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  • Writer's pictureVicci Gillett

Are you a Viking or a Temple Dancer?

Your whole body is a 'stretch activated system'. A number of things happen within the body; the nerves when stretched activate a chemical cascade; the way DNA expresses itself can change; epithelial cells, nerves, fascia and muscles all become affected.

Stretch is taking cells beyond a movement they are used to. The dance of stability and mobility is dependent on how well your muscles can change from a fluid to a firm state. Muscles are 80% water! When muscles are relaxed they should have a 'pudding' consistency, when they are contracted they are much more solid. Being at either of these extremes would make you a Viking or a Temple Dancer. Vikings are altogether stiffer, the myostatic reflex will be quick to kick in (explained a little further down). Temple dancers are hyper mobile, the collagen in the connective tissues is weaker than it should be making ligaments and joints loose and stretchy. They almost fall into stretch with little or no resistance. (Can you bend your thumb back to touch your wrist? This is one of the tests on the Beighton Scale for hyper mobility). Ideally we need to be somewhere between the two.

There are many types of stretch to consider. We will use sustained, flowing and passive as examples. Poses held in Yin Yoga produce sustained stretch but Vinyasa offers flowing stretch. There is passive stretching where for example you anchor your arm against a door frame to stretch it out and the other one I'll mention is ballistic stretching. Once made popular by Jane Fonda (well somebody has to start a trend!) A ballistic stretch actually shortens your muscles but shouldn't be dismissed though, as it has its place in increasing the elastic properties of your fascia.

Another important factor we need to consider when trying to improve our flexibility is glide. In order to release the full potential of your flexibility you need glide within the layers of muscles whose tracks run at different levels throughout your body. Hydration in the liquid form but also hydration in-between the tissues are key.

When you stretch your connective tissues, it isn't only the muscle dynaments that are stretching, you are releasing fascial adhesions between the fascial bags of muscle too. If you've taken one of my classes I would have shown you the hamstring glide I was very excited to learn recently. Hydration can also be achieved through compression, like using the foam roller. Nerves are worth mentioning here also as they get caught up in the velcro adhesions of the fascial bags that encase your muscles. Adding in nerve glides helps to free them up. We often do this in class after one leg circles, where we point and flex our foot when the hamstring is on stretch.

The myostatic stretch reflex is important for you to know about. It influences how long you should hold a sustained stretch for. Once load has been applied, your stretch receptors try to return the muscle to the original length, that's why for the first 30 seconds or so you feel like you can't fully relax. So how long should I stretch for? Well it depends!! But you're going to need to allow at least a minute for each position. Research suggests that 30 seconds per muscle group 5 times a week is sufficient. Vikings will need much longer but if you are a temple dancer do you actually need to stretch or should you be focusing on stability? Importantly we want to be tapping into our parasympathetic nervous system as we stretch, also known as rest and digest. We do this with an in for 4 and out for 8 breathing pattern focusing on a full breath to stimulate our vagus nerve.

OOOH geeky science bit coming up.........

Cellular mechanotransduction is a long word for the ability of stretch to change the shape of your cells and alter which part of your DNA is brought to the surface. It doesn't change your DNA but changes how it expresses itself. Therefore, systems within your body may work better over time. This is known as The Spatial Medicine of the 21st Century. Things we don't know yet are what types of stretch and positions would be better for what, but the science is on the way. This is cutting edge so watch out for updates!

I'm going to plug Online Yoga on a Wednesday evening at 7pm. I teach the 45 minute class via the Zoom platform. It's a blend of flowing stretch and sustained stretch. Yoga traditionally attracts temple dancers but if you're a Viking you should be joining in. Yes, it won't be comfortable to start and things will feel impossible to begin with, but progress is made over a period of time and not over night. E-mail to find out more.

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