I’m usually a woman on a mission. Years ago I decided that I wanted to be a yogi. We were living in Australia at the time. My husband was busy working and I had a glorious year off from my job to do whatever I wanted. After a couple of days of relaxing I began to get downright fidgety. What to do? And who to hang out with? I was aimless, bored, intimidated by sight-seeing solo in the gorgeous city of Sydney, and lonely. I turned to yoga. I craved belonging to a group, working out, and (to be truthful) I wanted flexible hamstrings. It sounds strange but I was hell bent on getting flexible hamstrings. And if you know me, you know that tenacity is my middle name.
So I went to yoga pretty much every single day for months and even did my intensive yoga teacher training. I had such an amazing experience. I felt inspired, included, and met the most fabulous people. Guess what? My hamstrings did NOT budge. I kept pushing and pushing and my hamstrings said something like, “I told you Jody– the answer is NO, we are absolutely not getting any longer and we don’t care that tenacity is your middle name”. It was irritating and I clearly was not following the true yogic path of release, acceptance, and patience.
Yoga led me to Pilates, my true passion, and something clicked. I heard a term “stretch reflex’…bells rang and the doors of knowledge opened (just a tiny amount but nonetheless). There was more to this hamstring mystery, and when I made sense of all the Latin that came my way through the study of anatomy I found a spark of clarity.
At the heart of every movement is the brain. The brain connects to the spine. Out of the spine comes a vast network of nerves that make it possible for us to sense our bodies and move them. It’s a feedback system. Your brain has determined what a muscle’s length and tension should be. Trauma, movement patterns, emotions, and many other factors influence this setting. So during the yoga class I was stretching the OM out of my hamstrings and then they were diligently returning to their previously contracted length according to my brain. These contractions were definitely not conscious or I would have read them the riot act. “Stretch and stop contracting – and I mean it”. BUT things just don’t work that way.
In our muscles we have muscle spindles. They monitor length and the speed at which a muscle lengthens. If we stretch a muscle too quickly or overdo it (hmmm- guilty as charged), the stretch reflex kicks in to protect us.
When I jumped whole-heartily into the world of Pilates (there’s really no other way for me) I learned that releasing a muscle is different from stretching a muscle. AHA! When you release a muscle you contract that muscle and slooooowwwwly lengthen it while adding a bit of resistance. This can help remove the unconscious contraction of the muscles and reset the muscle spindles thereby restoring the muscle to a new resting length and tension. Do you know what is PERFECT for releasing muscles? Springs. I could do feet in straps until the cows come home. I’m not going to call myself Gumby quite yet – that’s taking it one step too far – but I will say my hamstrings have come a LONG way. The beauty and effectiveness of the Pilates’ spring amazes me and the genius of Joseph Pilates never fails to impress every step of the way.