What is PNF and how do I apply it to my yogasana practice?

PNF or Proprioceptive Neuromuscular Facilitation, sometimes referred to as Facilitated stretching, is a common stretch technique used by physical therapists.  It involves briefly contracting the muscle that you’re targeting for stretch, in order to stimulate the Golgi tendon organ stretch receptor.  The Golgi tendon organ is located at the musculotendinous junction (place where the muscle and tendon meet).  When a muscle is stretched, tension on the tendon is increased.  The Golgi tendon organ senses the tension in the tendon and sends a signal through the nervous system to the muscle telling it to relax.  This mechanism is built to protect the tendon over the muscle.  An injury to a tendon will take much longer to heal and will most likely never return to 100%.

How to activate this stretch response:

  1. Stretch the intended muscle to its set length.  This is the point in which the body will naturally stop you from going deeper.
  2. Gently contract the stretched muscle to somewhere between 10-20% of your maximum force.
  3. Hold the light contraction for 8-10 seconds and then relax it for one full breath.
  4. Contract the antagonist muscle (muscle that works opposite the one being stretched) and then take up the slack created in the target muscle, going deeper into the stretch.

Example: Seated Forward Fold

  1. Sitting with legs extended on the mat out in front of you.
  2. Inhale your arms up overhead and then hinging at your hips with core engaged fold forward over the extended legs.
  3. Gently bend your knees and press your heals into the mat to engage your hamstrings (muscles being stretched).
  4. Hold this contraction for 8-10 seconds then relax for one full breath
  5. Engage your quadriceps and pull yourself gently deeper into the pose.

Cautions:
Ray Long suggests limiting PNF to one pose per practice session.  It is a powerful stretch technique and is there to protect the tendon but has its limits.  Listen to your body and don’t overdue it.

Try it out and let me know how it goes.

Teaching Application:

Think about poses that would work well for the process explained above.  Using either verbal cues or hands on adjustment can help a student go deeper into poses then they thought was possible.

When I demonstrate this technique in teacher training it not only astounds practitioners that they can stretch this far but it encourages them to continue to work deeper into a specific pose or their practice as a whole.