Monday, 24 September 2012

Anatomy of Stretching in Thai Yoga Massage

As a teacher  and student of Thai Yoga Massage I have trained with several schools and teachers in Thailand. Styles vary between schools and can be broadly classified into commercial schools and traditional teachers. Commercial schools tend  to cater to the demands of western students who pay a lot of money and have their preconceived notions of Thai Massage and Yoga. It is rare to meet local Thais learning in these  schools.
The recent commercial success of Hatha yogic practices, has made Yoga synonymous with stretching. In reality Hatha Yoga forms a very small and preliminary portion of Yogic practices. Due to these mistaken and preconceived notions  students expect that Thai Yoga Massage  may also be similar to Hatha Yoga. It has also not helped that  schools emphasise the aspect of stretching in Thai Yoga Massage by calling it the Lazy Man’s Yoga. Videos on Youtube with dramatic, graceful and acrobatic stretches of Thai Yoga Massage are plenty but these are a very small component of the healing art. The videos in turn attract hatha yoga students to Thai Massage.
In the real world  however people have very limited flexibility. Most people have a very sedentary lifestyles and their myofascia  have hardened and formed adhesions with underlying layers of fascia. Doing dramatic stretches in such cases is not only useless but can be outright dangerous for such people. To understand this it is important to understand the anatomy of stretching.
One way to do this is to look at muscles like a rubber bands with non elastic attachments called the tendons running from the muscle to periostuem  ( the superficial layer of the bone). In this chain, the muscle is the only element that has the ability to stretch. The tendon has very limited elasticity and bone almost none at all. In time muscles tends to deteriorate and lose their elasticity. This deterioration happens in two way:
1.    Trigger point or knots form on the muscle fibers when they are kept in a contracted position or used repeatedly over a long time. When muscle fibers contract, they use biochemical energy called ATP, and the depletion of these chemicals, forces the muscle to start using non aerobic metabolic processes. These processes however generate byproducts that are the causes of inflammation such as Histamine or Bradykinin. The tightened muscle fibers then constrict capillaries and prevent them from carrying off the fatigue toxins to the body's recycling system (liver and kidneys). The buildup of these toxins create what is anatomically called Trigger Points in a muscle. A trigger point  feels like a slippery elongated bundle of fibers. These knots can be experienced as small  ball like formations on the muscle body that are extremely excruciating to touch. These accumulations tend to harden the muscle and restrict its ability to stretch freely. In the analogy of the rubber band this is the equivalent of a knot on the rubber band.
2.    Myofascial adhesion: Often due to an inactive life the human muscular system accumulates restriction in its range of motion. Poor posture also can force muscles to set into patterns of contraction on one side or the other of the body (front or back or side). Without sufficient stretching the fascia of the muscles get stuck to underlying layers of muscles. The closest analogy is to Velcro. The muscles that do not move over each other adhere to a lower or superior layers over time. At this stage both muscles lose the ability to move independent of each other. Arteries, veins and nerves that use the fascial net as a scaffolding to travel over the body encounter a serious problem. These adhesions  and the hardening of the fascia cause a  reduction of space and lubrication between  muscle layers.  This space is used by these chemical/information highways of the body. The restriction in these spaces impede the function of these arteries and nerves that supply information and nutrition  to the internal organs and therefore affect the bio chemistry of the body. The situation then no longer stays at  a muscular level but starts interfering with the homeostatic balance of the body.
When these conditions exist in the human muscular system the muscles have a limited ability to stretch . Doing dramatic stretches then is like expecting a rubber band with a knot in it to stretch the same amount as it does when it  had no knots. Stretching in such a condition can cause the tendon to rip from the muscle or cause tears in the tendon resulting in inflammation/ tendonitis.
Thai Yoga Massage teachers need to always emphasize to their students that while stretching looks great on Youtube it is not  for the average person who walks in for a treatment. For a typical client who comes for a Thai Massage treatment the priority should be to loosen the knots and adhesions by working on sen/meridians of the body. These meridians discovered 2500 years ago have been increasingly found to be valid from a  scientific perspective.
The most important thing to keep in mind when assessing a client is to understand the tightness in the body and the extent and location of these restrictions. A good assessment tool like this will help. Further the therapist needs to use her knowledge and experience to understand how these restrictions are  interconnected  using the theory of thai meridians. Priority goes to first removing the restrictions in the legs and hips before moving up. When the muscular structure has regained some amount of suppleness then the stretching can begin.

1 comment:

  1. I would prefer to call Thai Body Work rather than Thai Yoga Massage since the Thai Body work technique is an amalgamation of Asana Stretches, Acupressure, Reflexology and as it begins with removing the restrictions and knots before working on the stretching the muscles. Thai Body work is art everyone one should master and receive, since it is brings the recipient in to an intense state of relaxation if administered and received well.

    I want summarize Yoga which literally means union. Yoga has four components or wheels, Karma Yoga through selfless action; Bhakthi Yoga through Devotion; Gnyana Yoga through intelligence and Kriya Yoga through Transformation of Life Energies (Prana). Hatha Yoga is the building block of Yoga and works in the level of Body and Mind. Hatha Yoga is not just a mere stretching of body but the holistic science to prepare the body to higher dimensions of life or consciousness.

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