The broccoli rubber band is my favorite metaphor for fascial adhesion. Such restrictions are the source of many structurally related pain problems, the key to unlocking postural patterns, and the reason why stretching sometimes doesn’t improve your flexibility. Try out this thought experiment, and then I will explain how to deal with these stubborn adhesions:
First, check out the rubber band in the broccoli photo. We all know from experience that this kind of rubber band is very strong and not terribly stretchy. (That’s why it does such a good job at holding the broccoli stems together.) Next recall an image of the slender rubber bands that you usually find around a bunch of green onions. These skinny rubber bands are very stretchy, especially when they are not doubled up.
Situation A: Pretend we have a person who is made of rubber bands, primarily green onion rubber bands all tied end-to-end. Somewhere in that sequence of rubber bands, we place a stiff broccoli rubber band. In this thought experiment, hold both ends of that continuum of rubber bands and pull to stretch the continuum. What do you think will happen to the stiff rubber band? All the green onion rubber bands will stretch, but the broccoli rubber band won’t stretch at all!
This is exactly the situation that people face who are generally flexible, yet they have one or two tight areas that don’t seem to respond to stretch. The stretchy areas will stretch, while the localized stiff areas do not. Flexible yoga practitioners come in to my office saying that they feel tightness “here” and they can’t seem to stretch it effectively. Or they report having difficulty with certain poses that doesn’t seem to improve. They might have pain near this stubbornly restricted area, or just discomfort that makes it hard to hold a good posture.
Situation B: Next imagine a rubber band person who has many broccoli rubber bands in their body, perhaps a continuum of six broccoli rubber bands and three green onion rubber bands. When you pull on the ends to stretch that continuum, there is not so much available stretch. If you pull hard, the green onion rubber bands will be under a lot more strain in this person. (It is also a lot more work to stretch this string of rubber bands.)
This situation represents the client who comes in identifying themselves as generally stiff or rather inflexible. They tell me it hurts “here and here and here,” and stretching doesn’t seem to make a difference. Usually these people are actually pointing to their “green onion rubber bands,” the places in their body that have been overstretched. They may not have much awareness of their broccoli rubber bands, because the nerves in those areas are protected and insulated by stiff surrounding tissue. It is common that the tissue right next to the stiff, reinforced area is what becomes overstretched and strained. The overstretched tissue or nerves complain because there is simply not enough stretch available in the network. Something has to give when the system is overloaded, and it will be in the zone of the green onion rubber bands.
As a practitioner, I love finding and working with the broccoli rubber bands. It is like a treasure hunt. Clients hear me say, “This feels more interesting… I think we have found a broccoli rubber band!” Freeing up these restrictions manually is efficient, but you actually can access and release the broccoli rubber bands through stretching too, with a little patience and some special strategies. Here are my seven best tips for effective stretching.
Tip #1: It helps to warm up the muscles (and fascia) before you work with them.
The glue between the layers of fascia is more pliable when warm. The best source of heat for opening up the tissues is the heat you create through muscle work. To capitalize on this, when you go out for a run, or when you work up a sweat dancing, don’t wait until you’ve cooled down to stretch. Stretch while you are still sweaty. Those first five or ten minutes after running or exercising heavily will be your most productive for stretching. This is when you will feel the greatest opening response, and this is when stretching will feel most satisfying.
[A caution regarding hot yoga: If you are pushing yourself too hard in a hot room, you can end up overstretching the warm green-onion rubber bands. The broccoli rubber bands may not be accessed, because the green onion rubber bands really stretch, like warm taffy. If this is your favorite form of yoga, I encourage you to work gently with the more challenging poses, even though you are in a hot room. If you can go into the challenging poses gradually, while engaging your muscles to create support for the green onion rubber bands, you will have a better chance of accessing your broccoli rubber bands. Which leads me to the second tip.]
Tip #2: Extend and engage. Place active tension throughout your fascial system while you stretch, rather than just making use of gravity.
Especially when I am in the middle of a workout, I prefer standing stretches rather than lying down or sitting stretches. The more postural support muscles that are engaged during the stretch, the further the stretch is likely to reach into your system. Extension through the limbs triggers core-support muscles to fire, and active tension in the limbs can reach back through the fascial chains and neurovascular tracts, deep into the visceral body where organs can also be stuck together.
Tip #3: Pause at the first interesting place. (This is what my first yoga teacher said to me, and I still find it to be an incredibly helpful teaching.)
As you go into a stretch, notice when you start to feel restricted. Let that first place of resistance be something that raises your curiosity. Hang out there for a second or two before you advance deeper into the pose. You may not be experiencing a big muscle stretch at that first pause, but it is likely that you are putting just enough stretch on some bound up nerves and arteries to produce a bit of release that could benefit the muscles. If you rush past this opportunity, you will miss working on something that could open the door for a satisfying muscle stretch and opening a few breaths later.
Tip #4: Change the angle of the stretch while you are in the middle of the stretch.
This is like exploring the walls inside a cave. In the cave analogy, you start in one corner and then you travel around the perimeter, working your way around the uneven walls. With stretching, go directly into the stretch, and then shift your body to slightly change the angle of pull. As you feel the angle of pull change, you are asking adjacent tendons, nerves, arteries, and muscle layers to glide past one another. If these structures have limited glide, you will feel bound up. Changing the angle of the stretch helps you to gradually peel away at and reduce the adhesion in between the layers of muscle. In yoga, savor and don’t rush the transitions between poses. Moving through each transition mindfully is just as useful as spending time in each pose.
Tip #5: Vary the tension you are placing on the system.
Slightly varying the amount of stretch in an oscillating way can facilitate release. Breathing itself will create a subtle oscillation, so you can allow the tension to vary naturally. If you play consciously with going into and out of a stretch, this should be gentle and not bouncing. Make micro-adjustments to the amount of tension: less, and then more, and then less as you shift to a new angle.
Tip #6: Stretching should be pleasurable, or at least not painful.
Use a lighter force and more moderate effort if you feel pain. You should be able to breathe well. If you are holding your breath, or your breath cycle has shortened, you probably are straining and working too hard.
If you feel weak and grumpy during a yoga pose such as downward dog, your efforts may be causing nerve impingement, which could be exacerbating your problem as you keep repeating the same action. Ask your yoga teacher for ideas that will help you modify your pose. Making it easier, might actually make it more effective! Let go of any negative thoughts that what you are doing doesn’t look like what others in the class are doing.
Tip #7: Rest in a standing position, and take time to notice “what is different.”
For instance, take a moment to stand in neutral and feel the effects of having stretched one leg, before you stretch the second leg. This is the kind of comparison yoga teachers ask you to make all the time. I know that sometimes I have felt impatient or uncomfortable just standing there, when one side is open and the other is feeling restricted, but observing the discomfort is actually okay; it’s part of the lesson.
As you try out these tips and gain access to your own broccoli rubber bands, I hope you will experience some of my explorer’s sense of curiosity about the nuances of your body’s restrictions. If you find something you’d like help working on, please give me a call!