When first embarking on asana practice, it is common to experience range of motion challenges. A common reaction is to think that one should stretch the muscles when, in actuality, no stretching is required or even desired. The muscles simply need to relax.
An appropriate question is, why did the muscles start gripping in the first place?
The muscles can grip for many reasons. Typically, muscles tighten to protect a misused or misaligned joint. Another cause is muscular work performed repetitively in a small range of motion, as muscles can tighten as they become habituated to engaging in only this small range of motion.
On the other hand, as long as the joints are well organized, the muscles will be able to relax deeply even after strong muscular work. An alternative approach is to take a muscle to the edge of stretching, keeping the joints organized, and remain there for extended periods of time. At this edge of stretch, the breath can be used, particularly the exhalations, to enable release of the muscles. If the muscles release and the sense of stretch diminishes, one can again seek the edge of stretch. However, if the sense of stretch increases, it is likely the muscle feels threatened and is gripping tighter in an effort to protect itself.
No lasting change can ever be achieved through aggression or brute force. Ultimately the patterns of muscular gripping or tightness must be addressed by the mind, as the body is only doing what the mind told it to do. And the interface between the mind and the body is the breath. The mind moves life force (or prana) to inform the body’s movements. So by focusing not only on the muscles and bones, but also on the breath, we can affect the rhythm and function of the nervous system and the mind.
Releasing Tight Muscles
by Kim Schwartz