April 10, 2014

Theory of Practice: The Truth About Effective Stretching. ~ Gayla Coughlin


Relephant reads: 

> How To Build & Maintain a Home Yoga Practice. 

> When yoga sucks.

> Your Mind & Body Are Not Separate. 

Oh yes—once you’re done reading this the quest for Correct Knowledge (Pramāņa) begins.

The following is a challenge to theoretical application of statements made, and I’ll bet you have heard them before and most likely have made these same statements.

It’s about clearing up the false information we hear from our teachers that yoga helps release restrictions and adhesions from injuries.

It’s high time you and I had a serious chat about the whisperings during class. This piece of writing isn’t about giving a group hug.

It’s about clearing up what has been shown to be absolutely without a doubt completely untrue when you tell your students that yoga helps them release restrictions and adhesions from injuries; certainly not in the way we’ve all been taught about in the past.

If you are interested in learning how to be completely honest in your teaching then read on. There are a few things we need to clear up.

The asana portion of the practice carries many claims of health in which the scientific community scrutinizes closely for accuracy. This proverbial ball of claims has been batted back and forth, even warped through media focus and attention in an attempt to economize a system that is well known to bring desirable results to the human form: physical fitness, health, freedom from pain and psychological balance. The battle wages on between what is claimed and what can be shown.

Below are physiological characteristics of the body and how it does work in relations to statements made.

You’ve probably said: “This stretch will Release adhesions and restrictions to free your body,” or some variation thereof.


If it were that easy no one would need yoga for very long, it would simply peel them off like an old scab. Science has shown that fascia (the component of these restrictions and adhesions) cannot be released or broken down by any physical means. The only way an adhesion or ‘scar tissue’ could be released is if it was cut by a knife or manually—enough force applied to do so would tear the tissue (ripping up clients might be bad form for good business). This has been indisputably shown as true and holds true to this day.

Keep reading, a more palpable explanation is coming.

“Release the IT Band” Om Sri Durge save us. This one belief in particular is of overwhelming concern. The illiotibial (IT) band is a long flat very super human strong belt on the outside of the thigh. A tight IT band is necessary to stabilize the lateral sides of the body; anyone who has witnessed a cadaver dissection can verify the enormous tensile strength of this band.

If we were truly able to stretch/release it we would most certainly wobble about like a congress of drunken pirates. Fascia cannot be stretched in and of itself, though it can respond.

Patience friends, all is coming.

Let us use Ashtanga as our method of comparision, just for the sake of this article.

It is obvious that the body, when inactive or lazy will, develop a sluggish (both physical and mental) response to environmental stimuli including illnesses and disease. Exercise of any kind will coax the system into more proficient activity—the asana practice having just such a goal.

To address the above myths in relation to asana practice within the Ashtanga view, we will first take a look at proven fascial responses.

Research shows that even though fascia cannot be stretched or manipulated by any direct manual/mechanical means other than a blade, it does respond to sustained stretch.

This goes beyond the simple theory usually ascribed to the stretch responses of the golgi apparatus; it is immediate (within one minute) via the fibroblasts within the cellular matrix. These helpful creatures will pull from the matrix to elongate their physical structure as a direct response to pull/tension/stretch (think adding some pieces of clay to a mold to make it bigger); however they return to normal size when the stimuli ceases, shedding the extra back into the gel substance (remove bits of clay to reduce the size).

This is why the weekend warrior rarely feels much lasting effect from yoga; you gotta practice!

The continued onslaught of this stimulus (stretch) stimulates the adaptive response to mold themselves in a more permanent fashion. The six day a week activity demanded in Ashtanga ensures the permanent change within the structure needed to achieve a flexible and stable body.

Some further information to consider is this: the first six to eight months of new tissue formation is very pliable. Many students at this point may experience a “destabilization” of a joint or limb (buckling of the knee anyone?) until the student can both develop effective muscular activation (encouraged by the engagement principles of the method) and the tissue firms its mold by the insertion of collagen fibers into the new tissue (making it non-stretchable and permanent) which can take just as long as the previous cycle.

So, fascia is not stretched like taffy or somehow released from surrounding tissue, but encouraged to lengthen/increase mass over a long period of time.

This validates the Ashtanaga view that a six day practice must be maintained for six to eight months before results can be seen. A restriction/adhesion is not released but been adapted to a new demand in activity a steady practice brings.

This is the ultimate design of the human body: to adapt to environment and stresses.

Is it really a surprise that living tissue would be imbibed with the natural ability to re-mold itself? Knowing this we can truly begin to understand the brilliance of the human body design as we move forward to teach students.

Do you still want to say, “Release your adhesions?”


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Apprentice Editor: Emily Bartran / Editor: Rachel Nussbaum

Photo: Kristen Brotemarkle/elephant archives

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Gayla Coughlin