In yoga class we sometimes push ourselves and confront the edge of our limitations both physically and mentally. The reason we do this is to learn how to better handle moments that push us “on and off the mat.” We learn to use tools like our breath, redirecting our focus and and remembering that with time what feels intense now can be withstood and will eventually abate. It’s easy to see how this applies while in asana practice or pranayama. But sometimes it’s not always so easy to immediately see the practical applications of our yoga practices in other challenging situations. The possibilities of application can be more readily seen if we understand the physiology that goes on when use our bodies to create space within and without.
Many of the most challenging asanas involve a stretch response known as the myotatic reflex. This reflex happens when muscles are stretched to a length at which they are not accustomed to working. In essence, the muscles then contract in order to protect themselves (and you) from going too far and causing an injury. This resistance to stretch is a protective action, but is also manageable and temporary, for some of us lasting only a moment. In order to train the muscles to work at longer lengths it is necessary to hold the work for at least 15 to 30 seconds (this time varies according to sources). In this time the reflex usually eases up and we find that there is less discomfort than initially experienced. Some movement professionals believe that with enough practice and awareness one can even gain control over the reflex to the point that it is almost completely diminished in certain muscles even during intense dynamic movement.
So now that you understand the underlying physiology let’s apply it to your yoga practice. It is necessary to point out that not all practices should be about or are geared to overcoming this reflex; nor should there always be the goal to be more open. However, if one’s desire is to go deeper into the asana that is the context in which the following occurs: Imagine yourself in a standing forward bend (weight bearing) and let’s presume the focus of this forward bend is in the backline of the legs, hamstrings mostly. You feel the initial resistance of moving into the asana and realize the intense sensations of stretch is your body signaling you not to go any farther. Excellent listening skills! Here’s where you apply what you’ve just learned. You are engaged in a head-to-head confrontation with the myotatic stretch reflex. Your best defense in this situation is your breath. Instead of allowing the sensations to overwhelm you breathe calmly, slowing your rhythm. This also sends a physiological signal to your nervous system telling it that, “actually everything is ok.” Breathing calmly also buys you time until the reflex begins to ease up. Typically, you’ll see in about 5 slow breath cycles you are focused, the sensations abate and you might even discover the space to move farther into your forward bend. That moment can be summed up, “as melting or creating space with your breath.” But you have to breathe to get there!
During this process you learn to tolerate discomfort and stress with grace. Your sense of time changes. You have gained an understanding of the impermanent nature of feelings/sensation in the body and how to ride out the moment with that newfound grace. Your focus has switched from rushing through your postures to focusing on the process as opposed to the goal. Your approach to the practice is now less urgent. Amazing! Now just repeat the process again and again and…again. With any luck you’ll start seeing how this less urgent and more self-aware you handles stressful situations in life off the mat.
It will become evident that you are not so easily knocked from your center even in hostile, aggressive or emotionally charged moments. The action of turning to your breath will become instinctual. Time will slow down (very the Matrix) and you’ll be able to gain a clearer perspective of yourself in these moments, while being less reactive. You will also gain the ability to discriminate between what you can tolerate and when you should back off. This is called establishing boundaries. It’s not all about toughening up and desensitizing yourself to difficult or challenging situations. It’s about using challenges to learn what you can and can’t safely withstand from a physical and emotional standpoint. We can learn to apply this discrimination to our day-to-day interactions and our most intimate relationships. This is how we establish our personal safety physically, emotionally and mentally. We practice to get smarter, not tougher.
Ultimately, finding space in discomfort is empowering and allows us to feel calm while in the eye of the storm.