When we’re in pain we try to relieve it, often by stretching, massage, heat therapy or rest. These might offer some short term relief but we’ll probably be back feeling stiff and sore fairly quickly. Why don’t these approaches work? Because they don’t address the messages that your brain is sending to your muscles to stay tight.
First I want to talk a little about how muscles and the nervous system function, because when we understand something we can practise it so much better.
The root of movement is sensation, you reflexively sneeze when you sense dust in your nostrils, you feel thirsty so you get up to fetch a drink, or you move a hand to scratch exactly where it itches. Even movements unrelated to whats going on inside your body rely on it, when reaching for the remote you’re dependent on sensation to tell you where and how to move, to correctly detect where the object is in relation to your hand.
We all have nerve endings that tell use whats happening inside our bodies, it’s position, temperature, where it is in gravity and space and others that process pain, tastes, sights, sounds and smells.
There is a continual feedback loop between your sensory and motor nerves, one feeling whats happening in your body and the world around it and the other moving your muscles accordingly.
Some sensory nerves send information all the way to your brain, these you can process and respond consciously too. Others only send the information as far as the spinal cord or brain stem, triggering automatic reflexes like sneezing, jumping at a loud noise, pulling away from something hot etc…
It’s one of these reflexes that can make stretching tight muscles ineffective, it’s triggered by muscle spindles, their job is to stop you from damaging your muscles by over stretching. When a spindle detects that a muscle is stretching too far it sends a signal to the spinal cord triggering a reflex response that contracts the muscle to prevent tearing. So when you’re on you yoga mat trying oh so hard to improve your flexibility your own body is actually working against you.
Depending on your technique you may find some short term relief from tense muscles through stretching but usually they will quickly revert to their previous state.
So then how do we relax tight muscles if stretching isn’t working as well as we thought?
You cannot consciously relax a muscle, what you can do it tense a muscle and then release the tension. This is the other half of the stretch reflex, it’s controlled by the opposite of the muscle spindle the Golgi tendon organ, it monitors tension levels in muscles and sends a message to release before it causes damage. However the difference is that this message travels all the way up to the brain, allowing us to choose whether to tighten further or release.
This is where the gamma loop fits in. this is a sensorimotor feedback loop in the nervous system responsible for automatically regulating tension in our muscles.
When the brain repeatedly signals a muscle to contract, it increases the baseline of tension the gamma loop controls. So when we contract a muscle over and over again it begins to retain excess tension. This causes a build up of acids (a byproduct of Anaerobic energy production, See here for more information) making the muscle sore and stiff.
This may not be noticeable at a low level, the muscles adapt and we feel pretty normal, but over time if the tension grows then we can end up with severely restricted movement and in acute pain.
The solution to this is a technique that focuses on conscious Pandiculation.
A general definition of pandiculation is the action of yawning and stretching, particularly after waking or a sedentary period. It’s a natural way that humans, and vertebrate animals, nervous systems stimulate the sensory-motor system to prepare for movement. If you’ve ever seen a cat or dog arching their spin after rising then you’ve seen the inherent pandicular response.
Another incredibly important function of pandiculation is that it helps prevent a build up of chronic muscular tension by sending biofeedback to the brain about the level of contraction in our muscles. It contracts and releases muscles in such a way that the gamma feedback loop, the one that regulates muscle tension, is naturally reset. This resetting reduces muscular tension and restores conscious, voluntary control over the muscles.
When we perform our somatic practise, muscles throughout the body are carefully contracted and slowly relaxed to imitate the body’s natural Pandicular response. We perform movements to target areas of common
You focus totally on your inner experience as you move. Conscious attention is key to the learning process; we can’t learn something new if we aren’t aware of what we’re doing.