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Mindful Stretching
(An edited version of this article was published in Times Wellness, The Times of India, 18 January, 2012)

Each part of the body has its own purpose, or its own dharma to fulfill. The purpose of a muscle is to produce force for movement, and for this it requires to build and retain tension. The more elastic this tension the more pliable the muscle and thus more capable of smoothly negotiating a wider range of movement possibilities and challenges. Thus all working muscles depending upon their usage must retain a certain degree of resistance or tension. But for the health of the body and mind, as much as a muscle requires strength, elasticity and resistance to produce movement, it also needs to relax for a period of time and lose its resistance.

Stretching is a way of pushing the natural tension of the muscle to its optimum. It is to be remembered that stretching in yoga is special as yoga necessarily involves the simultaneous application of the body, breath and mind in a prescribed manner. The yogic-breath is a mindful-breath that helps gauge, facilitate and guide the physical movement to realistically achieve its fullness of range without causing stress or injury. While stretching it is important to remember two basic principles: a) that a stretch takes place between two points that are aligned or positioned intelligently against each other, and b) that out of these two, one point remains fixed and well braced while the other pulls in the opposite direction, lengthening the muscle along the line of alignment. When the muscle attached to these two well aligned points is repeatedly stretched along with the yogic-breath it builds the flexibility and strength of the muscle.  And when the same muscle is eventually released after a routine of sustained stretching it results in the muscle losing even its natural tension which is deeply relaxing and in fact pleasurable. That indeed is the moment of sukha or ‘pleasure comfort’ that results from the mindful effort of asana.

Thus yoga offers muscles the dual experience of behaving both like a stretched rubber-band and then like a wet noodle. The noodle experience that results from this methodical practice of a tenacious, rubber-band stretching is most important because the quality of physical comfort that ensues out of having stretched directly affects the mind.

The tightness or even the natural tension of each muscle takes up space in the brain, so at any given point the body ties up a certain amount of awareness and energy in the mind. The tighter or more dysfunctional a muscle the more energy and head-space is required to proportionally activate a network of compensatory muscles on the physical level, and reflexively revise and recode muscle memory at a subconscious level in order to assure safe functioning of the body. As a result, the brain is working overtime on both the conscious and the unconscious levels. The noodle experience resulting from stretching relieves the brain of this workload and as a result frees up head space, relaxing the body and mind and conversely making more energy available on both the conscious and unconscious levels. That is the reason why a shava asana or the corpse pose at the end of a mindful yoga practice can be so heavenly and energizing. It is thus, that through the intelligent manipulation of the body we can actually reach and reconfigure the mind, de-stress it and deliver it to the resource of self-preserving and self-enhancing vital energy available to each one of us to lead a mindful, meaningful life.

 

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