Is Too Much Stretching Bad for You? One Yogini’s Story from Floppy to Fit

Jill Miller by Jill Miller | March 3rd, 2011 | 10 Comments
topic: Fitness, Yoga

Woman stretching during yoga

I began practicing yoga at age 11. My mom brought home the Jane Fonda workout and Raquel Welch Yoga videos and I became obsessed … especially with the yoga. At first I wasn’t very flexible, couldn’t touch my toes, and was extremely weak in my shoulders and core.

When I first started practicing, the Splits (Hanumanasana) were wishful thinking!

But I was diligent and disciplined and, by age 14, I was religiously reading Yoga Journal and stretching my way into the splits. In college, I would wake up early and practice my poses in meditative silence while my roommate was still sleeping. I stretched all the time … it instantly made me feel better.

My hamstrings were super-flexible, but I would wake up in the morning with sciatic pain shooting down my left leg.

My hamstrings were super-flexible, but I would wake up in the morning with searing sciatic pain down my left leg.

In my early 20s, I moved to L.A. and began practicing Ashtanga Yoga and Power Yoga, and I watched as my flexibility continued to improve. I was “that contortionist  girl” in classes, the one who could do ALL of the really difficult bendy poses. Teachers loved using me as a demo and would twist me into origami and balloon puppets with great ease. I loved my exceptional flexibility and its “specialness.” I thought that yoga and stretching were healthy, but I didn’t realize that I was actually overdoing it and creating serious problems in some of my tissues.

My practice and my stretching were bordering on compulsive. My body did not feel good if I didn’t stretch, AND I was fidgety while trying to sit still in a car or airplane seat. I was endlessly shifting around, never quite feeling comfortable.

How can overstretching harm the body?

When a muscle is being lengthened, it’s not just the actual muscle cells being elongated, but also the fascia or connective tissues that surround, encase and penetrate throughout the muscle. These connective tissues comprise 30 percent of the bulk of a muscle. When we stretch a muscle, upwards of 40 percent of the actual stretch is coming from the elongation of its fascia! With too much stretching, the fascial tissues lose their ability to recoil and the inherent elasticity of these connective tissues disintegrates and becomes less functional as a result.

Connective tissues are full of nerves and blood vessels that help supply the muscles with nourishment. Fascia is also loaded with collagen and elastin molecules that help provide anchors for motion and cushions of protection for the muscle cells. If tissues are chronically overstretched, the muscles also become more vulnerable and under siege from the constant stretching. Muscles (and the soft tissues surrounding them, including tendons and ligaments) develop painful “micro-tears.”

The “stretchaholic” signs were there

There were signs along the way that I was overstretching. I had lots of different types of pain; I just chose to ignore them. I wanted to keep practicing the way I was practicing.

1) My hamstrings ached all the time … they were overstretched daily beyond their limit. Practicing always seemed to make them feel better, as the heat warmed them up and dulled the micro-tear pain signals.

2) I felt dull sciatic-related pain down the back of my left leg almost every day, caused by overstretching the sciatic nerve.

3) My shoulders constantly clicked and popped, and I was constantly cracking my neck … true signs of unstable joints.

4) At age 25, I could not straighten my knees in the morning. Upon waking, I would roll out of bed and by the time I “made it” to the kitchen, my knees would crowbar themselves back open to “normal.” A sure sign of overstretched ligaments!

Stretch intervention: strength training

I probably would have just kept stretching myself into oblivion had my yoga mentor and biomechanics expert Glenn Black not stepped in. His diagnosis: muscle weakness due to overstretching. He said that I needed to restore the power in my muscles to stabilize my joints. This explained why I could never quite find a comfortable position or “sit still” unless I was practicing. Stretching would give me a temporary feeling of release and relief, as it is truly beneficial for relaxing the nervous system, improving circulation, etc., but my overall muscle tone had been stretched to the point that I had become terribly unstable at many of my joints.

I had worked with him for four consecutive summers at the Omega Institute before moving to Los Angeles and becoming “Bendy Girl.” After seven years without him, I needed  his critical insight to help restore balance in my body. He told me that I needed to complement my yoga with resistance training like lifting weights, using more PNF (proprioceptive neuromuscular facilitated stretching) within my practice and even adding Kettlebells.

Fine-tuning my Kettlebell technique with Luke Sniewski.

Since then, I have built my own Yoga Tune Up® format around this concept of galvanizing both the strength that muscles generate along with the lengthening and yielding of the connective tissues that surround them. This has given my body, and the thousands of students who practice with me, a dynamically powerful physique that is truly balanced.

Adding resistance training to my movement practice has been a revelation. My body feels good. I can now sit still on a six-hour flight and walk away without needing to crack my hips or spine! So yogis, if you find yourself with odd aches and pains, I ask you to take a closer look at where you might have actually created weakness from overstretching.

Tissue are living: They heal

Tissues are living; they can change and heal if given the right stimulation, a disciplined approach and the correct exercises to balance them. For some this could mean more stretching; for others it might mean more strengthening, but always a combination of the two. You can consciously recondition your tissues. Just give it time, seek a skilled personal trainer or physical therapist, or join me at one of my events and your yoga practice will benefit more than ever!

Comments

  1. i knew when i read your interview with magazine of yoga i liked your views on yoga and fitness; this article is wonderfully important

    i’d like to refer to it for my classes, which include lots of seniors and youngsters ;-) struggling with injuries and surgeries

    thanks so much ;-)

    adan | March 4th, 2011 | Comment Permalink
  2. Hi Jill

    This article is very helpful and insightful. Yoga is as I understand it suppose to be about listening to our bodies and not pushing or shoving ourtselves into postures or overstretching. Yoga is a wonderful complimentary practice to other activities.

    Babs | April 2nd, 2011 | Comment Permalink
  3. Brilliant article, I’m actually in the same situation right now. After years of Bodybuilding and working through injury many times I ended up finding Yoga and I also became obsessive. I think it’s interesting how this is very common among a lot of Ashtanga students (Ashtanga being my favourite style in the beginning). After years of of over stretching, my physical practice left me feeling more old than young. I’ve recently started adding more personally functional weighted movements back into my daily practice. And all though it’s been and continues to be a long road, I think you’re about the body’s natural wisdom and healing abilities.

    Once again… Brilliant article!!!

    Steven Ferrell | April 2nd, 2011 | Comment Permalink
  4. I’ll be there in May at Yoga House! Thanks for posting this.

    Vicki | April 2nd, 2011 | Comment Permalink
  5. It’s taken a very long time to get used to the idea that I am flexible. I spent all of my childhood up until my mid-twenties with average to below average mobility. I was a jock and did not have the faintest idea how to stretch. The way I identified myself took a long time to catch up to the reality of my tissue length. Before I found skilled teachers to study with, I injured myself on occasion when I assumed that I still needed to muscle through a restriction that was no longer there.

    laurelyoga | April 25th, 2012 | Comment Permalink
  6. Thank you so much for this article! It is what inspired me to take the YTU training program. In a world of rock star yoga teachers who hyperextend for a living, there seems to be so few yoga teachers out there speaking intelligently about the balance of flexibility AND strength that is needed for overall optimal function in daily life. I so appreciate you sharing your personal experience so that yoga peeps can understand the dangers of over stretching!

    kbutera | April 28th, 2012 | Comment Permalink
  7. This is exactly what happened to me, I overstretched my body, and was brought back to reality when I tried to lift a garage door and bulged 2 discs because I was so weak. Too much yoga, not enough strength training. It is very important that the word gets out that you NEED strength training along with the beautiful practice of yoga:) Katy

    Katy | August 21st, 2012 | Comment Permalink
  8. Hi! I am 18 years old and currently started doing some basic yoga and pilates, I am not really flexible but I want to be, can´t do a split yet but I can do the bridge and touch my toes easily… It´s not like I want to become a professional but I want to be strong and flexible, I run averagely long distances and do weights ocassionaly; at the moment all I have to learn is the internet, youtube videos and books since I live in quite an isolated area. My parents keep saying that at my age it is too late to start doing all that type of stretching, but I believe I can do it. I have constant lower back pains, they´re the reason I started stretching in the first place, probably got them from bad postures and may have some worn out vertebrae… Like I said, I´ve started yoga and pilates which has required me to do more stretching than I´ve done ever before, not intense but not easy, and I noticed that now I ocassionaly have a weird lower back pain which is different to other times before, like a sore muscle…. Is it a bad sign, and would it be bad for my back to continue stretching?

    Maria | January 23rd, 2013 | Comment Permalink
  9. Hi Maria,
    Movement, stretching, strengthening is key to staying healthy throughout your life. Trust your instincts and the SCIENCE on this…your parents must not be reading the latest info on how to stay healthy and pain-free. Your back pain could be caused by a lot of things. When beginning a program of stretching, it is essential that you do it CORRECTLY, or you could injure yourself, there are wonderful free resources online, and I have produced many videos that cover proper form as well. Please read and re-read these 3 Gaiam blogs that are all focused on the core, they should help give you some insights to proper form and more! http://blog.gaiam.com/blog/make-your-posture-perfect-breathe-down-your-spine/
    http://blog.gaiam.com/blog/what-do-you-store-in-your-core/
    http://blog.gaiam.com/blog/did-you-finish-breathing-yet/

    GOOD LUCK!

    Jill Miller | January 23rd, 2013 | Comment Permalink
  10. Thak you for your help! :)

    Maria | February 5th, 2013 | Comment Permalink

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