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Mastering Stretching: Understanding Spinal Reflexes for Ashtanga Yoga Practitioners

Do you want to deepen your stretches without the fear of tearing a muscle? I think it’s helpful to understand what’s happening with our muscles on at a cellular level. Length and strength are controlled by this system, and it’s a system we can learn to interface with by developing our mind-body connection.

(reach out if you want some coaching)

The Stretch Reflex: Your Muscles’ Bodyguard 

Let’s start with the Stretch Reflex, also known as the Muscle Spindle Stretch Receptor. This reflex is your muscles’ bodyguard, designed to prevent muscle tearing caused by forceful actions or by taking a muscle beyond its normal range. When you force a stretch or stretch rapidly, it intensifies the firing of the muscle spindle, causing the muscle to contract, inhibiting the possibility of deepening the stretch. This is how you can get more or less stretch. Get it?

The Golgi Tendon Reflex: Your Muscles’ Clasp Knife 

Next up is the Golgi Tendon Reflex, also known as the Inverse Stretch Reflex. When tension on a tendon exceeds a certain amount, this reflex causes the muscle to automatically release, preventing the tendon from being torn. How cool is that? To stimulate the Golgi tendon organs (the receptors for this reflex), try holding a pose for a longer time or contracting the muscle being stretched. Your muscles will thank you for it. This is how you get more length. Got it?

Reciprocal Inhibition: Your Muscles’ Yin and Yang 

Last but not least is Reciprocal Inhibition, where the agonist muscle contracts, and the antagonist muscle relaxes. Think of it as your muscles’ yin and yang. Understanding this process can be used to deepen a stretch. For example, in a forward fold, engaging your quadriceps (agonist muscle) can help relax your hamstrings (antagonist muscle) and deepen the stretch. It’s all about finding that sweet spot. This concept is how you can find balance between those first two.

The Brain is the Last to Know 

Get this: the spinal reflexes bypass the brain and happen unconsciously. That’s right, the brain is the last to know. In a spinal reflex, a sensation is felt at the site and relayed to neurons in the spinal cord, which then signals a movement in response to the sensation. This happens in fractions of a second, allowing us to jerk away before the brain is even aware of a problem. So, next time you accidentally touch a hot stove and pull away before feeling the pain, thank your spinal reflexes for saving the day. And remember that we can use these very same systems to help us get stronger and more flexible.

In Conclusion 

Understanding spinal reflexes related to stretching can be a game-changer in your Ashtanga yoga practice. Slow and steady wins the stretching race, stimulating your Golgi tendon organs can prevent injury, and utilizing Reciprocal Inhibition can deepen your stretches. And remember, your spinal reflexes are always looking out for you, even if your brain is the last to know. Happy stretching, yogis!

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