See The Stretch

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In the anticipatory release method of stretching, you consciously desensitize the stretch reflex in the muscles that you are about to stretch. The key is to inhibit your gamma motor neurons. Inhibiting the neurons relaxes the tiny muscles inside your muscle spindles and allows you to move into a pose without putting enough tension on the stretch receptors to trigger a muscle contraction. To do so, first envision where you intend your bones to end up (for example, sitting bones lifted high in a standing forward bend). When you do this, your brain automatically anticipates which muscles need to let go and inhibits the appropriate gamma motor neurons. Creating a visual map also helps you intentionally relax the muscles that you intend to lengthen—for example, your hamstrings and inner thigh muscles in the Wide-Legged Standing Forward Bend—which can further inhibit the gamma motor neurons.

To practice the anticipatory release method, prepare for Prasarita Pa-dottanasana, but this time do not put a chair in front of you. Instead, put your hands on your hips. Bend partway into the posture in one continuous movement, tilting your pelvis forward from your hip joints, and stop when you feel a moderate stretch in your legs. As you move, create a mental map of the places where you feel the most intense stretch. It may help to think of them as a pattern of "hot spots." Those are the places where the signals generated by the muscle spindles are strongest, meaning that their gamma motor neurons are most in need of inhibition. Create a clear memory of this mental map, then come up partway out of the pose, just far enough that the stretch disappears.

Now bend forward into the pose again, but this time, imagine moving your sitting bones smoothly, without hesitation, to the final, lifted position. At the same time, deliberately relax all of the hot spots— the places that stretched most strongly before. The idea is to release the muscles in an orderly way in order to facilitate the intended movement.

This doesn't always work the first time, so if you still feel the same old pattern of stretch, come up and try again. When you succeed in releasing your leg muscles in anticipation of the stretch, you'll go deeper into the pose and you'll feel less sensation in the former hot spots. But a whole new pattern of hot spots will pop up elsewhere on your legs. This means that you have gotten past your initial tight areas and are now stretching new ones whose spindles need releasing. Make a mental map of the new places, remember it, come up partway out of the pose, and repeat the same process to release the new tight spots. Do this several times to consciously ease yourself deeper and deeper into the forward bend.

You are content at every stage of the pose, yet you continue to make progress.

The adaptation and anticipatory release methods work beautifully, but there are other ways to quiet the stretch reflex. Whichever method you use, practice attentively and be responsive to what is happening in your body and mind, rather than to what you expect to happen. This is truly conscious practice, and so expresses the essence ofyoga. *

Roger Cole, PhD, at, is a certified Iyengar Yoga teacher and sleep research scientist in Del Mar, California.


As a special bonus for readers of this issue, we've created a free video podcast with

Anusara Yoga founder, John Friend. Join him for a 25-minute sequence of backbends, twists, and hip openers. Friend is a master teacher of backbends, so get on your mat and get ready to open your heart!

Sequence is available for a limited time only. yoga

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