Ready, Set, Stretch!
Revolutionize your stretching habits and keep your muscles safe with three simple steps.
By Martin Kirk
Do you sometimes wonder when, or even if, your hamstrings will open? Or have you ever puzzled over a nagging pull in a muscle that you can’t remember injuring? These are common problems that many students of yoga encounter as we attempt to stretch and lengthen our muscles in hatha practice.
We know—and experts confirm—that a healthy regimen of stretching provides numerous benefits: increased flexibility and range of motion in your joints, increased circulation of blood and lymph throughout your body, relaxation and stress relief, pain relief, superior muscular coordination, and an improved sense of well-being. So how can stretching be so problematic?
The problem may lie in how the stretch is performed. Surprisingly, as basic as stretching is to any hatha yoga practice, you may have acquired stretching habits that are not maximally effective or may even cause injury. With a little know-how and an elegant formula from Anusara Yoga, you can optimize your stretching practice, keep it safe, and go deeper than you imagined. Just remember three simple steps: (1) engage, (2) align, (3) stretch.
This safe-stretch formula—engage, align, stretch—delivers the full benefits of stretching and minimizes the possibility of injury because it takes advantage of the way that muscles function. Muscular engagement integrates the muscle tissues for greater strength and resilience, and proper alignment of the tissues relative to the bones facilitates uniform and balanced load distribution. Only after these two fundamental steps have been applied is it safe to stretch a muscle. That’s not to say that injury will definitely occur when performing a stretch without these preparations, but the risk for straining the muscle is much higher.
Muscles can tear in a number of ways. A sudden rupture can occur when the muscle is rapidly and violently lengthened—for example, a slip on a patch of ice that propels the legs into a sudden split. Tears can also occur under a slower, continuous load, as when a practitioner is attempting to get all the way down in hanumanasana (Hanuman’s pose or splits) with no muscular engagement. A third injury scenario can develop in muscles and other connective tissues over a period of time. This type of injury can progress gradually from repeated performance of poses, such as standing poses, without proper engagement. It can also result from long passive holds, such as deep forward bends, without proper activation and alignment. In these latter two cases, a few fibers at a time may tear until there is enough inflammation to become painful. Often practitioners who repeatedly stretch in this unsafe manner can’t even pinpoint the exact time when they strained their muscle.
In order to understand the mechanism of stretch injury, let’s examine what happens on the level of the muscle fibers during a stretch. Each skeletal muscle is a collection of hundreds or even thousands of individual muscle fibers. Muscle fibers are bundled together and organized into larger groups called fascicles. Groups of fascicles are bundled together to form the muscle body.
During muscular stretching, the distribution of the stress load across the muscle fibers is influenced by several factors, including the position of the muscle within the surrounding tissues, its rotation relative to its bone attachments, and its level of engagement. Muscles that are flaccid and misaligned may experience an unbalanced force distribution that leaves individual fibers vulnerable to damage. This is similar to a weight hanging on a rope with a few fibers that are shorter than all the rest. The shorter fibers will carry the majority of the stress load; if the stretch, or tensile stress, is great enough, those fibers may rupture.
Conversely, when you engage and align your muscles during a stretch, the entire muscle is integrated in a harmonious way. Like a supportive community, all of the fibers share the tensile stress so that no single fiber is overloaded. This kind of support will protect the individual fibers, allowing the whole muscle to be stretched with maximum safety and effectiveness.
Practice Makes Perfect
The next step is to understand how to apply these healthy stretch techniques to your yoga practice. Anusara Yoga provides alignment principles to help with all three safe-stretch steps: Muscular Energy creates engagement, Inner Spiral and Outer Spiral create alignment, and Organic Energy initiates the stretch. Let’s look at how you can use these principles to stretch the muscles of the thigh.
Muscular Energy creates engagement by drawing all the tissues into a more integrated state in a balanced way. It is an energy of attraction that magnetically draws the skin to the muscle, the muscle to the bone, the whole body toward the midline, and the periphery to the core. Sensitivity is crucial in Muscular Energy—be sure not to overengage or grip the muscles; rather hug the muscles in a steady, uniform way (like you would hug a good friend).
Inner Spiral and Outer Spiral align both muscle and fascia tissues for the optimal safe stretch. They are complementary actions that are performed sequentially. In the legs and pelvis, Inner Spiral rotates the thighs inwardly, moves the femur bones back, and widens the thighs and pelvis laterally. It creates a forward tilt of the pelvis as the sitting bones move back and apart. Outer Spiral follows Inner Spiral to counterbalance the pelvic tilt as the tailbone moves into the body. It draws the thighs and pelvis toward the middle, moves the femur bones forward, and rotates the thighs outwardly. It is the balanced action between these two principles that moves the muscles of the thighs into an optimal stretching relationship with the surrounding bones and tissues.
Organic Energy initiates the muscle stretch by extending and lengthening the muscle in a direction away from the core of the body. Once these actions of engagement, alignment, and initial stretch have been sequentially performed, it is safe to move deeper into the stretch.
Stretching the Hamstrings
The hamstring muscles are particularly vulnerable to stretches that are performed casually. These three muscles originate on the ischial tuberosities (or the sitting bones) on either side of the posterior pelvis, and insert on the bones of the lower leg below the knee. Since the hamstrings are lengthened as the pelvis tilts in forward bending, short hamstrings may bear tremendous loads when you bend at the hip joint. If they are misaligned or disengaged during a stretch, the fibers of the muscle or tendon can tear. The following example of ardha hanumanasana, or half-Hanuman’s pose will demonstrate safe stretching for your hamstrings.
Come to a lunge with your back knee on the floor or a blanket for extra cushioning; place your fingertips on the floor to either side of the front leg. Slide your pelvis back as you straighten your front leg and dorsiflex the foot so that only your heel is on the floor. (To lessen the initial stretch on your hamstrings you can perform these steps with your hands on blocks.)
Take a breath and exhale fully. Soften your skin and consider the possibility of going deeper in the stretch than you have before while staying completely safe. Then follow the safe-stretch formula:
ENGAGE. On your next inhalation, activate your leg muscles by spreading your toes and engaging the muscles above your knee. Isometrically draw your front heel back—pulling it back against the resistance of your sticky mat without actually moving it—and engage your hamstring muscles in a steady, uniform hug.
ALIGN. Keep your hamstrings engaged and initiate Inner Spiral: rotate your thighs inwardly, move them back, and widen them apart. Notice that these actions also widen your sitting bones and your lower back. Maintain these actions and initiate Outer Spiral by drawing your tailbone down and into your body. This action will create an outward rotation of the thighs as described above, and balance the actions of the legs for optimal hamstring alignment.
STRETCH. Keeping all previous actions, exhale, and initiate the stretch with Organic Energy by extending down from the core of your pelvis through the bones of your front leg into the floor. On your next exhalation, bow over your front leg. Proceed only as far as you can keep your lower back from rounding forward, and attempt to maintain the natural curve in your lumbar spine. You will feel a stretch in your hamstrings, perhaps deeper than you’re accustomed to; breathe at your stretch threshold and do not force the stretch.
Stretching the Quadriceps
The quadriceps—consisting of four muscles: rectus femoris, vastus lateralis, vastus intermedius, and vastus medialis—is another important muscle group for stretching. When coupled with tight hamstrings, tight quadriceps will limit the ability to move the femur bones back. This combination can force the pelvis to tilt back and result in a loss of lumbar curve, making the spinal disks vulnerable to herniation. The following variations of anjaneyasana, or low lunge, will illustrate the safe-stretch formula for the quads.
Rectus Femoris Variation
Since the rectus femoris crosses both the knee and hip joints, the hip must be in extension in order to stretch this muscle. Begin with one knee down on the floor or a blanket as in the previous example. Bring your torso upright and put your hands on your waist. Inhale and expand your upper torso on all sides. Stay expanded as you exhale and soften your skin. Then perform the following steps:
ENGAGE. Activate Muscular Energy by isometrically scissoring your legs toward each other from front to back. That is, pull the heel of your front foot back and pull the back knee forward, without moving either. You will feel the quadriceps engage on your back leg.
ALIGN. Lean forward with your chest and activate Inner Spiral by taking your inner groin back and widening your thighs and sitting bones. Initiate Outer Spiral by taking your tailbone down and into your body. Try to balance these two opposing actions and find the place in the middle.
STRETCH. Keep these actions and initiate the stretch with Organic Energy by rooting from the core of your pelvis down through the bones of your legs into the earth. Move deeper into the stretch by taking your pelvis further forward. This will stretch your rectus femoris (along with your iliopsoas).
To modify anjaneyasana as a stretch for the vastus muscles, which cross the knee joint and not the hip joint, you have to bring the knee into flexion. Start with your back knee down as above, then bend it and grab hold of the instep of your foot. (If you cannot reach your back foot, you can loop a strap around your back ankle or practice only the previous rectus femoris variation in the beginning.) Then proceed with the safe-stretch formula:
ENGAGE. Initiate Muscular Energy by spreading your toes. This will begin the process of drawing in from the skin to the muscle to the bone. Scissor your legs together as before. You will likely feel even more engagement than in the last example because all the quadriceps are being stretched.
ALIGN. Repeat the actions of Inner and Outer Spiral from step 2 above.
STRETCH. Keep your engagement and alignment and initiate Organic Energy by rooting down from the core of your pelvis through your femur bones into the earth. Deepen the stretch by drawing your back heel toward the outer hip. This safely and effectively stretches both the vastus group and the rectus femoris.
Now that you have the three basic steps down, practice applying the safe-stretch formula in other poses. As long as you remember to engage, align, and stretch, you’ll move deeper into the asanas while keeping your muscles healthy and strong.
Martin Kirk is an Anusara-certified yoga teacher who offers yoga anatomy and therapy trainings and asana workshops worldwide. He is author of Hatha Yoga Illustrated and the upcoming Yoga Anatomy: The Biomechanics of Anusara Yoga, along with Ellen Saltonstall and Jordan Kirk, available fall 2010.
Photos by Andrea Killam; Model: Karina Mirsky Wardrobe: Quinn top in blackberry paisley and Lolita pant in blackberry by Prana.
Hamstrings and Quad illustrations courtesy of Yoga Anatomy: The Biomechanics of Anusara Yoga