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Are you listening to your body?

Ensuring longevity in the traditional martial arts

The BBC recently posted an article on their news pages concerning the prevalence of injuries within yoga teachers. (Source: Yoga teachers ‘risking serious hip problems’ by Caroline Parkinson 3/11/2019) The article focused on the increased risk that yoga participants place on their bodies (particularly in respect of hip health) due to “pushing their bodies into “prescribed” positions when their physiology prevents it.” Quoting a specialist hip and knee physiotherapist, Benoy Matthews, the need for increased awareness and advice on how to moderate positions, so as to not place overt stress on the joints, is emphasised. The article further suggests that as yoga practitioners we should not confuse stiffness and pain, moreover we need to recognise our individual limits in an attempt to protect our bodies from exposure to negative stress. This issue is potentially present as much within the martial arts as it is in yoga.

Whilst the disciplines are fundamentally different there are equally definitive similarities between Yoga and martial arts. Aside the common issues spirituality, mental focus and mindfulness, both disciplines often involve activity requiring large ranges of movement, particularly of the hip and shoulder joints. Whilst physiological the demands of the specific art vary dependant on the emphasis, for example, generally speaking a grappling focused art (such as judo) may not typically require the same extreme ranges of motion as a striking based art (such as Taekwon-do), it is important to recognise that the arts are performed based on the potential and limitations of each individual participant. We can often overlook the individual factors which inherently make one participant different from another, trying desperately to fit ourselves (or our students) into patterns and ranges of movement for which they are just not anatomically suited.

To better understand this it is possibly best to look first at the individual factors which affect flexibility. Flexibility can be grouped into a variety of categories dependent on the focus of the activity being performed. According to Kurz (1994), flexibility can be defined as:

dynamic flexibility

Dynamic flexibility (also called kinetic flexibility) is the ability to perform dynamic (or kinetic) movements of the muscles to bring a limb through its full range of motion in the joints.

static-active flexibility

Static-active flexibility (also called active flexibility) is the ability to assume and maintain extended positions using only the tension of the agonists and synergists while the antagonists are being stretched.. For example, lifting the leg and keeping it high without any external support (other than from your own leg muscles).

static-passive flexibility

Static-passive flexibility (also called passive flexibility) is the ability to assume extended positions and then maintain them using only your weight, the support of your limbs, or some other apparatus (such as a chair or a barre). Note that the ability to maintain the position does not come solely from your muscles, as it does with static-active flexibility. Being able to perform the splits is an example of static-passive flexibility.

For most martial arts flexibility is by definition dynamic and/or active. In the specific context of Taekwon-do it is possible to identify instances where both dynamic flexibility (for example, high level kicking) and static-active flexibility (for example, held side kick in pattern Juche) is required. Irrespective of the specific type of flexibility being discussed, an individual's potential is based on their own specific physiological, anatomical and environmental influences.

In his 1990 book Gummerson identifies several ‘internal’ and ‘external’ influences which present to affect an individual’s flexibility. Specifically he suggested the following factors:

internal influences

the type of joint (some joints simply aren't meant to be flexible)

the internal resistance within a joint

bony structures which limit movement

the elasticity of muscle tissue (muscle tissue that is scarred due to a previous injury is not very elastic)

the elasticity of tendons and ligaments (ligaments do not stretch much and tendons should not stretch at all)

the elasticity of skin (skin actually has some degree of elasticity, but not much)

the ability of a muscle to relax and contract to achieve the greatest range of movement

the temperature of the joint and associated tissues (joints and muscles offer better flexibility at body temperatures that are 1 to 2 degrees higher than normal)

external influences

the temperature of the place where one is training (a warmer temperature is more conducive to increased flexibility)

the time of day (most people are more flexible in the afternoon than in the morning, peaking from about 2:30pm-4pm)