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.
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.
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.
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!