Do the thing you think you cannot do. — Eleanor Roosevelt
This week I have been immersed in yoga teacher training, diving into the history, philosophy, and science behind why moving around in a room with other people can make us feel so good. That’s where I learned about the muscle spindle stretch receptor, which can be found in the center of every one of our skeletal muscles.
The muscle spindle is like a cautious parent. It wants to protect the muscle from over-stretching or tearing, so it keeps a constant eye on the muscle’s length. When the muscle stretches, the spindle sends a signal to our brain, which tells the muscle to contract and resist the stretch.
Trying to force our muscles to stretch, then, is a sure-fire way to ensure they won’t. But I learned this week that it doesn’t mean that they can’t.
A mother might be afraid to let her son leave the house, knowing the countless risks to his safety. But if her son gets invited to a playdate next door, then returns home without a scratch, she might relax a little bit. Eventually she might let him walk to school with his new friend. One day, he’ll be riding his bike to the movie theater.
It’s exactly the same with the muscle spindle. It’s right to be worried about over-extension. But if our muscle stretches a little bit, and the spindle sees that it’s ok, it hasn’t torn, next time the spindle will allow it to stretch even further.
Instead of fighting against the muscle spindle, we have to understand it and work with it. In this way, we keep our muscles safe, but we also allow them to reach their full potential.
Twice a year, from 1966 until 2012, American schoolchildren faced the Presidential Fitness Test, a series of five fitness assessments designed to measure overall fitness. Only those who placed in the top 15th percentile in all five tests would receive the coveted Presidential Fitness Award.
The Presidential Fitness Test was a biannual source of stress for me. Though I had relatively little trouble running the mile or doing curl-ups, I dreaded nothing more than “sit & reach.” While all the other kids seemed to have no problem reaching past their toes, to me the little wooden box marking our stretch length was a million miles away.
Many years later, running marathons hasn’t exactly improved the situation. When I started yoga teacher training at Lumi Power Yoga, I was honestly worried that my inflexibility meant I wouldn’t be good enough to become a teacher. But this week, yoga teacher Brooke Hamblet, with the help of yoga anatomist Ray Long, taught me that my inflexibility was a myth.
Try bending over to touch your toes. If you’re like me a week ago, your fingers might come somewhere near your ankles. Now try stretching down a little bit, and hold that stretch for 10-15 seconds (be sure to contract your quads and abs, too). Relax, easing out of the stretch and taking a big breath in, then reach down again. Repeat this for a minute or two and see what happens. I found my fingers grazing the floor.
As Brooke explained: “It’s like getting a cat out from under the couch. Rather than grabbing it by it’s tail, you have to coax it out gently.”
It may sound silly, but for me it was a huge moment. For years I have told myself the story of my own inflexibility, certain that I could do these things, but never those things. I have been a runner, a triathlete, a strength person; not a dancer, not a yogi, not a bendy person. And those boundaries all disappeared in a matter of minutes, just because I had learned how to listen to and encourage my body.
But it’s not only our bodies that can learn how to be flexible. I have begun to experience a similar transformation with my teaching. When I saw that I could touch my toes, I actually started to believe in my ability to become a yoga teacher. And I asked myself, rather than being only a lawyer, a thinker, an intellectual person, could I also be a mentor, a creator, an inspirational person? Were those boundaries also changeable? So I began to volunteer and participate more actively in class. And recently, I’ve had moments (even if only seconds) of teaching where I’ve truly been able to leave my self-consciousness behind.
In how many other ways do we hold ourselves back in our lives? How many other things do we tell ourselves we cannot do? We all have strengths and weaknesses, but so often we use these to define the boundaries of our capabilities and even our identities. When we compare our current abilities to our ideas of perfection (a yoga teacher must be able to fold forward and reach the floor; a yoga teacher must be an artist, not a perennial bookworm), we know we can’t measure up, and therefore we choose not to stretch at all.
But what if we see our weaknesses as opportunities to grow? What if we recognize and acknowledge our fears, honestly, and then encourage ourselves to move forward, slowly? We can’t force ourselves to be perfect, but imagine who we can allow ourselves to grow into.
Bandha Yoga, Combine Fire and Water in Yoga: “The Muscle Spindle”