Regular Old Stretching (ROS) versus
Conscious Stretching — Part 2
What Makes a Muscle Lengthen?
SPECIAL NOTE 1: The following article is excerpted from my e-book, the Simple Steps to Let Go Yoga, available on this website.
SPECIAL NOTE 2: It has recently come to my attention that the follow- ing explanation of how relaxation happens might be considered controversial. I had merely thought health care practitioners had not observed or thought about, nor understood, this particular phenomena of basic physiology. I had not seen it as much of an “issue” at all. I thought it had been just an oversight, and now an interesting insight explaining a lot of stuff few people seemed to have noticed. But apparently for some, this idea strikes at the heart of their beliefs. If it strikes anyone as too controversial or unreasonable, as with all of my other ideas and information, I welcome any interaction on this point-of-view. — Thanks, DSL
Simply put, muscular contraction is the Creation of Tension & Pulling Force by activation of nerve tonus from brain and central nervous system to the muscles.
Tonus is the bio-electric charge traveling down the nerve to the muscle, causing the muscle to turn ON. When it turns on, the actual generation of force & movement is created by the actin-myosin molecules within the muscle cells.
The actin-myosin molecules act a bit like ratchets crawling along each other, like a tube pulling up inside another slightly larger tube, one tube overlapping the other.
[The tube & ratchet metaphor is not precisely accurate, but I hope it gets the general idea across.]
Inner Workings of a Ratchet
Please Note the Rigid Teeth
Although not as rigid and dense as the steel in an actual ratchet wrench, the actin-myosin molecules are said to have half the tensile strength of steel wire. That means, they are NOT elastic as in lengthable, and do not “stretch” like rubber bands, at all. And although the myosin or actin fibers are not actually mechanical “teeth,” they create a momentary chemical bond with each other that is very strong. Without getting too scientific on you, the “teeth” are actually chemical bonds that in normal states turn ON momentarily to create contraction. Too much tonus to the cells, however, causes the cells to get “stuck” in the ON position, as in the case of C.E.M.&.N.T. (links to a more in depth article on Chronic, Excess Muscle & Nerve Tension & Stress.
This ratcheting phenomenon of the actin-myosin cells creates all gross, and most subtle, movement in the human body, as well as animals. Rudimentary forms of the actin-myosin phenomena exist at lower levels of biological formation, as well. This is truly nature’s indispensable invention for the production of overt, physical action.
(There is some evidence that in high pathological states, excess local chemistry can cause the actin-myosin action without the nerve impulse. That, however, is a very extreme situation.)
On the other hand, muscular relaxation — the opposite of contraction — is the process of Stopping of Creation of Tension & Pulling Force by decreasing or turning OFF the flow of nerve tonus from the brain and central nervous system to the muscles, so the actin-myosin molecules stop ratcheting, releasing their chemical-based “grip” on each other. The “tubes,” held up inside of each other by the ratcheting action, can now slide out from each other, allowing an overall lengthening of the individual muscle unit.
Actin/Myosin Fiber “Ratcheting”:
The Primary Resistance to “Stretching”
Cellular Resistance to “Stretching”
Upon contraction, it’s total shortening of all actin/myosin units in series within a muscle cell producing shortening of the overall muscle fiber. OR their opposite, when relaxing, allowing lengthening of a muscle fiber.
Unless the chemical bonding moments (sometimes very long moments) in the muscles’ actin-myosin cells are turned OFF (by turning OFF the nerve impulse), the muscle will NOT lengthen.
It will even resist lengthening to the point of tearing. Given that one muscle cell has the tensile strength of half that of steel wire, put a whole bunch of them together in one muscle belly, and that’s quite a bit of resistance to stretching.
The Actin-Myosin Fibers are laid in series with each other within a muscle fiber:
Ratcheting Your Way Through Life & Sleep
Most importantly, many, if not most people have a very large number of their actin-myosin “tubes” that are “ratcheting” all day and all night long, day in, day out, never turning off. …
That is, among other things, exhausting. And since the ratcheting effect is the active component of C.E.M.&.N.T., it’s much of what’s putting so much pressure, tension & stress on various tissues and systems of your body all the time, as well.
Yet as described earlier, muscle cells produce all overt ACTION and most subtle movement, and are our Vehicle of Self-Expression. In the case of C.E.M.&.N.T., they are in the habit of acting, of being contracted, all the time. So it’s a paradox. Like many things in life, the very mechanism we need to move ourselves through life, taken to excess, becomes our very interference in life. Therefore …
The KEY INSIGHT to the Nature
of Conscious Stretching
The Key Insight here is the lengthening or “stretching” of a muscle does not come from any significant levels of actual elasticity (length-ability) within the muscles or tendons or connective tissue. It’s NOT about waiting for them to stretch out like you wait for taffy to pull or ketchup to flow.
The change in the muscles does not just come about when the tissue “just finally gives” you some “flexibility” or restored “elasticity.”
The Real Change — the Relaxation & Lengthening — comes when you learn how to turn OFF nerve tonus to the actin-myosin “ratchets.”
Some people can do this unconsciously. Most of us have to work at it, becoming more conscious of how to do it over time. I started martial arts stretching when I was 13 years old, and yoga stretching when I was 19, and I was doing yoga 3 to 4 hours per day, 4 to 6 days per week, for many extended periods of time in my life. And even now in my later fifties, I STILL have to work at it. But I had extensive neuromuscular trauma and injuries from racing motocross in my early to mid-teens and working as a structural steel ironworker for about eight years that were debilitating to say the least. Even 12 years ago I had to do at least an hour of yoga almost every day just to stay vertical. Now, I can get away with 20 minutes most days, if need be. (I much prefer longer sessions, but logistics sometimes interfere.)
DE-Ratcheting & DE-Contracting
Significant lengthening of a muscle — what FEELS like elasticity — is in actuality the relatively smooth, mechanical change in length by the actin-myosin fibers letting go of and sliding out from each other — the UN-ratcheting and the more-or-less rigid “tubes” becoming less over-lapped. In normal circumstances, you turn them on when you need them, to the precise degree(s) you need them, then fully off when you’re done with the intended action.
It’s as simple as that. … But for many, after a few years of tension accumulation, not too easy. …
Behind the scenes, this is, when it comes to so-called “stretching,” what physical/mental yoga is all about. It’s about developing the skill of intentionally DE-Contracting your muscles with your mind. This, in turn, is a result of learning how to turn off the nerve tonus to the muscle cells — the actin-myosin molecules — so they stop all that darn ratcheting, except when you need them.
“Regular Old Stretching” versus “Technical
Stretching” versus Yogic DE-Contraction
There are various techniques — Tension Reduction Strategies — devel- oped to discover and recover this skill, many with varying degrees of success. Many of them are little more than technical methods by which to “trick” the nervous system into letting go of at least some of the tonus charge to the muscles. (I call them neuro-tricks.)
The primary difference between Regular Old Stretching (hoping and waiting for more “elasticity” or discovering better neuro-tricks) and Yogic or Conscious Stretching is what you do with your mind and nervous system, in at least a somewhat meditative process. It’s about your mind investing itself into the neuromuscular system, discovering ways to consciously turn off the nerve tonus to the actin-myosin molecules and muscle cells. It’s important to note this investment of mind into muscles is at least as much a physiological and neurological process as it is a mental one, although the mind, of course, has a lot to do with it.
Not a very romantic way of stating it, but THAT is, I believe, much, most or all of what creates truly deep relaxation from a yogic point-of- view. (There are potential metabolic, nutritional and toxicity issues that can interfere with this body-mind ability, however.) … At the juncture between and including both mind and body, the above described process is at least one primary element of what hatha* (physical) yoga combined with jnana* (mental) yoga, is all about.
“Moving Your Mind into Your Musculature,
so the Distinctions between them Dissolve,
is the Essence of Physical/Mental & Let-Go Yoga”
David Scott Lynn
* Hatha Yoga and Jnana Yoga are among the few Sanskrit words I use, in that there are no really great English translations of the concepts.
Yet Hatha is a dangerous term because in the original Sanskrit, it means force and violence. While much of the “yoga” from the Far East was very ascetic and in some ways quite violent toward the physical body, we at the DSL Method of Yoga have NO interest in doing “violence” to the body or mind here. We prefer the more modern, Western, personal growth version of what yoga can do and how it works.
However, the Sanskrit word force can be interpreted and defined from the world of physics as: a force is any influence causing an object to undergo a certain change, either concerning its movement, direction, or geometrical construction. … That’s one thing we’re doing with physical yoga. But with the Let-Go Yoga version, we are using, for the most part, LOW-force inputs to make such change.
Jnana refers to knowledge, especially an experience of “total reality” that is “free of perceptual encumbrances.” Meaning, as much as possible, what’s actually there beyond our personal filters.
To Summarize: One of many things The DSL Method of Physical/Mental Yoga, Let-Go Yoga, Yoga-based Bodywork and Tai Chi/Chi Kung Movement Exercise & Therapy is all about, is learning the art of consciously reducing nerve tonus to the actin-myosin molecules & muscle cells. That is, in many ways, an important NEXUS between the inner and outer world of being human. That’s what produces changes in movement, direction and geometrical construction we are after in the body.
The idea here is to use the above principles and apply them to any yoga asana or “stretch” you can. There are many books available with many ideas of stretches you can do. Or, there’s a set of stretches in Chapter Four of this book you can use. They are geared for Structural DE-Compression and Postural Balancing. An extensive e-Course on how to do yoga and details on a wide range of specific yoga asana will soon be available on the Let-Go Yoga website.
It’s NOT About “Stretching” or
Actin-myosin molecules have very high tensile strength, meaning they’re very resistant to “stretching” as in true and full elasticity. They have a tremendous capacity to bend or flex, which technically is elasticity according to physics.
Yet as you can see above, the actin-myosin cells are more like mechanical teeth engaging and disengaging, rather than rubber bands shrinking or stretching. Yet because there are so many of these microscopic ratchets operating in a bath of water with a high degree of tissue flexibility (which is very different from extensibility* or elasticity in the sense of stretching a rubber band), they have the functional capacity of smooth, fluid movement. It is literally the water (fluid) within absorbing any erratic move- ment of the actin-myosin cells. In both muscle and fascia, it is the high volume of water, resiliency and flexibility producing the feeling of elasticity and fluidity. …
At least, that’s what I think.
Collectively, as integrated units, muscle cells can lengthen up to 150% of their resting length when they relax, let-go and UN-ratchet. And connective tissue (AKA fascia) — the casings of all the muscle fibers, also converging to become the tendons and attachments to the bones — have a maximum 4 to 7% elasticity before tearing (depending on who you read or talk to).
So fascia doesn’t “stretch” much either. Its minimal elasticity is mostly or a shock absorber effect. But in fact, just using the word stretch can be misleading to your own mind. If you are not careful, you can fall into waiting for that “elusive elasticity.” Yes, your muscles might somehow figure out how to “relax” on their own without your investing mental power. But I wouldn’t bank on it.
* Extensibility, Elasticity & Flexibility: Extensibility means the tissue can lengthen then return to original length without permanently distorting it’s structure. Flexibility means tissue can bend and return to normal without distorting it’s structure.
The word elasticity has a wider range of meaning than just extensibility, but in the case of muscles and fascia, the more descriptive terms are plasticity, bend-ability and resilience, with very little extensibility. The actin and myosin fibers have LOTS of bend-ability or flexibility, but themselves are not much extensible. It is their interactions with each other that produce the sense of extensibility of a muscle cell.
Fascia is only a little more extensible or elastic than actin-myosin fibers, but are also very flexible. Fascia is also much tougher than muscle cells, and serves to support and protect the paradoxically delicate actin-myosin molecules.
More importantly for our purposes here, fascia becomes tendon, and tendon attaches to bone. It is the strength and minimal extensibility of tendons that allow them to transfer most of the force generated by the actin-myosin units to the bones. If tendons and fascia were very extensible, the actin-myosin cells would have to contract much more to create movement. Nature, in its wisdom, created the division of labor, giving the two kinds of tissue very different jobs in life.
(The paradox is actin-myosin muscle molecules are extremely fragile compared to fascia, yet actin-myosin cells are what generate almost all the pulling power & force. They have a very distinct differentiation and division of labor producing a phenomenal diversity of movement and protection of the human body.)
My main intent here is to not use words giving you the impression that musculo-fascial units are in any way like rubber bands, taffy, spandex or other kinds of “stretchy” phenomena.
It’s not exactly an illusion, but if you treat your muscles as if they were like rubber bands or taffy waiting to stretch out, you’ll get little or no results at best, or you can damage your self at worst. You do NOT want to forcefully tug on the ends of your muscles thinking or hoping that force is what’s making them “stretch out.” Because forceful stretching actually triggers a stretch reflex, such actions actually make the muscle cells contract even more.
NOTE on TITIN: The only significantly elastic portion, as in extensibility, of a muscle unit — called titin — is only fully accessed when tonus in neuromuscular units are turned nearly or completely off, a very rare event for most people in modern society, including many very flexible gymnasts, ballet dancers & top-rate yoga teachers. This is because of their increased Resting Tonus, discussed above in Premise #3, Chapter One, of Simple Steps to Let Go Yoga.
Therapeutic Let-Go Yoga and The DSL Method of
Yoga/Bodywork/Whole Health Therapeutics: