Have you ever had the glorious opportunity to wake-up and greet the day with a luxurious, cat-like, head to toe stretch? One of those full-body, yawning stretches with arms overhead, fingers, palms and toes spread wide. A take-up-lots-of-space stretch that leaves you feeling incredibly and magnificently whole, complete and embodied?
Ahhhh…I am happy just thinking of such a sweet, glorious, morning pandiculation!
What is pandiculation?
The word ‘pandiculation’ comes from the Latin root pandiculari, ‘to stretch oneself’, from pandere ‘to stretch’. It is actually the act of contracting AND stretching all the muscles in the body. Simply put, pandiculation is the act of yawning-and-stretching.
Simply put, pandiculation is the act of yawning-and-stretching.
If you spend any time around cats or dogs you’ll see pandiculation in action multiple times a day whenever they arch their back after a sleep. Humans (except babies!) tend to experience fewer pandicular responses due to time restraints placed upon us by tight schedules, as well as by structural imbalances caused by habitual movement patterns and/or trauma.
But pandiculation is not just a luxurious pastime. Pandiculation is actually as important to our health and well-being as nutrition and exercise! It is absolutely necessary for the optimal functioning of our neuromuscular system. Without this yawning-and-stretching activity, our muscles and fascia become increasingly tight, which can lead to structural imbalances such as poor posture, limited range of motion and pain in our joints, and other internal/visceral imbalances.
Those of us ‘locked down’ in areas due to these structural imbalances will find our muscles and fascia can’t engage fully in the pandicular response – in other words, the stretch actually gets stuck!
How does pandiculation work?
Pandiculation is our nervous system’s brilliant way of waking up our sensorimotor system after rest and preparing us to MOVE! In pandiculation, biofeedback is sent to the brain about how tight (contracted) our muscles are. In a pandicular response, the body contracts even more and then relaxes the whole body from head to toe. This ensures a reset of the alpha-gamma feedback loop – a biofeedback loop in our nervous system between the spinal cord and the muscles – that regulates the level of tension in our muscles.
Unfortunately, our alpha-gamma loops can be compromised due to structural imbalances caused by habitual patterns and trauma. Normally, our muscle length is determined by the descending information highway (central nervous system) from the brain and the information being sent to the brain from our proprioceptors (sensory receptors on nerve endings). When our alpha-gamma loop is working properly (alpha neurons to muscles and gamma neurons to muscle fibers in muscle spindles) we can contract muscles when we need to and they will automatically relax when they are not receiving “contraction” messages.
However, due to the aforementioned structural imbalances caused by habitual patterns and trauma, muscles and fascia that are ‘stuck’ cannot send or receive the proper proprioceptive messages, causing them to remain contracted and unable to relax.
Benefits of voluntarily pandiculating our muscles
Even though pandiculation is considered an involuntary response of our nervous system, we can beneficially affect our overall health and wellbeing on and off our yoga mats by voluntarily pandiculating. Voluntary pandiculation forms part of the clinical somatic educaton developed by Thomas Hanna. Slowly, consciously, and in-sync with our breath, we can begin to restore our alpha-gamma loop function with the consistent practice of muscular contraction and releasing, stretching and yawning. This leads to less muscle tension and more overall ease.
In this class for EkhartYoga members I go through some ways to add voluntary pandiculation in your yoga practice. Or take a look at the poses below it for some examples.
Enjoy the full body release!
Stretching like a cat practice – with Jennilee Toner
Practice pandiculation in this delicious practice with Jennilee that involves tensing, stretching and yawning.
1. When starting class in Savasana
After taking a moment to centre (I like to make the body-mind-breath connection with three-part yoga breathing), stretch your body with arms reaching behind you. Spread your fingers, webbing of fingers, and palms of hands. Scrunch up the muscles of your face and then begin to actively yawn as you side bend your body left and right. When stretching the upper body to the right, stretch actively through the left hip, leg, foot and toes. Repeat on the other side. Continue to yawn as you stretch bone to skin!
2. From Seated Deer pose
Start with both knees to the right in Deer pose. With right hand on mat or floor, reach left arm over left ear in a big side body stretch. If you can, lift up onto right knee and extend left leg out in big stretch from left toes to left fingers. Arch back slightly and yawn while you continue to stretch. Repeat on other side.
3. Diagonal Pigeon pose variation
From table top position, stretch right leg behind you and take it diagonally across left leg to opposite back edge of mat. Slide and stretch to the back corner of the room (it’s a variation of pigeon pose). Once settled, walk hands over to the left for a whole body stretch. If you can, open the right side of the body a little as you yawn and continue to stretch. Repeat on other side.
4. From 3 Legged Downward Dog to Wild Thing
In Downward Facing Dog step feet together and lift your right leg into 3 Legged Downward Dog. Stretch actively and yawn here either with straight leg or bent knee (or both!). If you’d like, tilt your shape slowly to land slowly and soundlessly in Wild Thing. In Wild Thing you can find a good stretch – arcing and yawning as you reach. Repeat on the other side.
5. From prone Savasana (lying on your front)
Extend your left arm out (palm down) perpendicular to your mat (you can keep arm straight or bend elbow at 90 degrees like a cactus arm). Turn your gaze to the right, bend right knee, press down into your right hand and roll onto your left hip and shoulder. Once you are lying on your side you can extend your right leg long and reach it over the left leg, stretching through your toes. If you feel stable you can then reach and stretch right arm overhead reaching through fingertips. Big yawns. Repeat on other side.
6. Before final Savasana
Before entering your final Savasana, take a few long slow deep breaths (and yawns) to stretch the body from bone to skin. As shown in number one, reach left and right! From fingertips to toes, and everything in between, slowly and consciously help in the reset your alpha-gamma biofeedback loop. Then, just before your final rest, inhale, contract all muscles in your right leg (even lift your leg slightly with curled toes) and then exhale audibly through open mouth and relax. Do the same on your left leg, right arm and left arm (with fingers curled in and hands in fists). Then squeeze (contract) and relax buttocks, torso and face. Finally, the whole body contracts and relaxes before coming to rest in your final Savasana.
- Learn more about Somatic exercises in Lisa Petersen’s talk: So what is Somatics. Lisa discusses Pandiculation around 11 minutes into the talk