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Wednesday, September 9, 2015

Tip of the Week: How Far to Go into a Stretch

When practicing the postures, it is important to "find your edge" or experience the balance of not going so far in a stretch that you cause injury, but going far enough that your body is challenged. The following is an excerpt from the book "Yoga, the Spirit and Practice of Moving into Stillness" by Erich Shiffmann.

A large part of the art and skill in yoga lies in sensing just how far to move into a stretch. If you don't go far enough, there is no challenge to the muscles, no intensity, no stretch, and little possibility for opening. Going too far, however, is an obvious violation of the body, increasing the possibility of both physical pain and injury. Somewhere between these two points is a degree of stretch that is in balance: intensity without pain, use without abuse, strenuousness without strain. You can experience this balance in every posture you do. 

This place in the stretch is called your "edge." The body's edge in yoga is the place just before pain, but not pain itself. Pain tells you where the limits of your physical conditioning lie. Edges are marked by pain and define your limits. How far you can fold forward, for example, is limited by your flexibility edge; to go any further hurts and is actually counterproductive. The length of your stay in a pose is determined by your endurance edge. Your interest in a pose is a function of your attention edge. 

In daily life, we tend to remain within a familiar but limited comfort zone by staying away from both our physical and mental edges. This would be fine except that as aging occurs these limits close in considerably. Our bodies tighten, our range of movement decreases, and our strength and stamina diminish. By consciously bringing the body to its various limits or edges and holding it there, gently nudging it toward more openness with awareness, the long, slow process of closing in begins to reverse itself. The range expands as the edges change. 

Sensing where your edges are and learning to hold the body there with awareness, moving with its often subtle shifts, can be called "playing the edge." This is a large part of what you'll be doing in your practice. Your skill in yoga has little to do with your degree of flexibility or where your edges happen to be. Rather, it is a function of how sensitively you play your edges, no matter where they are. 

This is a very freeing idea. Normally, we have an idea of how the posture "should" be. We have ideas about how deep we should be able to go into a pose, what we should look like while we are there, and how long we should be able to stay. We are often more aware of where we aren't than of where we are. 

This idea of the "completed" or "ideal" posture as a specific destination somewhere in the future is often a lurking presence in the back of our minds as we do the poses. Because of this, there will necessarily be a gap between where you are in the posture and where you think you should be. This gap, more often than not, contains a subtle frustration, a conflict, a feeling that where you are is insufficient - or worse, who you are is insufficient - and that if you were truly doing yoga properly and were a "good" or "evolved" person, you would be somewhere other than where you are. If this is the case, your practice will be permeated with the effort of going somewhere else. It will be future-oriented, the present moment being significant only as a stepping stone to the future. And you will miss being present. 

Envisioning the postures in advance can yield dramatic results, however. And watching someone else do an advanced and difficult posture that you would like to achieve can be especially helpful, both because you see it is possible and can be performed with ease, and because your nervous system - simply by watching - receives a tremendous amount of nonverbal information about how to perform the pose correctly. Having that information in your nervous system and the back of your mind as you practice can make that pose easier for you, as long as you use it as a general guideline that you understand will be expressed differently in your body. The way to realize these changes is by focusing your attention on the process of what you are doing. This involves flirting with the tight spots, your edges, with sensitivity and attention. 

The main thing to understand is that there is no such thing as a "completed" or "ideal" posture. Each posture is an ever-evolving, constantly moving energy phenomenon that is different from day to day, moment to moment, and person to person. The process of sensitively flirting with your edges and achieving perfect energy flow is not merely the means to achieve the pose - it is the pose. 

This is what the physical aspect of yoga is fundamentally all about. Your body is limited in movement not only through its genetic makeup, but through the conditionings that have accrued over the years. As you age, this becomes more and more apparent. Yoga is a way of exploring these limits. It's not a matter of "How can I attain this or that final posture?" It's a matter of gently pressing into the various edges you encounter within the template structure of each particular posture. And your edges and limits will change as a by-product of this exploration; you will change. 

Intensity and Pain 

You should never be in pain as you practice yoga. Your practice should not be a painful ordeal, but rather an expression of joy. Pain is most easily defined as any sensation you do not like, and it always invokes a natural withdrawal mechanism. When you put your hand on a hot stove, for example, instantly you take it off. Before you're even aware that your hand is on the stove, it's off. This is built-in self-protective device. 

The same withdrawal mechanism is activated whenever a yoga stretch begins to hurt. Muscles clamp down and contract in order to protect themselves from overstretching. They are suddenly less willing, fearful, and they resist the stretch - naturally. And they do this, to whatever small or large degree, before you are even aware it's happening. This is blatantly at odds with your initial intention to stretch, open, and expand your physical boundaries. Therefore, by pushing into pain you are actually working against yourself. One foot is on the accelerator, and one foot is on the brake.

Pushing and working hard are frequently appropriate and can be thoroughly enjoyable at the right moments, but they should never result in pain. You may want to approach pain and get near it, but not actually be in it. You want to be in the place where it "hurts good," where you know you are dealing with what needs to be dealt with - the contracted parts of your energy field - but where it not so intense that you resist, tighten up to protect yourself, or prevent yourself from going too far.

The ideal state for practice is to be as willing and relaxed as possible, as nonresisting  as possible, so that one part of you is not in opposition to another. You can then comfortably press your edges open. The practice becomes one of be relaxed  and willing at your deeper edges; and this isn't necessarily easy. It's difficult to stay relaxed in the midst of a high-intensity stretch.

You want to stay within your comfort zone where you are safe and, at the same time, press into the various tight areas. By pressing, stretching and breathing  into your tight areas, you can ease them open, thereby expanding the boundaries of your comfort zone.  It's like being inside a bubble and gently pressing outward from inside to expand its shape, so that you experience more space and comfort within the bubble.

Pain lurks just beyond your deepest edges as a reminder that you have gone too far. It's important for anyone who spends time nudging edges open with yoga to have a healthy understanding of pain - and to have a feeling for the distinction between pain and intensity.

The word pain actually stands for a variety of different possible sensations ranging anywhere from sharp and intense to subtle and dull. Physical pain may arise from a variety of causes, a pulled muscle, for example, or from a stretch that is too intense. Psychological pain often involves the feeling that you are in a place you don't like, doing something you would rather not he doing.

Herein lies one of the reasons for the frequent confusion between intensity and pain. A powerful stretch, whether or not you have gone too far, will generate an intense sensation. Someone who is not used to intensity or is excessively worried about getting hurt may be afraid of the intense sensation and resist it. Resisted intensity becomes pain. Therefore, even relatively mild levels of intensity can be experienced as pain if you go beyond your psychological edge.

If fear prevents you from going deeper or staying longer in a posture, it is wise to avoid overriding the fear by being brave or courageous, since this makes injury more likely. Instead of pushing past psychological limits, open more slowly by finding a less intense level of stretch just before fear enters. Hold the position there as you deepen the breath, relax, and acclimatize to the stretch. By playing the edge of fear like this, you never have to experience psychological discomfort.

This can have a very profound influence on all aspects of your life. One of the things you learn in yoga is to enjoy working with intensity. Intensity is simply more "energy" at any given moment, more feeling. Happiness and sadness, for example, can both be experienced with more or less intensity. If you are unable or unwilling to deal with an increase in intensity, however, not only in your yoga but in your daily life as well, your range of life experience will necessarily remain limited and narrow. Yoga can teach you to enjoy and learn from a broader range of experience. It will encourage you to seek out and process more intensity. The more you do this within the safe arena of yoga practice, the more it will influence all of your life. This is not as intense as it may sound. More intensity isn't even noticeable as you become strong and open.

This has two distinct advantages. First, you will be able to allow more pleasure into your life. More good will come to you because you are open and receptive, no longer pushing it away. You will experience more joy and find yourself able to handle the heightened intensity of happiness. Haven't you noticed that even in the midst of joy, something you thought you wanted, there is often a part of you that wants to turn it off? Or at least turn it down a bit? It's difficult to handle intensity of any kind, even if you like it. Yoga can change this for you forever. As you are able to generate more energy and process more intensity in the poses with enjoyment and full willingness, you will correspondingly be able to receive and process more goodness in your life. 

Secondly, yoga teaches you to experience the so-called "negative" emotions and intensities without being overly disturbed by them, without having to run away from them. They will feel less intense than they previously would have. You will then be able to learn from the "bad" and painful experiences in life without being bowled over by them. And therefore, because your full range of life experience is being broadened and enlarged in all directions, you are now able to learn from both the "good" and "bad," making your life that much richer. 

It is important to learn how to generate voluntary intensity deliberately and willingly, by deepening the breath, increasing the current, strengthening your lines, and flirting with the various edges that arise in each pose. This is best learned in postures that are easy for you. In these postures any intensity you experience is largely self-generated. Learn to create voluntary intensity in these easy poses and in the early stages of any pose you do, and then delicately press into your tight areas in order to nudge them gently to greater openness. This will prepare you for the intensely pleasurable sensations that come with the territory of advanced yoga. Intensity is pleasurable when you are prepared for it, when you are able to let go into it; it becomes unpleasant when you resist it or generate too much. Skill in yoga involves creating the perfect amount of intensity - not too much, not too little. 

Every pose has a "minimum edge" and a "maximum edge," as well as a series of intermediary edges between these. Most of us are aware of the maximum edge; it is the easiest to detect. This is the point where the stretch begins to hurt. it is the furthest point of tightness beyond which you should not go. If you were to force yourself beyond this point, you would definitely be in pain and might easily hurt yourself or pull a muscle.

The minimum edge is where you sense the very first sensation of stretch, the very first hint of resistance coming from your muscles. For example, bending over and touching your toes may tax you to the maximum, but about halfway down (or less) you can sense the first edge. This is where you initially become aware of a stretch. 

It is important to be aware of your very first edge, your minimum edge. Taking your time to open that edge is like preparing to go through a series of gates. You must go through the first gate before you can go through the second, and the second before the third. The real key to depth in postures is going slowly, making sure you have thoroughly opened your early edges. 

As you come into a pose, look for your very first edge. Do not rush past it. When you feel that edge, stop. Stop moving, deepen the breath, clarify your energy lines, and wait for it to open. You will know the first edge has opened when the sensations of stretch begin to diminish. At that point you will naturally want to go deeper into the posture. Rather than having to push your way in, you will feel drawn into the pose. As you are drawn deeper, a new edge will soon appear, and the sensations of stretch will come back. Wait for the sensations at this new edge to diminish before going deeper.

Do this over and over. Wait for the sensations of stretch to diminish somewhat and then go deeper. It will feel as though you are sneaking into the pose, not barging your way in. Proceed slowly, edge by edge and gate by gate. Apply pressure and wait for the musculature to open. Then you can move deeper into the pose, apply more pressure, all the while orchestrating the tone of the pose with the breath and current, again waiting for the musculature to open and the sensations of stretch to diminish. Continue working like this until the musculature will no longer release. Then stay where you are and be motionless. Retain the sense of energy and stretch, and release every hint of strain. Be as relaxed as you can be; do and don't-do. When you sense that it is nearly time to come out of the pose, delicately accelerate your energy for a moment. Finally, release the stretch altogether and come out of the pose.

While you are at each new subsequent edge, deepen the breath, define and clarify your lines, and pay close attention to the actual feeling of the stretch. Keep tabs on whether you are enjoying yourself or not. If not, why not? Find a way of doing the pose that is enjoyable. And then be interested: Are the sensations of stretch increasing? If so, it's a sign that you are too deep in the posture and should back off a bit. Are the sensations staying the same? If so, stay where you are, deepen the breath, and wait for the sensations of stretch to diminish. And when the sensations of stretch have diminished somewhat and you are able to relax with intensity, you will instinctively know it is time to go deeper.

Proceed step by step, edge by edge, paying close attention to what you are doing, being sensitive to the changing sensations of stretch. Remember, yoga is essentially an awareness process wherein you attend to these subtle shifts in sensation and feeling. The attention you give to these changing sensations of stretch is what exercises and develops your sensitivity. You will become sensitive to subtler and subtler sensations. 

When the sensations of intensity no longer diminish at the new edge, it means your muscles are not yet ready for a stronger or deeper stretch. You can flirt with these tight areas by pressing into them gently, by changing the strength and character of your breathing, by increasing and decreasing the current in your lines, by staying in the posture longer, or by doing several repetitions of the pose - but do not force your way through them. Respect your tight edges. Work with them sensitively. Lure them to greater openness. 

The more you do this, the better you'll get at it. Instead of telling your body when to move or what to do, you're learning to wait until it's ready. You wait for the inner feeling to tell you when to move. You listen for the inner cue to action, and this becomes easier and easier to detect. When you feel the energy flowing freely and the sensations of intensity beginning to wane, that's the sign. If you go too fast, however, the sensations will increase instead of diminish. There will be pain - a roadblock to the free flow of energy. This is feedback that you have gone too deep, too fast, too soon. Be interested in the feedback you're receiving from your body while you are in the pose.

Let's take an imaginary pose and rate it from one to ten. "One" is the beginning of the pose. "Ten" is as far as you can go before reaching pain. There is no pain in the one-to-ten range, though the sensations of stretch will become increasingly intense as you approach ten. Anything beyond ten we will not consider. 

As you proceed from one to ten, the intensity will gradually increase.  At one you will not feel much, but somewhere around two or three you will feel your first edge. Most of the time we rush past these early edges, looking for the real stretch deeper in the pose. It's important, however, to find your first edge and acclimatize yourself there before deepening. It is the opening of this early edge that allows the later, deeper openings to occur. If your early edges are not fully open, your body will not be ready for the intensity of the deeper extensions. Somewhere around Eight or nine and inching into ten is what 1 would call your maximum edge, the deepest extension or degree of intensity you are now capable of sustaining without pain or discomfort. Remember, never push yourself into pain. 

If your limits in a posture are marked by pain, and if the intensity of the stretch continues to increase as you come closer and closer to your maximum edge, how do you tell the difference between pain and intensity? Easy! The answer is obvious. If you do not like the sensation and you do not want to be there, it's pain. It's totally up to you. This is your yoga. You are not here to punish yourself or do something you don't want to do. You are learning to generate an intensity that is attractive, pleasurable, that you like and want. It's something you are actually looking for. At your maximum edge, just before pain but not in pain-is an intensity that is extremely pleasurable. Therefore, go slowly. Take your time. Don't miss that perfect point. Increase the intensity of the pose gradually and deepen the pose with care. This will teach you to enjoy and assimilate greater amounts of energy and intensity. 

The feeling-tone of a perfectly orchestrated strong stretch at a deep edge has a seductive quality to it. It's intense, pleasurable, exhilarating, and invigorating. Your body will like it. This should not be surprising, however, because by stretching your body to full openness, you are freeing yourself from the constraints of] tightness, contraction, and pain. You are increasing your internal energy flow, flushing new life through your system, opening and nourishing yourself at very deep levels; and all of this is good for you and therefore feels good. But if you unawarly press too deeply, too quickly, into a posture, then the pleasurable and attractive sensations of intensity will become painful and unattractive. If you happen to go too far into a stretch - "too far" meaning you do not like it - then ease out of the pose until you do. Center yourself in your breathing, regain composure , and then slowly go in again, being more careful this time. 

Be clear about this: If you start not liking the stretch for any reason, then move out of the pose until you find a place you do like. Reasons for not liking where you are can be physical or psychological. You may be stretching the muscle too much, or you may not be in the mood. Either reason is valid. Never be in ~ place you don't want to be. If volt do not like it, change it. Adjust Find the degree of stretch you can totally immerse yourself in. 

Sometimes you will want to flirt more seriously with your various resistances and with the common reluctance to stay with an intense, and perhaps uncomfortable, sensation for an extended period of time. But doing this when you want to do this is different from doing it when you do not want to. If you avoid feedback and spend a lot of time being uncomfortable or in pain, you are not going to enjoy doing yoga. You will not look forward to your practice. You will not be working with the principles of opening. And by encountering unnecessary tension and resistance, you will not be doing your body any good, either. 

Edges, Breathing, and Wholeness 

Since your movements and stretches will be coordinated with your breathing ("Move when you breathe, and breathe when you move") the most subtle and sensitive way to play your edges and fine-tune the feel of your stretches is with your breathing. Without the sensitive use of your breathing, your stretches cannot be precise. The muscles and lines are not sensitive enough in themselves, nor sufficiently delicate, to fine-tune a stretch accurately. 

The overall feeling in your muscles and body is the sound of yoga. The sound is a feeling, a tone, a feeling-tone; it's very much like singing a note. And if a particular line of energy is not tuned just right, it will either feel "flat" or "sharp." Continual readjustment is necessary to stay perfectly tuned. I usually create a line of energy that is slightly flat, just below perfect tension and with low current. I then deepen the breath as I increase the current to fine-tune the line. This enables me to press delicately into an edge from the inside out without invoking the stretch-reflex withdrawal mechanism; and if I happen to go too far, I soften my breathing, back off the edge somewhat, decrease the current in my lines, then try again. In this way it is possible to create a strong current of energy in any given line, or flirt with a maximum edge, or perform a difficult and advanced posture without forcibly pushing beyond physical and psychological edges. The moment you do that, remember, your intention will fragment, and your attention will wander. You will begin to resist what you are doing, part of you wanting to continue and part of you wanting to stop. 

The hallmark of practicing yoga properly, however, is wholeness, wholeheartedness, not being in conflict. The idea is to generate wholeheartedly the optimum intensity of energy by consciously creating an increase or decrease in current. You then use this energy to extend your boundaries and limits, to expand your comfort zone, basically - both physically and psychologically speaking. Yoga is not about "pushing through the pain," "overcoming the pain," "no pain, no gain," or about being excessively willful. If you are having to be brave and courageous in order stoically to withstand excessive intensity, you are pushing too hard. You are forcing the issue, fighting. Never fight yourself. Yoga is not about fighting. There is no advantage to this and there are many disadvantages.  Ease up when necessary.  Intensify when appropriate.  Practice skillfully. 

The optimum degree of intensity is the amount that elicits your fullest attention; sometimes this will be a lot, and sometimes this will be a little. The correct amount is the amount that helps you be one-pointed and whole. It is the amount that feels perfect to you now. Too much is a strain, and too little is not sufficiently interesting. Your mind will wander in either case.  Getting "better" at yoga means getting better at generating the perfect degree of current, intensity, breath, and feeling so that, in that moment, you are consciously one with what you're doing - whole, not conflicted, and exactly where you want to be. 

Therefore, learn to be more interested in the feeling-tone of your body than in how deep you are in the posture. Learn to create an energy flow that is attractive to you. Do this by pressing into your edges with the perfect degree of current and the perfect pitch of breath. Realize this is not a function of how flexible you are. A stiff body can do this just as beautifully as a flexible one. The beautiful inner music - the inner feeling - is the yoga, not the achievement of elaborate postures. And be assured, your body will grow more beautiful and become strong and flexible by being played beautifully.

This is where the concept of push and yield most meaningfully displays itself. The art of yoga lies in how well you play your edges, how delicately you flirt with your limitations, how well you lure yourself deeper into the postures, how sensitively you balance the desire to achieve results with the relaxation of non-desire and surrender, and how thoroughly you immerse yourself in the process and enjoy what you are doing. And again, the primary tool you use is your breathing. Your breathing orchestrates the feeling-tone of the poses as it brings them to life.

Keep in mind that the various poses are like maps into your body. Having a map, however, does not infer a specific goal or a predetermined destination of where you should be in the pose. The idea is to use the map to explore - to look deliberately for tight, blocked areas within yourself - open them, and thereby create lines of clean energy flow. This requires that you be delicate, deliberate, and exact, not in the sense of "blueprint," but in the sense of being increasingly inwardly sensitive for the specific alignment and intensity of stretch that feels most right. This entails pressing for greater depth in the poses, greater openness, yet also remaining passive and yielding. You knock on the door, breathe, wait, then go deeper when the musculature lets you in.

Use your breathing and energy lines to nudge into your edges, being watchful and patient. Do not barge in, but also don't just remain passive. Apply pressure in specific areas, increase the intensity gradually, breathe, and wait for them to release. Lovingly persuade the tight areas to open, breath by breath by breath. Communicate nonverbally to the various tight areas that it is in their best interest to relax and open. Do this by finding easy places in the poses where you can establish an energy flow, then bring this flow into the contracted area.

Again, never push yourself into positions that cause you to resist the stretch physically or emotionally. Always start from comfort and safety, and only increase the stretch after you're comfortable where you already are. Then feel free to go after your deeper extensions and stronger stretches. Use as much ambition and desire as you want. Push as much as you want. Let go as much as you can. But learn to do all of this with sensitivity. Deepen the breath and increase the force in your lines at relatively easy stages, then wait and be patient. Your body will open and let you in when it's ready. By staying at easy stages of the pose longer, you will increase your strength and endurance. You will need these in order to hold the increased flexibility that will accrue through time and practice.

Skill in yoga is a matter of harmonizing your breathing with your energy lines as you flirt with your edges. It's a matter of getting all three just right, of changing them when necessary, and of adjusting and readjusting in order to create the feeling-tone that is the most attractive to you in that moment. It's a matter of adjusting the tension and stretch of your muscles, and the pitch of your breathing, to produce the perfect feeling-tone. You can make it exquisite. The more perfect it is, the more one-pointed and focused your mind will be.

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