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Don’t Let Your Connective Tissue Hold You Back

I am honored to offer this guest post by Bella Dreizler, she is a certified physical therapist with over 38 years of experience as well as an amazing yoga teacher.

- The Wandering Yogi

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Consider this fact: The more we inhabit our bodies, the easier it is for us to heal. And whatever we do to deepen our relationship with the body’s movement, breath and sensation supports our health and wellbeing. Practices like yoga and dance help us become more fully embodied. But sometimes injuries or stiffness keep us away, plant us on the sidelines, away from the very movement medicine we need. Vulnerability and fear can often create paralyzing inertia.

Often the spirit is willing but the flesh is weak.

The challenges that keep us from enjoying a physical practice are as varied as the bodies we inhabit: Back problems, hip tightness, recurring foot issues, neck injuries, shoulder restrictions. The list goes on! Yoga is one of the ways we work with our unique body limitations. When we come to the mat with an intention for healing, we can discover, open and soften restrictions. We can let new flexibility flow right from the practice. We can access newfound internal support for posture and alignment. 

As we age, stiffness and tightness begin to feel like the new norm. Injuries, heredity, gravity, emotional patterns and postural habits contribute to this universal condition. So much formal exercise focuses on muscles: how to strengthen and how to stretch. When we’re young, we can exercise muscles and boost power and flexibility with relative ease. As time marches on, the role of connective tissue and how it affects our flexibility becomes increasingly important. 

What is connective tissue? It includes the bones and the cartilage, the tendons attaching muscle to bone, the ligaments binding bones together and the deep fascia that binds muscles together. Collagen fibers are the building blocks of connective tissue and changes in these fibers cause ordinary stiffness. Injuries, habits and age change the collagen from pliable and elastic to rusty, short and a bit deranged. As it tightens, it draws the muscle and bone closer together. This is what creates less possibility for movement. 

Much of our tightness develops in predictable asymmetrical patterns. Breaking down these collagen changes in the connective tissue, especially tightness around the hips, spine and shoulders, is the aim of yin yoga. Change happens! 

We are living beings comprised of living tissues. When these connective tissues are stressed, they adapt and change. We already know about adaptive change from our experience following an injury. We can feel the tightness we develop in response to this type of stress. Less obvious are the restrictions that slowly develop over time because of the habitual ways we hold ourselves.

But stresses can be positive as well. Connective tissue restrictions will release when they are subjected to the right amount of tension and stresses applied in a purposefully therapeutic way. Over and over again I have seen and experienced significant structural changes by engaging in long held yin poses. 

If you are leading a typical life in this culture it may be jam-packed with productivity and activity. When we choose recreation it often has the same qualities. When we decide to fit in yoga because we heard it was good for us, we often choose active yang styles. Yin yoga is about quieting, turning inward, cultivating a peaceful receptivity.

For many of us, it is the perfect balance to an active life style. 

Learning how to release connective tissue with yin poses requires attention and patience. We need to know the specific region we are targeting in any pose and how to make adjustments so that we feel the release happening in that target place. We also need to find a way to work right on our personal edge.

 What is our personal edge? Breaking up collagen restrictions where there is tightness is usually uncomfortable. Some people refer to it as a “good hurt.” Each of us must find our personal edge and remember that it varies from day to day. We are over our edge and in danger of actually making ourselves worse when we create pain that stops the breath and makes us tense in areas other than the target. We are not quite at our edge when there is no sensation created in the target. Lack of sensation means that nothing is being stressed for adaptive change in the tissue. This edge-finding takes undivided self-focus and attention. This is not an activity to undertake while watching T.V. This is the very essence of a yoga practice: Deep awareness of the breath, undivided attention on sensation, union of body and mind.  

When you find your yin edge, the connective tissue between the bones has been stressed enough to soften. Sometimes the sensation is one of compression as structures press into each other. Sometimes it is a feeling of lengthening tension or traction as structures are being separated. These sensations are sure signs of letting go and should
dissipate during the first minute after releasing the pose. 

There is an old Chinese fable that details how to set a monkey trap: Cut an opening in a coconut the size of a monkey’s open hand, place some rice in the bottom of the hollow and place the fruit where the monkeys travel. When a curious monkey reaches in to grab the rice, his tight fisted hold will not fit back out through the opening.

The lesson is obvious. Just like the monkey, we need to learn to let go of whatever our version of the rice happens to be. Learning to let go of what is tight in our body often delivers us to deeply personal meaning about what we need to release in our own lives. We gain so much wisdom from mindful movement as we tune in to our precious body.

– Bella Dreziler bodyjoy.net

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The Wandering Yogi