How far is it safe for you to stretch in Yoga?

Around 8 years ago, my phone rang and at the other end was a very upset yoga teacher friend of mine. She wanted to update her website, so she got a photographer and went through some poses. Of course, she wanted to have some impressive photos, not just run of the mill stuff. She was doing the splits when she tore her hamstring muscles at the back of her leg off the bone. Ouch!! That was an injury that took 6 months to heal up.

The source of Yoga injuries? Generally, it’s someone going too far and too fast for their body. Somehow, a whole web of expectations is created about what the pose is, peer pressure and how your body works; and then something goes ping.

This is where the Alexander Technique can be very helpful. Firstly, it has a culture of deep enquiry into how much is enough. The AT jargon for this is non end-gaining.
Secondly, it is a study of human integration. When you study integration, the key question doesn’t become “how far can I go?” or “how much pain can I endure?”, it becomes “how can I bring this movement into my integration?”.

That simple question of “how can I bring this movement into my integration?” is very different from “how far”, the question itself contains a restraint. If you can’t bring your stretch into your integration, then that’s a sign that you need to consider another way of doing it. Perhaps (a radical idea!), not doing it at all?

Integration in Alexander Technique is facilitated by primary movement (also called primary control). Primary movement is what happens when your head and spine are in a certain relationship with each other. If you’re sitting upright reading this, if your head nods forward at your spines’ top joint and that encourages your spine and head to move slightly upwards, you’ve got your primary movement/control working.

When you have access to this primary movement, you’re moving away from sympathetic dominance. Sympathetic dominance is fight / flight, an important part of our survival functioning. But it has the unfortunate side effect of drastically impairing your long term decision making ability and it also cuts out sensation in your body. When you’ve got access to primary movement, you’re moving toward parasympathetic dominance (the relaxation response) and you have much better access to sensation and therefore are much more likely to pay attention to signs that your body has reached the end of that stretch.

There’s never any absolutes, you can still go too far in Yoga using the Alexander Technique, it’s just a little less likely. It’s certainly not a quick fix either. Most people who I’ve worked with who have significant injuries through yoga have multiple causes for those injuries. They have had to work through many issues to get themselves into a place where they are heading towards an injury free practice.

We all need speed bumps on the road at times and if you do Yoga regularly, the Alexander Technique could be yours.

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© Kevin Saunders, Yogaground 2018

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