How come you don’t fall over when you close your eyes, put your hands over your ears, hold your breath, and stay still? You stay standing even though you’ve shut off your major senses. Try it and see!
The question that I’m sure is running through your mind is “How did I manage to maintain my balance?” The answer is as easy as the problem – you have another major sense. You may not even be aware of this sense of proprioception, which translates as your sense of belonging.
Proprioception works through specialized nerves in every muscle, tendon, and ligament of your body.
Some of these nerves respond to the amount of stretch in the muscle, tendon, or ligament, and others respond to the amount of force being applied to them by a muscle contraction or an external force, such as being pushed or the relentless pull of gravity or lifting something heavy.
You may have inadvertently triggered these proprioceptors when you’ve automatically caught something heavy unexpectedly thrown at you, or you bounced back when pushed.
The function of these proprioceptors is to give you a sense of where every part of your body is in space. As you grew from being a baby you started to organize a sense of belonging and spatial awareness. As this sense developed you were able to improve your balance and coordination and learn to grasp, crawl, stand, and eventually develop complex movement skills like tying your shoelaces.
These skills developed hand-in-hand with the development of proprioception – an unconscious awareness of where every part of your body is in space without using sight, sound, or touch.
Let’s try another example of proprioception in action. Sit down on an upright chair, such as a dining or office chair with your arms resting on your lap.
Close your eyes and remove the tension from your whole body with a couple of deep breaths.
Now concentrate on feeling where your whole body is at this exact moment – keep your eyes closed.
Slowly raise both arms off your lap, straighten them out to the side, and rotate your hands inwards so your fingers are pointing towards one another. Now bring your hands together until your fingers touch in front of your chest.
Try it again, this time bringing your elbows together. Now touch the elbow of your left arm with the fingers of your right hand.
Amazing! You managed (or nearly managed, depending on how well you have developed your sense of proprioception!) to perform these feats without looking because your brain was getting constant feedback from the proprioceptors in your body about the amount of stretch and tension in every muscle in your body.
It knew where your hands and arms were relative to the rest of your body, and so it could direct them towards their target just by its innate sense of proprioception.
This biofeedback loop was tightening some muscles and relaxing others.
I don’t want to get too carried away by this amazing sense of proprioception, because I’m supposed to be talking about stretching for relaxation!
Today you’re going to use these proprioceptors to create a relaxation response when you stretch.
Once you realize you have proprioceptors and understand how they work, you can use them to create an automatic muscle relaxation response as you stretch.
A relaxed muscle will obviously have less resistance to stretch and will give you greater flexibility and stress reduction benefits from a stretching session.
As I mentioned before, proprioceptors can do two things – cause muscles to contract or cause muscles to relax.
The ones that live in muscles (called muscle spindles) will cause a muscle to contract, and the ones that live in tendons (called Golgi tendon organs) will cause a muscle to relax.
Obviously when you’re stretching for relaxation you want to switch off the muscle spindles and switch on the Golgi tendon organs. As soon as you do this you’ll get an immediate relaxation response.
You’re going to need a partner to help you in today’s exercise. If you let a partner do the work you’ll be able to just let your body relax.
The aim of the exercise is to demonstrate a relaxation response in the hamstring muscles at the back of your upper leg. These are good muscles to use as they are long and thin with long tendons.
Read the following instructions several times to make sure you understand what you’re supposed to do, and then practice it once before you do it for real. Don’t do anything that is painful or uncomfortable.
- Lie on your back on the floor, left leg bent, and right leg almost straight and raised off the ground as high as it will go comfortably without assistance.
- Get your partner to support your right leg.
- Close your eyes, take three deep breaths, and each time you exhale tell your body to relax, relax, relax. Your right leg should feel comfortable in its position.
- Get your partner to brace your right leg so it can’t move, and then push back hard against your partner with that right leg. Keep pushing as your partner counts slowly out loud to 10.
- When he/she says “10”, relax your leg and get your partner to relax their grip on your leg. Immediately try and see if your leg will come back any further towards your chest by itself – don’t pull on it with your arms or get your partner to push it or you’ll ruin the effect. It should, and when it does get your partner to hold it in its new position.
If the experiment worked, you should have temporarily increased the range of movement of your leg. The cycle of extended tension in a muscle followed by relaxation of the muscle switches off the contraction response of the muscle spindles and switches on the relaxation response of the Golgi tendon organs.
This is the key to effective stretching for relaxation and flexibility.