A friend of a friend (another fellow yoga teacher) was going into surgery with full anesthesia (i.e. getting knocked out). She had heard that when our bodies are anesthetized, our nervous system goes offline so that the flight or fight system of our body responsible for holding our body tension completely releases. Her doctor (who was conveniently also her friend) agreed to try out a little experiment on her. As years of yoga hadn’t quite led her to the super-flexibility you might imagine it would, she wanted to see if being anesthetized allowed her to put her leg behind her head. The results: Not just one leg, but both!
What does that mean?! Something super interesting, and perhaps still little-known in the realm of yoga and movement understanding: Flexibility and mobility can be accessed directly though the mind-body (nervous system) connection.
You see, the traditional understanding of stretching isn’t quite right.
Think of a rubber band: You stretch and stretch and after some time, it gets longer. This is pretty much the idea that we are acting upon, especially when it comes to yoga. Of course, yoga gives some great stretch, and, to a point, flexibility is created. But perhaps you’ve been practicing yoga for years, and still feel like your hamstrings are tight. There’s a reason for that. To create mobility, range of motion, flexibility, and to assist the lessening of past injuries tightening your system, you need to do more than just ‘stretch.’ Our system is not a rubber band.
The fascia is fantastic.
Your fascia is the thing that gives your body form and shape. If you’ve ever heard this term thrown around when speaking of the physical body, you’ll know that it’s super important. And maybe that’s the extent of your understanding. It was for me! Until a certain fascia-lover geeked out to explain to me the difference, which completely changed my view on the body: Fascia is connective tissue, which surrounds your muscles, tissues and organs. It covers nerves, muscles, tendons and it is deeply connected to the signal-sending areas that communicate with your central nervous system (CNS).
What’s the CNS got to do with it?
Your CNS interprets the information that nerves send. In this case: Stretch, pain, sensation, pleasure. Important mechanisms of the CNS are the fight-and-flight mode (active) or rest and digest mode (passive, calm). Working alongside this system is the almighty Vagus Nerve. This nerve monitors the systems of the body to explain which mode it should be in (active or resting) at any time to support the body.
That’s great. So where does stretching come in to it all?
We stretch to get flexible; stretch, and push, and force, and reach and stretch, and often times our CNS doesn’t make the switch from active to resting. Why is this important? Because if your body is in an active state still, your fascia (that which gives your body mobility) protects your body by holding on to tension. So you are holding on deep in your body, tensing up, and then trying to stretch. Stretching doesn’t work well with tension. Flexibility cannot be created in this way. The vagus nerve interprets the signal of stretching hard and forceful as a potential threat to the system, therefore not giving us the OK to go to rest mode.
What’s important about rest mode?
THIS IS WHERE MAGIC HAPPENS. And I don’t just mean the magic of a lovely nap when you rest. I mean when you are in a relaxed state: When your vagus nerve allows your CNS to calm, your fascia literally lets go and melts. This is what happened to the woman under anesthesia. This is what happens in a yin yoga class. We give our bodies time and space to relax and go deep. We let go of the tension we didn’t even know we were holding on to. In a dynamic yoga class, this stretch is hard to come by (as our bodies require an active state to move) and this is why breathing and calming the CNS through any yoga will give you the most physical benefits.
So do we just YIN all the time?
Well, it all comes down to what your goal is in yoga and in the stretching aspect. If you are looking for more mobility and openness in your body, space and flexibility to move more freely through your life, then the most effective way to do this is through a range of movements. So Yin yoga is great, and, even better, is a technique (known perhaps under many names) called roll and release.
Roll and what?
Roll and release is an amazing practice that works deeply with the body’s entire fascial system. Combined with deep breathing and an awareness of your body, the practice involves rolling around on myofascial massage balls to allow for a deeper sense of “melt” to the body. The particular branded roll and release balls that we are highlighting here were made specifically for this practice. They are the perfect hardness for allowing a deep release (harder than tennis balls) but also soft enough that your body is not shocked into the active CNS response (think cricket balls!). The magic of this practice is that, after rolling out your foot, you will literally feel more length in your hamstrings. It’s all connected.
James Mattingley, a teacher, facilitator and fascia geek working in Bali, created a platform to share roll and release to the world after he saw a high demand from students who wanted to take the practice home, and even learn to teach it.
(To learn the practice, check out James’s free e-book online, as well as purchase your own Roll and Release Balls. Cheers to a deeply relaxed and at ease body!)
A few other resources we use for stretching:
Like us on Facebook!