What is flexibility?

Some people are ‘bendy'. I'm not one of them. If, like me, you were one of those kids who couldn’t even do cartwheels and handstands, you may have become an ‘unbendy’ adult. And for various reasons including waning tissue elasticity, the older you get the harder it is to increase range of movement.

But within whatever your range is, are you loose and free, or stiff and tight? Though I'm embarrassed by how limited my range of movement is, I can choose to move ‘tightly’ or freely. I’ve also worked with many very 'bendy' people who are also incredibly tense and tight.

So, what does that word ‘flexibility’ mean to you? Ultra-bendiness, or free, loose, soft, easy movement within your range?

I remember hearing an extremely bendy yoga teacher say she suddenly realised that she’d always conflated ‘muscles off’ with ‘muscles weak’. Because of this belief, she'd tended to keep most of her muscles switched on pretty much all of the time, whether using them to move or not.

Many people harbour beliefs like this, that nice strong muscles need to stay ‘on’, and therefore become reluctant to ‘let them stand down’ when not needed. As well as wasting energy this also risks injury, because if your muscles are tight before you start moving, you can pull or tear them or their tendons. ‘Putting your back out’ when you bend down is a common example of this, when you might feel a ‘pop’ or sudden hot tearing sensation.

This brings us to the wonderful world of muscle spindles and Golgi tendon organs.

In a nutshell, a muscle spindle is a kind of ‘stretch detector’ that spirals around muscle fibres near the middle of a muscle. It can either signal to the brain to contract the muscle and prevent damaging by overstretching; or it can tell the brain to prevent an opposing muscle from contracting and overstretching the muscle on the other side.

The delightfully named Golgi* tendon organ (GTO) is another sensor (in the tendon, naturally) that can sense and transmit a ‘danger of overload/injury’ signal to the brain, which can in return send a message to release the muscle. Life would be dreadful without these wonderful proprioceptive** sensors, because without them we would be tearing and injuring ourselves all the time.

So, these sensors are part of the nervous system that helps us to move safely, and by trial, error and training, every one of us builds up our individual movement patterns and gets used to them. Clearly, as with the yoga teacher, beliefs about how things work also play a huge part in how we operate.

When people decide they want to change and improve mobility, the risk of injury increases if they’re not careful. They might overwork specific muscles to the detriment of them or of others, or overstretch and injure themselves. Too much change too soon freaks out the muscle spindles and GTOs and causes a backfire effect that is, after all, designed to protect. This is why, though some people respond well to tough fitness regimes, others get worse instead of better. As Alexander’s brother A.R. Alexander wrote in a letter, “go slowly. It is necessary to go slowly.” Incremental change is safer and building patience skills is as important as building fitness skills.

In Alexander lessons, students experience less unnecessary tension and gradually learn to create less of it for themselves. It works in the opposite way to most disciplines because it’s more to do with taking unnecessary effort out and allowing the wonderful internal movement system to work without harmful interference, than it is about putting more effort in. But the same applies when it comes to change. Too much change too soon, whether physical or mental, may only backfire.

But to reassure any other non-gymnasts out there, no matter how super-bendy or non-bendy you are you can still enjoy greater flexibility and easier movement within even a limited movement repertoire, saving energy, reducing the risk of injury and improving general health.

*after Italian biologist-pathologist Camillo Golgi

**from Latin proprius (‘one’s own’) + reception - so, self-sense

If any of this sounds like something you or anyone you know could benefit from, I’ll be delighted to hear from you.