I want to share the following article by Karyn Clark, one of my clinical students from the UK. For all you gardeners out there who are gearing up for the summer season, read this! It will give you some pointers about how to recuperate from a day of wonderful, yet repetitive gardening.
It struck me whilst out gardening over the weekend how many people like me jump at the chance of a nice sunny day to get out into the garden and cram in as much as possible before the rain comes or it’s time to go back to work. We pull, we dig, we shovel, we hit.
For many, we do more physical activity in those 4-6 hours than we have done since the last time we were out in the garden. People spend a lot of time reaching, bending and reaching, stretching up and reaching, pushing their bodies that little bit further to get to that last branch or weed at the back of the flower bed. They dig and plant, bend and pull. All in all, they spend the majority of the day with their back in an over-stretched forward flexion position. Then it happens...the stiffness, the tightening, the inability to move any further because of the back pain. For most it’s that deep aching across the low back. For others it's more intense radiating further into the buttocks or down the legs.
So what do we do? We hobble back into the house, chuck our clothes in a heap and sink into a nice hot bath. "Ahhhhhh," it feels so good! The pain is easier; we relax, as do the muscles, deeply.After a good half an hour we get out. Our poor relaxed muscles are required once again to jump to it and do their job, stabilizing and moving the joints of the body. As we get dried and dressed we sadly realize that the stiffness and pain is actually still there.“STRETCH” we think “I need to stretch!" NOW STOP! Lets go back over this:You’ve spent all day stretching, bending, reaching, attempting to contort yourself into positions that Iyengar would be proud of. Is stretching really the answer? I’m afraid not.
The science of stretching versus pandiculation
So you’ve been stretching inadvertently all day, evoking the "stretch reflex," also called the myotatic reflex. It is a pre-programmed response by the body to a stretch stimulus in the muscle. When a muscle spindle is stretched an impulse is immediately sent to the spinal cord and a response to contract the muscle is received. This reflex protects muscles from tearing.
By stretching further we continue to evoke and deepen the stretch reflex, yet many people when in pain are so desperate to alleviate it they continue to just push it that bit further in a vain attempt to release the pain. The best idea is to stop stretching and try something different: pandiculation.
If the muscle is contracted and stuck in that pattern of contraction we need to reset the brain; after all it is the brain and the nervous system that controls the muscles, so lets start with that. We need to re-set something called the Alpha Gamma feedback loop, also known as Alpha Gamma Co-activation. This feedback loop ensures optimum functioning of the muscle's length from contraction all the way to relaxation.
A muscle starts at a certain length. When the muscle is stretched, the muscle spindle stretches and the fibres fire more strongly. When the muscle is released from the stretch and contracts, the muscle spindle becomes slack, causing the fibres to fall silent. The muscle spindle is rendered insensitive to further stretches of muscle. To restore sensitivity, gamma motor neurons fire and cause the spindle to contract, thereby becoming taut and able to signal the muscle length again.
When we pandiculate we start by tightening into the contracted pattern that the muscle is involuntarily stuck in and then lengthening out of it in order to retrain the muscle to relax. This re-sets the Alpha-Gamma Co-Activation loop. To pandiculate means to "yawn." When we yawn we contract and then slowly release, thus relaxing the muscle. Animals pandiculate, babies pandiculate, many adults pandiculate upon waking.
So the next time you’re gardening, firstly be kind to yourself, take regular breaks, lay down and pandiculate throughout day to help prevent the back from going into spasm. And if it it does, don’t stretch!
When your back starts to ache, lie down (like Karyn in the photo at top) and do the basic somatic movement called Arch and Flatten. This simple Somatic Exercise will teach your back muscles to release and relax. You can do it on the lawn in the middle of your gardening day. Allow the movement to flow with your breath and make sure it feels good. Arch and Flatten just may become your best friend!