The practice of yoga often focuses on the stretching postures but in reality, we need equal measures of strength and length for both ease of and stability in movement and posture. Let’s take it right back to when we were children, really young say babies and toddlers, and we had a natural capacity to flex.
We could literally put our foot in our mouth! But this was before we really started to build any bulk and tone into our muscles which we need when we start to create postures with purpose, like standing and walking, lifting and holding onto things. Stronger muscles create a greater pull or force at the joints which is what enables us to move. We also need a degree of tension to bring us into a posture and even greater control of force to hold us in a posture, so we learn how to walk before we learn how to stand still. Initially we cannot walk for long distances as our muscles fatigue quickly but through regular movement and exercise we are able to build both strength and agility into the cells that form our muscles. Habitual movement and posture patterns are established early on and when we do something regularly, the body learns to anticipate what type of cells are needed to perform the repetitive act.
Where more strength and endurance are required to maintain a posture or hold a weight for any length of time, then the muscle will be formed of more slow twitch muscle fibres that are designed for this type of activity. If we require more dexterity or speed of movement then the muscle will be formed of more quick twitch fibres. But in both cases keeping length in a muscle is a process which the body can maintain as long as the process is also repeated. When we focus on solely building muscle fibres or forget to stretch regularly, the muscles will not know what is required of them. As an adult it is harder to re-educate the muscles, simply because the pattern of behaviour is unrecognised, but it is NOT impossible. This is the primary reason why a variety of activity is so necessary for children, quite apart from the psychological benefits.
In addition, a muscle’s power potential exists in its capacity to dynamically shorten from a lengthened state and then in its capacity to lengthen again. The main reason a muscle gets pulled in a sprint is because it gets out of synch with the rhythm of length and contraction that is being demanded of it. So when length is required as the leg strides out it is still in a contraction phase and…snap!
The key in any muscle’s progress, whether to gain strength or length is the ambition and drive that comes from the mind. We need the faculty of awareness in correct alignment and observation of the process, but an overly ambitious mind will risk harming the muscle through over-stretching and tearing. We certainly want to create space within the muscle so that more cells can be laid down, but we don’t want to create scar tissue which will lead to greater restriction through the muscle fibres and set the whole stretching process back, probably leading to greater mental frustration.
So, the best advice I can give is to stretch a little each day and remember to use your props!