For this month's continuing education focus, Awareness of Ligaments and Tendons, we're excited to feature the following masterful voices from the worldwide Nia community. Read on to hear what they have to say about sensing stability by exploring The Body's Way. Be sure to also listen to this month's telecourse call with Debbie Rosas and Kelle Rae Oien.

Debbie Rosas, Nia Co-Creator, says:

Every Sensation Scientist should be able to sense when the body says “enough” or “stop.” Your ability to respond to these sensory messages can mean the difference between you dancing into bliss or being sidelined by injury. While all parts of the body speak to you, the ligaments and tendons powerfully communicate warnings that tell you to lay off or change your movements. 

Think of your ligaments as being passive. Slightly elastic and strong, the tissue of ligament is designed to stretch just enough to help you gradually lengthen and increase flexibility. Move too fast or pull too hard and you will tear your ligaments. Moving safely and stretching is important to the health of your muscles, ligaments and tendons. Stretch and you have a better chance at avoiding injury. 

Think of tendons as being active. Tough yet flexible, tendons are bands of fibrous tissue that attach to the skeletal muscles that move bones. Move too fast or too far and your tendons will stiffen because they are designed to contract to a much lesser degree. The most famous tendon is the Achilles tendon, which connects the muscles of the calf to your heel. Watch the tops of your hands while you type and you can see some of your tendons at work!

Debbie Priest, Nia Teacher, says:

Take a look at the back of your hand and move your fingers. You’re watching your tendons in action. Tendons are the bridge between muscles and bones. The muscles in your forearm are connected to the bones of your fingers through these long tendons. Without tendons we could not move.

Muscles and tendons work together forming what is called the “muscle-tendon unit.” The tendons transmit force from muscles to bones, and also have an elastic quality and function as springs. This spring-like quality is sensed as agility during kicks (activating the hip flexor tendons) and during jumps (activating the knee and Achilles tendons). This quick release of elastic energy in the tendons is an example of an efficient use of energy; it reduces fatigue in the muscles because they don’t have to work as hard.

Ligaments and tendons consist of connective tissue made from collagen fiber bundles. Ligaments connect bones to bones and provide protection by limiting movement. Rotate your head to the side as far as you can and you will sense the alar ligament that limits how far you can turn your head. Paying attention to sensation in my ligaments has taught me to respect my limits and know my boundaries. Ligaments are important to the stabilization of the joints. Stretching beyond the muscles ability to lengthen can cause ligaments to weaken as they are not meant to stretch very much. This can lead to loose joints that are at risk of injury because of lack of stability.

Sensory organs for proprioception are found in tendons and ligaments. The Golgi Tendon Organs are found in the junction between muscles and tendons. They serve as a sensory device that measures the tension and force of the muscle pulling on the bone. When there is too much tension, the Golgi inhibits the motor nerve and this relaxes the tension to prevent the muscles from ripping themselves from the bones. They sense for “too much” and respond by relaxing. This is called the lengthening reaction.

Awareness of the sensations of ligaments and tendons has connected me to a fascinating guidance system that provides efficiency in movement and clarity in limits.

Debbie's Tips:

  • Hold stretches long enough for the lengthening reaction to occur so the muscles can relax instead of contract.
  • Sense for the lines and alignment your ligaments provide.
  • Use agility movements (of starting and stopping) to strengthen tendons.
  • With every heel lead, sense the power and force generated by the largest/strongest tendon in the body!

Jule Aguirre, Nia Teacher & Trainer, says:

If we had x-ray vision to see underneath our skin, we might first imagine “seeing” the musculo-skeletal system – our bones (our structure) and our muscles (our shape) – without considering the powerful, pliable elements of dense connective tissue that holds it all together. Yes, I’m talking about ligaments and tendons! Without these amazing, functional elements, we would just be a pile of 206 bones and 700-ish muscles (as well as organs) piled on the floor.

When it comes to connections, ligaments and tendons are key; they form a “love-quadrangle” so to speak. They "meet up" with their fellow bones and muscles, often coming together at a joint. Collectively, ligaments and tendons form a "stability pact," providing bone-to-bone and muscle-to-bone stability to ensure the integrity of the joints and the fluidity of movements (Kieser).

Ligaments provide a flexible-stable connection between bones at joints (the place where two bones meet). Their function is to balance movement with stability, and to strengthen and stabilize the joint in a passive way. Unlike muscles, they cannot actively contract, and for the most part, do not stretch.

While ligaments are not stretchable, they are “smart” in that they contain sensory nerve cells capable of responding to speed, movement, joint position and pain. Their sensory cells constantly transmit such information to the brain, which, in turn, signals the muscles via motor neurons, helping the body avoid damage or undo stress through corrective action. When these intelligent signals are ignored, ligaments may sprain or rupture. Most of us don’t give ligaments a second thought until we injure one. For example, if we stumble, our muscle reflexes should provide protection. If they don’t, the associated ligament has to withstand the entire load on its own. 

Tendons keep the musculoskeletal system stable and allow it to fuction effectively as they transmit force from muscle to bone. Tendons are capable of withstanding great loads. These fibrous bundles are covered by a tendon sheath, which increases the stability of tendons and their resistance to tearing. Tendons and muscles work harmoniously to efficiently move bones. They help us achieve dynamic ease, which involves achiaeving a maximum effect with the least amount of effort.

Tendons and ligaments are living tissue that need care and attention. As with any other biological system, their response to a carefully measured load is to increase functional capacity. In other words, if you subject them to weight-bearing movement, they become stronger and more resistant and function improves. However, if tendons are subject to an excessive load (like the constant stop and go movements involved in basketball, tennis, football, etc.) or monotonous movements at work (like keyboard overuse) they become irritated and inflamed. 

Most importantly, ligaments and tendons functionally remind us to seek and discover the path of least resistance. By design, they are there to support and to unify.

Metaphysics of Ligaments and Tendons

Some say that whenever we have an issue with the body, there is often a corresponding psycho-emotional stimulus that initiates or exacerbates the physical condition. Folks who are experiencing issues with their dense connective tissue may benefit from looking deeper into circumstances where they feel “tied to or torn apart”or where they are “wearing thin” or “just holding on." 

Interesting Facts/Stats:

  • Ligaments and tendons, while not very elastic, can only extend 8% before over-stretching, separating or tearing. Compare that to rubber, which extends 200-300%.
  • You can suspend a horse from a tendon! The Achilles Tendon, anchoring the gastrocnemius muscle onto the heel bone, is 15 cm in length and is the strongest tendon in the body. It's able to resist tearing under the pressure of a 1,000-pound load.
  • While the Achilles tendon is extremely strong, it is actually very vulnerable. It derives its name from the Trojan Hero, Achilles, in "The Iliad." (As a baby, Achilles' mother plunged him into the river Styx while holding onto his heel, making his whole body invulnerable, except for his heel. After slaying Hector, Achilles was killed by Paris who wounded him in the heel.) In fact, the Achilles Tendon is the tendon in the body most often ruptured!
  • In order to have the long, narrow fingers needed for delicate movement like playing a piano, nature has devised an ingenius system. To ensure that the hand is not packed tight with muscles, the body’s intelligent design provides space by connecting the muscles required for finger movements in the thick belly of the forearm muscles. The connection to the bones in the finger is provided by long tendons.

Jule's Tips:

  • Do Nia 5 Stages for five minutes every day. Your ligaments and tendons will love it!
  • Warm up the body before exercising. Consider exercising in a space that is warm to facilitate tissue pliability.
  • Avoid doing too much, too fast (yeah, this is for all the "Type-A" people out there)! As with many things, slower is better! Progress in your wellness regime by upping the load 5% at a time. 
  • Mindfully move your 13 main joints to energetically "lube" the muscles, tendons and ligaments.
  • Be mindful of right alignment. 
  • Balance ligament and tendon usage with opposing stretches and moves. Overuse is a common cause of injury.
  • When stepping back with force, ALWAYS step back on the ball of the foot, keeping the heel up to prevent injury to the Achilles tendon.
  • Listen to "the voice of your ligaments" to determine a safe range of motion for your muscles and joints. They remain healthy when you listen and respond to them, especially when they say, "Stop, that's far enough." 

Stephaney Robinson, Nia Teacher & Trainer, says:

There is an old Inuit Indian tale that is told about a woman who does something terrible, causing her father to throw her over the cliffs into the sea. She floats down to the depths of the ocean floor, where her body becomes a skeleton. Many years later, a bumbling fisherman hooks his fishing pole into her ribcage and pulls her upward to the surface of the sea. Once her bony image rises above the water, the terrified fisherman shrieks and quickly paddles away. Unbeknownst to him, she is tangled in his fishing line. Her bones unwillingly chase after the fisherman, bumping along behind him. Eventually he reaches the safety of his dark igloo, and upon lighting his oil lamp, finds the bones in a tangled heap upon his floor. Compassion comes over the fisherman and he untangles the bones from his fishing line, putting them in their proper order.

While odd, this tale brings up an interesting question. What is it that connects the bones together? Certainly not a fishing line! Well, in fact, ligaments connect bones, providing us with our range of motion. 

Pull your pinky finger away from your ring finger to form a "V" and you'll get an idea of what it is a ligament does. It lets the body know its range of motion -- how far it is willing and able to go. Pull too far and you will experience pain. There's not a lot of blood flow to ligaments, which means that they can take a long time to heal lif torn. Ligaments are elastic. Once you have stretched the elastic beyond its capacity, it can't reshape itself back to its original form. In other words, once it’s gone, it’s gone.

Ligaments provide the flexible link between bones and other bones. Tendons are their partners in this process, and connect muscles to bones. Together, ligaments and tendons keep the musculoskeletal system stable and ensure that movements are fluid and effective. Tendons and ligaments are living tissue and need care and attention.

Using the Five Sensations of Fitness – flexibility, agility, mobility and strength – can enhance the stability pact between ligaments and tendons, making them stronger and more resistant. We don’t have to train ligaments and tendons separately. When we tense muscles, we also train ligaments and tendons. This process of muscle contraction also stretches and stimulates ligaments and tendons. This forms new cells and increases the strength and load tolerance, while reducing one's susceptibility to injury.

Stephaney's Tips:

  • Place your palms together, lace your fingers, and turn your palms inside out as you gently stretch outward. Don't overstretch. Sense the stretch you are receiving in your fingers, wrists, elbows and shoulders, all the way through to the spine. Pay attention to what is not moving and sense the stability in the body. Inhale. Smile. Bring the hands back toward the heart, exhaling. Pause and turn the palms toward the sky as you lengthen upward, inhaling again. Stick out your tongue and say, "ahhhh." 
  • In a standing position, place all of you weight on the left leg. Lift the right foot slightly off the floor and sense stability. What keeps your right knee from collapsing? Place your hand on your hip joint and move your standing leg at the hip socket and knee. Slowly bend, rotate and play. Pay attention to what connects, stabilizes, moves and stretches. Repeat on right leg.
  • Remember, the body is not held together by fishing line. It is pliable, elastic and alive. It is through movement we find health, so take your ligaments and tendons out on the dance floor!

Resources

"The Nia Technique" by Debbie Rosas and Carlos Rosas
"Anatomy of Movement" by Blandine Calais-Germain
"A Handbook for Yogasana Teachers: The Incorporation of Neuroscience, Physiology, and Anatomy into the Practice" by Mel Robin
Kieser Training International