps are relaxed and vice versa. Similarly, when you contract the quads, the hamstrings are relaxed. Now imagine the paschimottsana – wherein you sit down with your legs outstretched in front on you. You bend forward and touch your forehead to the upper shins and extend your hands to hold the toes or the sole of your feet. When you bend forward, your hamstrings feel very tight. The harder you try to sink deeper into the pose, the tighter your hamstrings become.
This is when you remind yourself that you must keep breathing normally and relax the muscles that are not directly engaged. Gradually, your hamstrings relax and you are able to achieve full range of motion. In short, it is not your body that is inhibiting you, it is your mind. By learning to calm the mind, you are able to achieve greater flexibility.
According to Scientists, the nervous system is an obstacle for enhancement of flexibility. When your muscles are stretched or contracted abruptly, they apply neurological brakes to stop the movement. This is also known as the Stretch Reflex. During Yoga, the muscles are worked gradually and progressively. Also, the static poses condition them to tolerate more tension, thus delaying the Stretch Reflex.
Hopefully, you have gotten a glimpse into how Yoga uses both the mind and the body to enable you to push past mental and physical boundaries and achieve a state of relaxation and consciousness.
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