But the truth is, all life is one life. There is only one game in progress. There is one race, many different shades…Truth is truth. If you hurt someone, you hurt self. If you help someone, you help self. Blood and bone is in all people. It’s the heart and intent that is different…It is all one, our ancestors, our unborn grandchildren, all of life everywhere.
–Marlo Morgan, Mutant Message Down Under (125)
Connections. Yoga is full of them. Connecting movement with the breath creates vinyasa. Connecting our vibrational forces creates kirtan. Connecting our intentions with our actions fosters mindfulness.
Everything within the world we inhabit is connected in some way, and our bodies are no different. Connective tissue is what links the different structures in our bodies such as bones, muscles, and some organs. Just how vital are our connective tissues? To start, they provide support and structure for the entire body. Without connective tissues we would not be able to stand upright, walk, talk, or do pretty much anything. Our muscles and bones have to be attached to one another for movement to take place.
Connective tissue is a very general term that can be applied to a number of structures in the body that bind, support, and protect other tissues. For our purposes we will focus only on the connective tissues that come into conversation in our yoga practice most often: tendons and ligaments.
Tendons join muscle to bone. A way to remember this is to think of the following sentence. There is a tendency for muscles and bones to join forces.
Most tendons resemble a chord of bundled fibers made from collagen, similar to a rope. They are also made of elastin and serve a variety of roles. Some tendons are more rigid to enhance structural support. Others are more elastic and serve as springs, allowing for efficient use of energy. The next time you jump into the air, imagine your Achilles tendon (joining your ankle and calf) springing you towards the sky. Through generating force, these tendons allow muscles to work less hard and not get fatigued.
We often think of tendons as completely separate from muscles and bones. In reality the tissues of muscles gradually transition to the connective tissue of tendons which then transition into bone tissue. As with most things among the human race, tendon length differs amongst individuals.
There exists an interesting relationship between tendon length (which is determined by genetics) and potential muscle size. Imagine two individuals who are similar in every way except for the muscles and tendons in their biceps. The individual with a shorter tendon will typically have a longer biceps muscle. (Remember how the tissues gradually transform from muscle to tendon.) Since the muscle is longer, there is more potential for it to grow larger. The individual with a longer tendon will have a shorter biceps muscle, resulting in less potential muscle size. Arnold Schwarzenegger most likely has shorter tendons than the average human being.
When a muscle changes its shape due to contraction or relaxation, the tendon does not change its shape. It is fixed in place to provide support and stability. How fixed are our tendons? Typically a tendon can be stretched to around 4-5% of its length before the potential for damage greatly increases. We always want to take care of our bodies during asana, and our tendons help our muscles to stretch within their limits.
Tendons have small proprioreceptors within them called Gogli Tendon Organs which sense how much pressure is being placed on a stretched muscle. When the pressure passes the threshold within the golgi tendon organ, a response to relax the muscle to avoid tearing occurs. This reflex can be used mindfully to deepen stretching with a technique called Proprioreceptive Neuromuscular Facilitation.
Interesting Facts about Tendons
- Take a moment and wiggle your fingers like you are typing on an imaginary keyboard. What you see moving on the back of your hands are tendons. These long tendons connect your fingers to muscles in the forearm that control most finger movements.
- The Achilles tendon is the strongest tendon in the body, able to withstand a half ton load. It is also the most commonly ruptured tendon.
- Not all tendons resemble a rope. The tendons in the abdominal wall are flat sheets referred to as aponcuroses.
Ligaments join bones to other bones. To remember think of the following sentence. Bones were meant to be joined together.
Ligaments are vital for supporting our joints. They limit our movement so that we don’t move beyond our range of motion at a given joint. However they aren’t completely fixed due to the fact that they are made of both collagen and elastin. In fact, ligaments are pliant and flexible in the directions in which they aren’t in charge of binding the body. Let’s borrow an example from Bernie Clark. He likens ligaments to a credit card: they are flexible yet cannot be stretched longer or wider.i
Just like with tendons, some ligaments are more elastic than others and come in a variety of shapes. Ligaments with more elastin help to distribute stress, especially the ligaments connecting our vertebrae. The ligaments joining the lumbar spine are the most elastic in our bodies.
If ligaments barely stretch at all, then how do they benefit from yoga? One answer is that the healthy stress of yoga on our ligaments prevents contracture. If joints are underused (being sedentary, having your arm in a sling) the ligaments around that joint begin to shorten. If our ligaments become too short, movement is very limited and can be painful. (On the opposite side of the spectrum, if ligaments become too long the joint becomes unstable). To read more about contracture I highly recommend reading Paul Grilley’s article here.
Due to their elastic nature, if ligaments are stretched beyond their capacity they will not revert back to their original form. Imagine a pair of shorts with an elastic waistband. If you stretch the waistband aggressively over time, the pants lose their elasticity and fall off your hips. This is why injuries to ligaments, such as a torn ACL in the knee, take a long time for recovery. Always be mindful when stretching and listen to your body, don’t push yourself past the point where your ligaments will allow you to move safely!
- People who are hypermobile or ‘double-jointed’ typically have more elastic ligaments, allowing their joints to stretch or contort beyond the average range of motion.
- The iliofemoral ligament joins the ilium of the hip to the femur and is considered the strongest ligament in the body.
- Ligamentous injuries of the ankle are very common among athletes and result in sprains.
We are all connected. We may not be able to see the tangible ‘strings’ joining us to one another. Yet we can sense the existence of something greater than just us as individuals. The word ‘namaste’ pays homage to this connection between all living beings. ‘The divine light in me honors the divine light within you.” We are all incredibly unique. We are all linked in some form or another. We are all divine.