The closest I’ve ever been able to describe what yoga feels like is saying that it feels like stretching as though it were first thing in the morning, much like a yawn. It’s called pandiculation and it’s a universal phenomenon. Animals do it too, extending their paws in a stretch and yawning widely.
In yoga, you do much the same thing. Using the pose both as a map and tool, you deliberately explore yourself, looking for tight, sore, or painful areas within yourself. You look for them so you can erase them. You then gently stretch them, press and squeeze them, breathe into them, relax and release them, and thereby ease away the tension and open the contracted area. This allows new energy to flush through you, nourishing undernourished areas, soothing chronic pain, and improving energy flow throughout the whole of you – revitalising you. You can actually increase your vitality and improve your experience of you. This is done slowly, carefully, with sensitivity and feeling – enjoying what you are doing. You creatively and intuitively make subtle internal adjustments in the poses as you deliberately search for even the smallest knots of tension. It is in this way that yoga asana practice is different to just stretching.
Stretching sends sensory information only as far as the Spinal Cord
When a muscle is stretched, the sense receptors within that muscle send information to the spinal cord to indicate that the length of the muscle has changed, in this case lengthened. The spinal cord in response sends an impulse to the muscle being stretched, triggering a contraction (tightening), it also sends an impulse to the opposing muscle inhibiting a contraction. So, stretching a muscle causes it to respond by contracting. This is counter to what you’re are trying to achieve when you stretch. This is a very basic explanation of the stretch reflex. The brain is not involved in the process at all, the stretch reflex is a spinal cord reflex.
Pandiculation sends new sensory information all the way to the Brain
When a muscle is contracted, the sense receptors within that muscle send information all the way to the Sensory Motor Cortex of the brain to indicate that the length of muscle has changed, in this case shortened and also that the level of tension in the muscle has increased. Because this information has reached the brain, the muscle can be sensed or ‘felt’. It is now under your conscious control. At this point you can choose to increase, maintain or decrease the level of contraction. When pandiculating you will slowly decrease the level of contraction all the way down to complete rest. But the take home point is you elicit full cortical control over the muscle when you contract it voluntarily.
So, Stretching is passive – you are not actively using the muscle, you are merely pulling on it, there is no brain involvement. Pandiculation is active – during a Pandiculation you are actively using the muscle, your brain is involved in the process.
Stretching provides no new sensory information to the brain. Because the brain is not involved in a passive stretch there is no new sensory information for the brain. Therefore no new learning takes place. This may be the most important difference between stretching and pandiculation
Pandiculation provides lots of new sensory information for brain. Because the brain is very much involved in the process of Pandiculation there is a large amount of new sensory information for the brain. Therefore new learning takes place.
Passive stretching is generally uncomfortable and can even be painful. Pandiculation performed correctly feels very pleasurable and relaxing. It has the feeling of a yawn. The idea is to be increasingly sensitive, appropriate in the moment, so that each moment of practice feels perfect, alluring, desirable – and then to be as wholehearted as possible. The more yoga you do, the easier this will be, and the better you’ll get at doing it. Getting “better” at yoga is not only a matter of becoming stronger and more flexible, of becoming more proficient in the poses, but of getting better at finding the specific alignment in each pose – moment by moment by moment – that feels perfect to you, and of wholeheartedly immersing yourself in the experience. The ability to immerse yourself in your conscious experience of the poses and meditations, to be more and more fully present in the Now, is what will cause this awareness to infiltrate naturally into the rest of your life. This, of course, is what it’s all about.
Learning yoga will often feel as though you are learning something you already know how to do. This is not surprising since we are all familiar with the wonderful feeling of stretching and yawning after a restful sleep.
Much of the information above is from The Somatic Movement at www.clinicalsomatics.ie