Lessons of a Yoga Teacher 5: Stress and a stretch

We use the word 'stress' a lot, and it has developed a bit of a bad reputation.

The definition for the word stress is 'Pressure or tension exerted'. So stress is not intrinsically a problem and in the case of our bodily fibres, it can be of benefit.

Exerting pressure and tension on our bodies is natural and keeps us healthy. This stress can come in many forms: stretching, weight bearing, massage are some. Anything that exerts the force of gravity though our tissues is a positive stress that has an effect on everything from our skin. through to our bones.

Think of your body like a porous sponge, absorbing, collecting and eliminating. To stay fresh and healthy you need to keep this sponge of yours clean. How do you clean a sponge? You have to squeeze and twist it, while rinsing. Your blood, lymphatic fluids and prana (the energy referred to in Yoga) act as the warm water, and stressing, pressing and stretching your tissues is the squeezing and twisting.

Gravity acts as a stressor on our tissues. Astronauts who live without the pressure of gravity on the collagen fibres in their bones, lose bone mass. Some astronauts have lost up to 20% bone density in their lower body after just a six-month stay in space.

Collagen is an amazingly strong and flexible substance found throughout our bodies. It's what makes our teeth strong and yet it gives our skin its elasticity. The word collagen comes from a Greek word meaning 'glue producer' - it helps to hold us together.

There are many different types of fibres in our bodies, but it is collagen that we will look at in relation to stretching, as it's this fibre that gives us our strength and flexibility.

Our body continually produces and absorbs collagen and it's the balance between this creation and destruction of fibres that keeps our tissues healthy. If you produce collagen fibres, but don't eliminate old ones you become strong, tight and inflexible. If you break down and absorb too many fibres without creating new ones you become flexible, but have no stability or strength.

So stretching is a way to keep this healthy balance in our tissues.

Do you remember a game that involved drawing a magnet behind a board of metal shavings and watching all the fibres line up and change direction?

Well it's helpful to have that image when you think about stretching.

When we are young our collagen fibres (like those metal shavings) generally line up quite easily and are straight, which is why for the most part children don't need to stretch.

But as we age or damage these fibres, they become tangled or bent and as a result become enmeshed and shorter. This shortening pulls the bones closer together, restricting your body's full range of movement.

The mesh of tangled fibres can also trap unwanted particles, like dead cells or absorbed environmental pollution. The lymphatic system is designed to collect and rinse away all the polluting particles in our body. But we need to help it.

Without moving, squeezing and stretching, you end up like that dirty old sponge. Having a stretch lengthens and opens up your tissues, keeping you lean and youthful. It enables the body to deep clean itself, keeping your cells healthy and waste-free.

When you stretch, the exertion of stress on your collagen fibres generates an electrical field (like the magnet). This current lines up all the healthy working fibres along the direction of the stretch.

Switching on and lining up the young healthy fibres means that damaged, old fibres that are no longer working can be moved and reabsorbed by the body's fluid system. This selection of healthy fibres and elimination of unhealthy ones keeps your muscles lighter, leaner and full of life.

Try this lunge as on one side you will feel a strong stretching sensation and on the other side a deep pressing sensation - both of which are positive stressors on your collagen fibres.

Does this understanding of what's happening inside the sensation change the way you feel about this stress?

Step one foot back as far behind you as possible, and come down onto your fingertips. Keep your back knee off the ground, drop your hips down while pushing forward into your front knee, and pushing into your back heel. Keeping your attention on these three points, hips down, knee forward and heel back, this will bring length and stretch through your legs, hips and spine. Also the weight on your fingertips helps to keep the small joints healthy.

Now bring your back knee down to the ground and rest your hands flat either side of your front foot. Let all your weight drop into your hips and focus on the feeling of pressure in your front leg and stretch in your back leg. These feelings are positive stressors on your tissues. So long as nothing actually hurts, staying with these strong feelings is positive and healthy. If you stay for over a minute you will start working the fascia as well as the muscles. Even the weight-bearing pressure of your knee and hands on the ground will be supporting the fibres in your bones.

More on different aspects of stretching to follow soon.

* Jessica Hatchett teaches yoga in West Cork. For more information about her classes and events go to www.yogawestcork.com photography by www.luluash.co.uk.

Part 1: Confessions of a yoga teacher...

Part 2: Am I breathing?

Part 3: Find your edge

Part 4: Lessons of a Yoga Teacher 4: Loving my Downward Dog


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