We often hear about "going deeper" in our yoga practice during any given class. But what does that actually mean?
Sure, going deeper in yoga can mean accessing the nonphysical aspects of the practice — the deep connection to your higher self. The wrestling of your ego and psyche — that spiritual component of oneness.
But what I'd really like to explore is our ability to go deeper in yoga physically.
Going deeper in the physical realm enhances our physical wellbeing, as we push ourselves to new levels and release built up tension in the body structure.
To get the most out of a yoga practice on the physical level, we learn to go deeper into our poses with ease instead of force. This also prevents us from sustaining injury.
There are a variety of spinal cord reflex arcs that regulate tension and muscle length during your performance of any given pose. These arcs automatically occur during movement of the body on varying degrees, as a protective mechanism to ensure that the muscle does not get hurt.
The reflex arcs we will discuss are similar to those you may have experienced when a physician taps the front of your knee with a rubber mallet. When your lower leg moves forward — without you doing anything — that is a spinal cord reflex.
So the next time you practice yoga, try using the following three stretching techniques and see if it allows you to open up a little more and move a little deeper into your poses:
1. Ballistic Stretching
This type of stretching is active and dynamic, using momentum in the body to increase flexibility. In any pose, try adding a slight bouncing or rocking motion to the muscle being stretched. You may find that you'll retain muscle lengthening you may have achieved at an earlier stage in your practice, helping you to maintain that length in the long run.
Just be mindful in areas where you may have sustained an injury prior, because a bouncing or jerking motion can sometimes overstretch muscles or joints that are still weak or recovering.
Try an active standing pose like Warrior II, and gently bounce a few times up and down in your legs, especially if they are starting to feel fatigued. You can also rock yourself back and forth. Re-enter the pose and notice your ability to go naturally deeper and feel much stronger.
2. Passive Stretching
Passive stretching uses the aid of your own bodyweight, gravity or props to create a stretch. Think of this as similar to the Yin style of yoga where the pose is held for a longer period of time, with bodyweight or pressure from gravity acting upon the body.
This type of stretch allows the muscle spindle receptors within the muscle to acclimate and release over time, gently lowering you deeper into the pose. The job of the muscle spindle receptors is to detect changes in length and tension. When a muscle stretches, the spindle sends a signal to the spinal cord which in turn, signals the muscle to contract.
By forcing someone deeper into a stretch you activate this reflex and cause grater tightening of the muscle, blocking any real ability for the person to go achieve success in the pose.
But by holding your stretch for an extended period of time (greater than 30 seconds), you will feel a relaxation response from the stretched muscle which allows you to truly begin to go deeper into that stretch.
Next time you're in a standing Forward Fold (Uttanasana), try bending your knees and come out of the pose slightly. Wait for a moment and then re-enter it — you will magically go slightly deeper! That's the muscle spindle fibers hard at work for you. You're also stretching the fascia and muscle sheath, further preventing you from injury.
3. Active Static Stretching
This type of stretch contracts or flexes the muscles in opposition of the muscle you want to stretch. In the case of Forward Fold again, as you bend over, you begin to access the hamstrings which tighten up. To achieve a deeper stretch in the hamstrings, you would begin to flex the front of the thighs.
You're probably familiar with verbal cues in class such as, "flex the thighs" or "lift the knee caps" when in certain poses. This is stimulating a mechanism called reciprocal inhibition, which can help you access a much deeper stretch.
Now if you apply the flexing idea to the muscle you are trying to stretch (not like above when we flexed the opposing muscle), you will activate what is known as the Golgi tendon organ — the neurological structure within the muscular system. This specialized receptor signals the muscle to relax, doing the opposing function of the muscle spindle fibers.
To activate this stretch receptor you merely contract the muscle you are trying to stretch.
Take Bound Angle Pose (Baddha Konasana), for example. By holding onto the ankles and pressing the elbows down into the thighs, you're also simultaneously pressing the thighs upward to create tension in the groin muscles. This is exactly the area you are trying to stretch.
If you hold an isometric contraction for 5-10 seconds, then slowly release the thighs but keep pushing down with the elbows, watch how magically the knees begin to move closer towards the floor.
The key to using these stretching techniques is being aware of not only your alignment, but also the amount of pressure you exert. Always be gentle with yourself, and watch in amazement as you begin to naturally release your body deeper into your poses.
Photo courtesy of the author