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Truth About Stretching

Stretching has always been one of the most widely prescribed treatments for tight, sore muscles. People are advised to stretch before and after working out and to stretch if their back hurts, etc. – when in doubt, stretch. Stretching has been considered a crucial component to any and all exercise regimes, whether for dancers, runners, high school athletes or those wanting to remain active as they age. Recent evidence suggests, however, that static stretching may be over-rated, that it does not effectively prevent injuries or even lengthen muscles properly.

Your brain and nervous system control both sensation and motor (muscle) function. When we move, our brain receives constant sensory feedback about our surrounding environment. This inflow of information enables the brain, as the control center of the muscles, to calculate how to move our bodies in the most efficient manner. Improved proficiency in movement follows careful repetition and practice. “Practice” is how bodies learn to move so you can perform certain muscle-related tasks well.

The brain can work with our bodies to enable us to ride a bicycle or throw a ball. Conversely, our brain can learn, as a result of the wrong kind of repetition and practice – for example due to sudden accidents or injuries, surgeries, emotional stress or repetitive tasks, etc. – to keep our muscles contracted and tight. Muscles can become habitually tight as a (maladaptive) response to stress of any of a number of situations.

Not all muscle tightness is maladaptive or permanent. But a muscle that is habitually tight needs to be addressed at the level of the brain and sensory motor system. The most effective and expeditious way to reverse the effects of habituated muscle tightness is to actively reset muscular tonus and length via the central nervous system. Hanna Somatic Education utilizes a specialized technique, called pandiculation, to reset muscle length and improve coordination.

Pandiculation differs significantly from passive stretching. Pandiculation begins with a conscious voluntary contraction, recruiting the affected muscle or muscle groups to shorten even beyond their habituated tonus. Then, by carefully and deliberately lengthening the muscles from that full contraction, the brain is able to reset the muscle length and tonus. This method gives strong feedback to the brain, allowing it to “refresh” its sensation of those muscles, and to slowly reset length and tonus. The changes in the muscle occur at the level of the nervous system, thereby conferring greater sensation, motor control and coordination. Pandiculation facilitates our muscles relaxing from a contracted state.

The difference between static stretching and pandiculation (the action pattern that all animals perform when they get up from rest), can be summed up as follows:

Stretching is passive – there is no learning involved. Static stretching can cause harm if habitually contracted muscles are incapable of relaxing; a protective reflex in the muscles is evoked (the “stretch reflex”), which causes muscles to contract back against the stretch.

Pandiculation is a learning process that resets muscles at the nervous system level. It gives more feedback to the brain, the command center of your muscles. This allows your brain to reset muscle length, which results in more relaxed muscles.

The next time you want to stretch, try this:

* Further contract (firmly but gently) the muscle that feels tight. Do this purposefully and keep within your comfort range.

* Then slowly lengthen that contraction, as if you were just waking up in the morning and yawning.

* Then completely relax.

Note the difference not only in sensation and control of the muscle, but also in your range of motion.

Hanna Somatic Education® teaches clients to pandiculate tight muscles to reset muscle length, and regain brain-level control and awareness of both muscles and movement. This is the key to long-term pain relief and to increased mobility. No one can do this to you or for you, only you can do it for yourself.