Pushing your limits safely
I think one reason the question about practicing both Clinical Somatics and yoga comes up so frequently is that stretching is integral to many forms of yoga, and in my teaching of Clinical Somatics I’m constantly saying not to stretch.
So, first I’ll clarify what I mean when I say not to stretch. Static stretching, in which you pull on an inactive muscle, has no lasting effect on the length of the muscle. It can temporarily reduce the activity of your stretch reflex, relaxing the muscle for a short time. But typically within a few hours you’ll feel the muscle start to tighten up again as your stretch reflex regains normal function. Static stretching is usually uncomfortable, and can cause muscle strains if done too quickly or deeply.
So when I say not to stretch, I mean that you should not do static stretches. But there are other ways to “stretch” or lengthen your muscles, and I’ll call these active stretching.
There are various definitions of active stretching. One definition describes it as a muscle lengthening while it’s also contracting. This might sound impossible, but that’s exactly what an eccentric contraction is, and also what a pandiculation is (that’s how we release muscles in Clinical Somatics).
Another definition of active stretching describes it as moving one muscle group to lengthen another. This definition brings reciprocal inhibition into the picture—that’s a nervous system response that automatically releases a muscle group when the opposing muscle group contracts.
During a yoga class, I’m aware of all three types of muscle lengthening. As I move through the poses, I can feel when I’m contracting one group of muscles and releasing the opposing group. When coming out of a pose involves an eccentric contraction, I do it as slowly as possible to mimic a pandiculation. And when the instructor says to do a static stretch—I simply don’t do it!
Occasionally I’ll skip a pose during class, but most often I’ll find a way to do the static stretching pose safely. The simplest way to do this is to stay within a very comfortable range of motion, so that you don’t feel the pulling sensation in your muscles. If you practice Clinical Somatics exercises on a regular basis, you’ll get very sensitive to the sensation of static stretching—that uncomfortable sensation of pulling on a muscle that doesn’t want to lengthen any farther. You’ll instinctively back off as soon as you feel that sensation.
Another way to avoid static stretching is by staying active in every pose, even if it’s a still pose. I think most yoga instructors would agree that even an unmoving pose is actually a movement. You shouldn’t ever stop actively engaging your muscles or stop breathing. You shouldn’t ever feel like you’re “holding” a position. You should be breathing, engaging your muscles, making subtle adjustments, and very gradually and safely moving deeper into the pose if you’re able to.
One student asked me why on one hand I don’t want to overstretch my muscles (as in the practice of Clinical Somatics) and on the other hand I want to stretch my body to new limits (as in the practice of yoga). My answer is this:
Clinical Somatics releases and lengthens muscles in a different way than yoga. It does so through the movement technique of pandiculation, which sends accurate biofeedback to our nervous system about the level of tension in our muscles. Pandiculation reduces the resting level of tension in our muscles being set by our nervous system, and it does so in a way that does not feel like stretching. So even though Clinical Somatics does in fact extend the limits of our movement, it doesn’t do so by straining or forcing anything, so it doesn’t feel like a struggle—instead, it feels very relaxing.
On the flip side, when practicing yoga you may feel that sensation of being at your limit and trying to push further. If you’re doing this in a safe way—by not doing static stretching, by not putting strain on your joints, and by not doing anything that feels “wrong” or harmful to your body—that’s fine. Gradually moving deeper into poses can result in increased muscular control and range of motion. But remember that your body is like a rubber band: it will go much farther if you move slowly. If you pull on it too fast or demand too much of it, it will break. If you’re trying to move deeper into a pose by forcing, straining, or pulling on your muscles, you probably won’t get any lasting benefit, and you may end up creating more tension in your body or injuring yourself.
When practicing yoga, you should move slowly into and through the poses. Take the time to notice what your muscles are doing as you move. Make subtle adjustments to your posture as you move into each pose. Stay engaged, keep breathing, and keep making adjustments while you’re in each pose.
Above all, remember that you must be your own teacher. No one else knows what it feels like to be in your body. Your yoga teacher is your guide, but you shouldn’t follow his or her instruction blindly. Don’t do things that feel wrong in your body. Take your teacher’s instruction as an opportunity to explore how your body feels and how you’re able to move. Yoga should be about your internal experience of the movements, not about what your pose looks like or what the other students are doing. As I’ll describe in the next section, you’ll get more benefit from yoga by focusing on your internal sensations.