Stretching | Stressing

Stretching is a misnomer, but for lack of a better word for something that conveys the idea of pulling on tissues it’s sufficient, albeit inaccurate. Never mind that my second book is called, A Righteous Stretch — Yin Yoga: What It Is, How To Do It, And Why. The reality is that something else is happening, and it’s not exactly stretching.

But, even if stretching muscles is a misguided description you get the gist of the activity right away. And, in class, it’s a starting point, physically, and more importantly, conceptually. You see, lasting stretch would be what’s known as plastic deformation, and would necessarily be injurious to soft tissues. Just like stretching a delicate woolen sweater out of shape, there is no return to baseline. In reality, elastic deformation is what occurs when we stretch, whether athletically or hedonically. Understand that as greater ease and range of movement is indeed developed through regular practice, any (safe, healthful) lengthening of tissues is impermanent, temporary.

While tissues do adjust to applied tensile forces, indeed giving length through viscoelasticity, where molecules reorient themselves under stress, they also recoil. A good thing, actually, otherwise our joints would be coming apart after a couple of yoga classes. As well, after two minutes or so of uninterrupted tension, sensory receptors local to that fascia get the idea that some increased length of tissues is desired and then cue the smooth muscle cells in the fascia to relax. By the way, muscles simply contract and relax. That’s it. And, it’s by relaxing muscle that we’re able to reach into the fascia and ligaments surrounding joints, and stretch, er, apply tension to that fascia and those ligaments. This of course would seem like we’re stretching tissues, but more correctly, we are stressing tissues. This stress is ultimately stimulation.

William Shakespeare wrote, “A rose by any other name would smell as sweet,” so whether you’re stretching, per se, or not, you’re still stimulating specific joints and their surrounding soft tissues. But, perhaps for obvious reasons “stretch” reads better than, say, a book entitled A Righteous Stimulation. And, a class called Slow, Deep Stimulation might raise some eyebrows, right? So even as the misleading nomenclature remains, in context of Yin yoga, or typical athletics, we are stimulating the so-called Yin tissues — ligaments, and fascia — by stressing them. More than mere alliterative semantics this stretch, stress, stimulation wordplay is illustrative. The right descriptor tells you what you’re doing, and why!

But stress, too, may be just as poorly descriptive. Aren’t we told that stress is harmful? To avoid stress? To take it easy? In other words, isn’t stress bad? Maybe connotatively, in popular usage. But it turns out stress is our allay!

You likely already know:

  • But for the stress of the earliest ordeal of the baby chic pecking its way out of its shell, it would never survive ordinary life.
  • But for exposure to bacteria and viruses the immune system would never develop, and the organism — you, me, etc. — would succumb to pathogens unnoticed by those who had previously suffered colds, and flu, and the like.
  • But for challenging concepts and rigorous testing intelligence would never be cultivated.
  • But for the sometimes painful dynamics of inter-personal relations emotional resilience could never manifest.
  • And, but for lifting heavy weights, running farther and faster, practicing intricate skills and drills, athletes could never maximize their inherent potential.

The body, the mind, and our feelings respond favorably to stress. We grow and develop is accordance with various life stressors. As it’s said — and it’s as true as it is hackneyed — the stone is only polished, and the blade is only sharpened through friction.

That said, and even as leisure is anathema to fitness (of any kind), rest, or better described, recovery is essential. As Hans Selye demonstrated about a hundred years ago, unrelenting stress destroys the organism. His subjects, lab rats, capitulated under too great an exposure to stress. That is, if they didn’t get breaks now and then. Even short respites can be sufficient to allow for adaptation, and what Selye called super-compensation. This is the basis of the training protocol, Periodization. Planned rest allows for upward spiraling of fitness and skills development, leading to peak performances. Winning! Sometime after, Viktor Frankl — noted psychiatrist, and Holocaust survivor — described how meaning and attitude can offer an internal oasis from continual external torment, and a reason to carry on. Ultimately, as philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche said, “What does not kill me makes me stronger.” While specific exercise prescription is beyond the scope of this post, know that stress/recovery in the right measure is one secret to (whatever) success.

So, stretching tissues stresses tissues, and stressing tissues stimulates tissues. This stimulation promotes particular physiological response, favorable effects that are the overarching reasons to do such a practice. For instance, and among other things, through the mechanical process of folding, bending, and twisting into yoga postures hyaluronan is produced, and piezo-electricity is generated. Hyaluronan, a large, water-binding molecule, lubricates joints and hydrates surrounding tissues. Piezo-electricity promotes the repair and regeneration of new cells and tissues — collagen, for instance — and provides for the removal of older, damaged cells and tissues. If you’re looking for a way to preserve youthfulness at any age, you’d do well to consider these aspects of specific stimulation for clarity of purpose. Purpose can steel the resolve to remain still in an uncomfortable position for five minutes, or to show up for class when you’d rather not. Motivationally, “stretching” doesn’t quite cut it.

Still, stretching is a shorthand. It’s convenient. Even if an errant descriptor, the idea of stretching does conjure images of the practice better than some esoteric moniker like Yin yoga. Whatever you decide to call it, health benefits abound for those who embrace the stimulation attendant to a slow, deep stretch routine.

Why not find out for yourself? Join a streaming Yin yoga class this week!