In the ultimate sense, the goal of yoga (which means union) is the realisation that the individual consciousness is one with the universal consciousness. This is a very lofty goal for most of us. A more achievable goal in the short term is to maximise communications between the brain and the body through yoga. To make your yoga as effective as possible it helps to understand the anatomy of what you are trying to achieve and what yoga can do.
Good communication between your brain and body allows you to enhance health and vitality and to recover from injury more easily. The main means of communication in the body is via the circulation of energy (prana) and information (citta) through the circulatory channels of the body. Hatha yoga is the physical form of the ancient Indian science of yoga that uses physical exercises (amongst other things) to help achieve the union of brain and body and enhance the communication between them.
The relaxation reflex
The relaxation reflex causes the stretched muscle group to relax if it is stretched a sufficient amount. This usually takes place after a minimum of 12 – 15 seconds. However, if the muscle is tensed for a few seconds or more while it is being stretched, it can take place within a few seconds. So if you tense the stretched muscle it not only strengthens the muscles involved, but also stretches them further and allows them to subsequently relax more easily. For example, if you are doing a forward bending posture such as cross-legged forward bend (Figures 1 and 2), it is mainly the hip extensors (buttocks muscles) that are being stretched. To rapidly get the effects of the relaxation reflex in this you can choose to either tense the buttocks or tense the hip extensors by trying to extend the hip from a flexed hip position. In the cross-legged forward bend this is practically achieved by trying to press the feet into the floor.
Figure 1: Practical example: Hip extensor stretch – ‘The cross-legged forward bend’
Figure 2: Advanced hip extensor stretching – ‘the balancing lotus forward bend’
Another example of a position where the relaxation reflex can be used is the lunge or hip flexor stretch (Figure 3). In the lunge you can tense the hip flexors while they are being stretched by trying to press the two feet together or by trying to ‘squash the mat with your feet’. This action stimulates the relaxation reflex helping to stretch the hip flexors quickly and effectively, whilst also strengthening them. Later, it also allows them to relax more easily. Similar but more complicated processes can be applied in the ‘advanced balancing lunge’ shown in Figure 4.
Figure 3: Practical example: Hip flexor stretch – ‘the standing lunge’
Figure 4: Advanced hip flexor stretching – ‘the balancing deep lunge’
The balance of yoga
The techniques of hatha yoga eventually allow you to control each muscle enough to be able to generate relaxation or tension at will. As we age it is common that some parts of our body become more flexible and less stable while other parts are rarely moved and become relatively stiff. Yoga aims to equalise the forces around each of the main joint-complexes in the body by getting the muscle groups into a state of balance. Depending on the situation at each joint-complex, a yoga practitioner can choose to either tense or relax either the shortened muscle group or the stretched muscle group. At the simplest level the adept yoga practitioner can balance the forces around a joint-complex by adopting any one of four states of activation or relaxation:
State 1: The shortened muscle group and the stretched muscle group can both be relaxed. This requires minimal physical effort but usually encounters resistance from the stretched muscle due to the stretch reflex and does not offer any additional stabilisation to the joint complex. In certain situations, such as when there is a muscle spasm it is appropriate to let both opposing muscle groups to be completely relaxed and to safely hold each stretch long enough, for the stretch reflex to be over-ridden by the relaxation reflex. This often takes minimal effort and allows a release of the mind as well as the body.
State 2: The shortened muscle group can be tensed and the stretched muscle group can remain relaxed. This helps to strengthen the shortened muscle and stimulates the reciprocal relaxation reflex, causing easier lengthening of the stretched muscle group. If there is tension or pain on one side of a joint-complex it can often be alleviated by activation of the muscles on the opposing side of that joint-complex. This can actually be used on either side of a joint-complex to help reduce pain or inflammation which may be present.
State 3: The stretched muscle group can be tensed and the shortened muscle group can remain relaxed. This helps to strengthen the stretched muscle in a lengthened position and stimulates the relaxation reflex, leading to an increase in the stretch and subsequent increase in the ability of the stretched muscle to relax. This can also stimulate the reciprocal relaxation reflex in the shortened muscle group, helping to relax it and rid it of any unwanted and sometimes pain-producing tension. Tense or very stiff muscles, which may elicit joint pain, can often by relaxed by actively tensing them when they are in a lengthened state. This can be enhanced if the muscle is further stretched by physically pressing on various parts of the muscle.
State 4: This is when both the shortened muscle group and the stretched muscle group are tensed. This gives stability to the joint-complex, helps to regulate circulation and helps improve strength, flexibility and the ability to relax all the muscles involved.
If there is instability in a joint-complex, co-activation (simultaneous tensing) of opposing muscles around a joint-complex can strengthen and stabilise that joint-complex and help to regulate circulation through that region. This can promote healing.
Physiotherapists Simon Borg-Olivier and Bianca Machliss are the directors and senior yoga teachers of Yoga synergy – traditional hatha yoga for the modern/western body with an understanding from exercise-based physiotherapy.
Modified October 2007 from an article published in Well Being Magazine 107 December 2006