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Topics in Yoga Therapy: Hypertonicity

Noah McKenna / Yoga Therapy  / Topics in Yoga Therapy: Hypertonicity
Yoga Therapy

Topics in Yoga Therapy: Hypertonicity

In this article I will describe a key concept in Yoga therapy known as Hypertonicity. Essentially this word describes a muscle which is held in a contracted state. When this situation is present for an extended period of time it produces many different types of problems. There are many possible interventions to alleviate hypertonicity and I will discuss in detail how Yoga practice achieves it.
First then its important to understand that hypertonicity happens to muscles, it does not happen in bones or connective tissue. A muscle is a collection of cells embedded in a connective tissue network which attach to either bones, other connective tissue structures or organs. Muscle tension produces internal forces which might either create movement or stability of the body and muscle tension has a big influence on the position and stresses in connective tissue and bones.
Now muscles can only be activated when the nervous system signals to them. This is very important to understand. The type of nerve which interacts with muscle fibres are aptly called motor nerves. These nerves communicate through electro-chemical messages. The nerves are fused to the muscles and when these signals arrive to this junction there is normally an injection of ionic calcium into the muscles internal waters
You see a muscle cell is capable of changing its shape depending on the level of its electric charge. Calcium atoms when dissolved in water are called ions and they have a positive charge. To understand this in detail please read about the mechanisms responsible for muscle contraction which are two proteins Actin and Mysosin. Its an elegantly designed system that has been used by almost all life forms on Earth to be able to move. Here is a good link…….
We can imagine the nervous system controlling muscle cells like the way a percussionist  communicates with a dancer. Its all beats per second! The faster the  rhythme the greater the movement. Except not! Muscles cells are capable only of two possible levels of tension. Its all or nothing. Because the contractile protein Actin has only two shapes. So when the motor nerve signals rapidly the target muscle cell contracts and when the signal frequency slows below the threshhold level then the muscle cell relaxes.
Of course a large macrostructure of muscle tissue contains myriad muscle cells. So a multicellular muscle is capable of producing a range of levels of tension and movement. Its has been found that a single moptor nerve fibre can connect with just a few muscle cells or with hundreds of thousands. So the finesse of muscle contraction is increased when one nerve fibre influences less muscle cells and this situation is seen in the most delicate and precise  muscles, the ones which focus move your eyes and fingers. These muscles have a very high proportion of motor fibres, like a school with just a few students per teacher. On the other end of the spectrum some muscles are real energetic workhorses and one single nerve fibre harnesses the group energy of high numbers of muscle cells. Like a slaveship with a single drummer.
Muscle cells are interconnected contiguous units joined end to end in a chain and this multicellular apparatus is called a muscle fibre. One muscle fibre may connect to a single nerve fibre like in your eyeball. Or one nerve fibre might control a hundred thousand muscle fibres like in your ass. When I say ass I mean the large posterior muscle Gluteus Maximus and not your ….. ahem.
Maybe your starting to get the idea that the only way our bodies can ask muscles to activate is through nerve signals. Its a very important point and a very beautiful one. Energy and information travel through various levels of integrated nerves before manifesting as muscle tension. This energy might be conscious  or it might not. Movement and posture for humans are highly social and emotional phenomena. Our thoughts might be turned to past or future and our body tends to communicate the internal milleiu with body language.
Then there is the way we respond to a changing physical environment like when swimming or dancing or fighting, sometimes things happen so quickly it seems the body has its own intelligence. Well yes it does, its hardwired with rapid conducting signals and movement pattern generators in our spinal cord and deep rooted ganglia in the subterranean levels of brain.
More than a little muscle function is involuntary in fact the vast majority. Its seldom and occasional that movement or stasis are conscious. By the way a definition of Asana which I like is a conscious sense of body movement or body stillness………. you can check this by studying the somatic nervous system.
So now we can ask, what is Muscle memory? Well its a concept that describes how the nervous system responds to the physical environment through the muscles and when I say physical environment I also mean the body itself. But the muscles themselves have no real choice. It feels a bit risky to pronounce something so exclusive, will my poor disenfranchised muscles trip me up, but Im going to be adamant here on this. Muscle memory exists in the nervous system for greater or lessor degrees of autonomy or automation. The Muscles though, they have no memory. Clear? And the muscles they have no ability to contract on their own!
OK thats the preamble, so whats the story on hypertonicity? Well now that we have this uneludably necessary detail about how its a problem caused by a disorganised nervous system in relation to its physical environment lets move fwds.
Its like this, muscles have tone. If a muscle can manage to move the body against external forces and gravity then the muscles are good enough. Within normal amounts of time and weight of objects.The types of standard measures look at the ability to hold the body in a particular position against gravity for a particular period of time.
If a muscle is unable to produce or sustain enough  power for a given activity then the muscle is called hypotonic. And remember that muscles need to hold up our skeleton and they are the only way we can move ourselves about. The solution of course for weak, ineffective or uncapable muscles is to strengthen their function through use. Make em work till they work better. Simple enough but because of the design of a human body and the way its becomes disorganised sometimes this is difficult to achieve………more information here.
So having once again failed to dumb things down lets smarten it up 🙂 Hypertonicity describes a muscle which because of excessive signalling from the motor nerves is held in an unnecessary state of tension. This has consequences. Muscles use resources and produce pollution. Some peoples bodies are like housses where no-ones home but all the lights are on. Its wasteful and counterproductive and here is why.
  1. Constantly contracted muscles alter joint position away from neutral. This produces excess loading in connective tissue and bone laying the foundation for deformation. Joint sickness is so commonplace to be almost universal with increasing likelihood as we age.
  2. Muscles which wont switch off tend to use anaerobic respiration. A muscle once contracted cannot receive fresh blood so without oxygen available it creates its own energy burning …….. and producing lactate with many bad sequlae.
  3. Did I mention pain? Is pain bad, not necessarily but suffering is.
  4. Muscles which no longer manage a normal change of length tend to more easily get glued to their neighbours. This adhesion can then lead to fibrotic change in connective tissue and make proper movement impossible.
  5. As a result of the above situations other elements of the body like nerves, blood vessels, lymphs and organs can no longer function in the best way if they are overly compressed.
  6. Its a huge waste of energy, not just the food based energy resources but also please remember it requires nervous energy as well.
  7. Our brain chooses to become less aware of our physicalityLike a sick culture pretending to be free from its disease it self censors, you know like democracy in modern industrialised nations.
  8. We lose and potentially never regain normal posture and movement patterns.
  9. OK thats enough for now Im writing this only because you should know the list is longer.
Now maybe it sounds like Im making the case that muscle hypertonicity is the root cause of human degradation. But sensationalist writing is a more likely culprit. There are many other factors relating to body posture and movement and physical health. This is all starting to sound a bit negative lets get on to some solutions and stay on point.
First of all just in case it isnt obvious if we were to design a system to avoid hypertonicity in the first place it would look very much like the way animals interact in their natural habitat.
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Noah McKenna
Noah Mckenna

Papa, Yogi, World Citizen and Rebel with a Dhamma

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