Stretching Vs. Pandiculation – What’s the difference and why does it matter?

Let’s look at the key differences between stretching and pandiculation. Pandiculation is used extensively in Clinical Somatic Education to regain the brain’s control of tight painful muscles.

Stretching sends sensory information only as far as the Spinal Cord
When a muscle is stretched, the sense receptors within that muscle send information to the spinal cord to indicate that the length of the muscle has changed, in this case lengthened. The spinal cord in response sends an impulse to the muscle being stretched, triggering a contraction (tightening), it also sends an impulse to the opposing muscle inhibiting a contraction. So, stretching a muscle causes it to respond by contracting. This is counter to what you’re are trying to achieve when you stretch. This is a very basic explanation of the stretch reflex. As you can see the brain is not involved in the process at all, the stretch reflex is a spinal cord reflex.

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Pandiculation sends new sensory information all the way to the Brain
When a muscle is contracted, the sense receptors within that muscle send information all the way to the Sensory Motor Cortex of the brain (see image below) to indicate that the length of muscle has changed, in this case shortened and also that the level of tension in the muscle has increased. Because this information has reached the brain, the muscle can be sensed or ‘felt’. It is now under your conscious control. At this point you can choose to increase, maintain or decrease the level of contraction. When pandiculating you will slowly decrease the level of contraction all the way down to complete rest. But the take home point is you illicit full cortical control over the muscle when you contract it voluntarily.

SMA Brain Diagram

Stretching is passive
Stretching is passive, you are not actively using the muscle, you are merely pulling on it, there is no brain involvement.

Pandiculation is active
During a Pandiculation you are actively using the muscle, your brain is involved in the process.

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Stretching decreases potential power output of  the muscles involved
Passive stretching and even PNF* stretching temporarily reduce the potential power output of the muscle.

Pandiculation increases sensation & awareness of the muscles involved
Pandiculation strengthens the connection between the sensory motor cortex of the brain and the muscle. The muscle can be sensed more clearly and control of both functions of the muscle (contraction and relaxation) are increased. This is because the muscle is both contracted and relaxed slowly and carefully during a pandiculation, essentially allowing you to practice both functions.

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Stretching provides no new sensory information to the brain
Because the brain is not involved in a passive stretch there is no new sensory information for the brain. Therefore no new learning takes place. This may be the most important difference between stretching and pandiculation

Pandiculation provides lots of new sensory information for brain
Because the brain is very much involved in the process of Pandiculation there is a large amount of new sensory information for the brain. Therefore new learning takes place.

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Stretching can be painful
Passive stretching is generally uncomfortable and can even be painful especially if Sensory Motor Amnesia (SMA) is present.

Pandiculation feels good
Pandiculation performed correctly feels very pleasurable and relaxing. It has the feeling of a yawn.

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No attention required to stretch
There is no focused attention required to pull on a limb and evoke a stretch.

Attention required to paniculate effectively
Focused attention is absolutely required to perform an effective Pandiculation, both to contract the desired muscle and also to control the slow relaxation phase so that it feels smooth.

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Temporary change in length
Passive stretching confers only a temporary change in length, if any, as the muscles reflexively recontract in response to the stretch.

Long term change in length
Pandiculation confers more permanent changes in muscle length as you brain LEARNS a new longer resting length for your muscles. Please note the changes in muscle length that are achieved through pandiculation are as a result of the reduced level of tension in the muscle. They are not as a result of tissue remodelling.

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Stretching does not eliminate Sensory Motor Amnesia
Passive stretching does nothing to eliminate the habituated levels of chronic muscular contraction that are typical of Sensory Motor Amnesia (SMA).

Pandiculation eliminates Sensory Motor Amnesia
Pandiculation eliminates SMA quickly and easily by returning control of the muscle to Sensory Motor Cortex and allowing you to learn how to relax and lengthen your muscles.

These are the main differences between Stretching and Pandiculation. One final point to note is that often when people stretch they will stretch muscles in isolation, whereas with pandiculation one contracts many muscles at once. This allows us to release large patterns of contraction more quickly and effectively.

The learning component of pandiculation allows you to develop better sensorimotor control over your muscles, and muscles that you have full control over will not cause pain. It is only those muscles which you have lost control over that become chronically tight and painful. The pain is the warning sign that you do not have control any more.

If you would like to learn more about Somatics and how it can help you to improve your movement and reduce or eliminate your muscle pain, get in touch here.

 

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www.clinicalsomatics.ie

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44 thoughts on “Stretching Vs. Pandiculation – What’s the difference and why does it matter?”

  1. Hi Colm, nice clear article about pandiculation. My experience is also that full attention and focus for/in the muscle group to lengthen is needed for a good pandiculation. Contract a bit and than release a bit more, and contract a bit and release a bit more, and so on. If you have the focus on only lengthening with the work done by other muscles, it does not work well, as you explained.
    Sometimes it is difficult to find the problem area. For example, I had painfull contracted muscles around my right hip. They did not release enough with the general somatic explorations for the hip, as explained very well by Martha Peterson. Also the muscles of the pelvic floor and especially the muscles between the tailbone and the sitbones were involved. After pandiculation also these muscles with pandiculation, I got more release of the muscles around the right hip. And also important, I had to learn to bend more in the hip joints instead of bending with the lower back !

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    1. Hi Barbara, thanks for your comment. Yes it’s true that sometimes it takes a bit of tweaking and experimenting to get the desired effect. It’s important to think in terms of the three reflexes though. Here’s something you can try too. Contract into your pandiculation and hold the position. Now, let go of any muscles that are not actually contributing to that position. This has the effect of making the sensation of the target area more clear. Once that is done, slowly relax all efforts back to complete rest. Often we use more muscles than are necessary, this is a way of resolving that problem.

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  2. Great article with good information.

    Yin yoga is very popular these days but that is passive stretching. Do you think it has a place or really if you want to stretch a muscle it should be eccentric stretching where the muscle is slightly engaged?

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    1. Hi Gayle, Thanks for your question. I have just done some reading on YinYoga as it is not something I am very familiar with. It also mentions an emphasis on stretching connective tissue. We must remember that literally everyone will have some Sensory Motor Amnesia (read my very first blog entry for more on that). Yin Yoga and passive stretching will not resolve or eliminate this Sensory Motor Amnesia. Yin Yoga sounds like it would not be a good fit for anyone who does not already have excellent movement and mobility. Holding static stretches for long periods essentially overrides the Stretch Reflex. We have a Stretch Reflex for a very good reason. It stops us ripping and tearing muscles. It is a protective reflex. Why would anyone want to override a reflex whose purpose is to protect your muscles?? Somatics provides a much gentler and more intelligent way to improve movement and mobility by working with you Central Nervous System and not against it. Pandiculation engages the Sensory Motor Cortex so that we can first ‘sense’ the muscles in question and then voluntarily release and lengthen them. This process also eliminates Sensory Motor Amnesia which leads to systemic improvements in muscle control, comfort and range of motion. So the answer to your question is, it depends. I would certainly not recommend that style of Yoga to someone who has poor mobility and a lot of SMA. It would inevitably lead to more pain as it would trigger their stretch reflex for long periods. I think this style of Yoga will cause more problems than it will solve for most people due to the prevalence of Sensory Motor Amnesia in the general population. Do you practice Yin Yoga? Do you have pain?

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      1. Hi Colin,

        I do not practice yin yoga and I am not in pain. I ask the question because I believe like you that stretching should involve some contraction of the muscles to protect the joints, ligaments and tendons and it does help you to go deeper to your own edge when you contract and release the muscles when stretching.

        Yin yoga has become so popular in this country and in the town where I live. Also hot yoga is really popular. But I do not think these are the best practices. It is interesting to me that they are so popular but I think they are less effective and can lead to more problems.

        Would you say that Restorative yoga using props and gravity to relax and open up is different from Yin and effective as a tool to relax and have a temporary release of tension and would not cause problems like Yin yoga could?

        Thanks for your great article and for taking the time to answer my questions. I think about these kinds of issues a lot and want to keep educating myself on different points of view.

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      2. Hi Gayle, remember the goal with Pandiculation is to regain the brains full control of the muscles by eliminating the Sensory Motor Amnesia (SMA). Somatic movements/exercises are more effective than any yoga or stretching for achieving this because they are designed for that sole purpose, eliminating SMA. If you eliminate SMA via Somatic movements your general movement will improve and you will find it easier to do any activity, including yoga. Really there is no need to stretch. Animals do not stretch, they pandiculate and they do not suffer from the types of muscle strains and spasms that humans do. The very function of the Pandiculation response is to prepare the nervous system and the muscles for movement. The function of the stretch reflex is to protect the muscles from ripping or tearing. When you know how to pandiculate you can apply those principles to yoga etc and practice it in a much safer and more intelligent way.

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      3. Hi, Yin Yoga is not necessarily about streching to gain more flexibility, the goal is to stress tissue like fascia, ligaments ect. that you won’t reach as long as muscular force is involved. There is a big difference between streching a muscle and stressing tissue, a healthy portion of stress leads to cell activity, renewance…

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  3. Hi There,

    I was wondering what your thoughts of mobilisers and foam rolling are in comparison to pandiculation? Which would you consider more effective and why?

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    1. Hi Edenn, Thanks for your question. I will be posting about this in the near future. Sensory Motor Amnesia is a brain event, the muscles are tight because the brain is telling them to be tight. Foam rolling and mobilisers do nothing to change this instruction coming from the brain. When we pandiculate we change the message coming from the brain. The brain must be involved if you want to make any meaningful change in the muscle function. Foam rolling merely mimics the effects of a massage, and whilst it may feel good and have some benefits, it doesn’t address the Sensory Motor Amnesia. Return to my very first blog post to read about SMA.

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  4. I have red all above, and there is another nice way to release tension in muscles: by moving agonists and antagonist muscles in their range of possible motion for about 10-20 times. Gradually the range of motion will increase when you repeat this exploration for example every day for some weeks. Again, as explained by Colm, the movements have to be done with focus and attention, to activate the (re)learning process in the brain. And the movements have to be done with care, not with pain or strain.
    But often, the cause of too much tension in muscles is located somewhere else in the movement system. Then you need a very well educated therapist to find the problem area. That is my experience.

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  5. Hi Barbara, great insights. Here is a clue for you, look for the parts that don’t move, that is where the tension and the SMA is located. Worth noting that it might not be the same place where the pain is!

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  6. Thank you Colm, yes indeed, you are right ! That is also what I have learned so far. The parts that don t move are of the “radar” of the brain (SMA) and do not give feedback to the brain and therefore other parts (muscles) may have to work too much. It is all very important knowledge to resolve pain and disabilities. Thanks for your informative blog !

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  7. This is not something new. This is what the Chinese Internal Martial arts like Taijiquan, Baguazhang and Xingyiquan are all about. The Chinese have been using this type awareness in their martial arts and physical disciplines for thousands of years as part of both qigong and neigong practices.

    I have 27 years of training in the chinese internal arts – as well as having been a yoga enthusiast since age 4 and a trained STOTT Pilates instructor. Core mechanics of proper body engagement and kinetics are inescapable. 🙂

    Great article though. Well written. 🙂 Thank you for sharing.

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    1. Kelly, you are absolutely correct this is not new at all. In fact, it is as ancient as the brain itself! Everyone has pandiculated although they may not have known it, a yawn is a pandiculation.Somatics just provides an elegant and simple system of applying pandiculation to the three brain reflexes which can become habituated by the daily grind (stress, fear, anxiety, injuries, traumas). The result is a free comfortable body. Thanks for your message and glad you liked the article. I appreciate the feedback. Best wishes!

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    2. kelly u so right on, the term pandiculated is just a new word that makes people think they doing something different and need to learn “somatics”. People have not been “pandiculating”. Not into this new western stuff like u say Baguazhang has been @ for ever. Takes a while for western man/woman to realize they r not doing anything new they just know a little more than others. Yes i have done somatics qi gong meditation pilates gyrotonic, canial thai massage rolfing. I do not really appreciate the article yes good info, a little to proud and or knowing for me

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      1. u know im in maui they have everything here . Some is good some is not. Therer r unknown reasons for short breath, muscle tightenness. So i use all of them and i teach most of them. To me when i tried gyro i got more information than all the rest except qi gong. Gravity stress anger trauma can all cause compression. Sometimes just a soft traction followed by a contraction opens doors on itself u can not get this in somatics like u can in gyro. U can do just about every somatics lesson with gyro straps if creative and mostly likely will find more motor skill awarenss.. Also Ta ke Ti na will flip u out ouit. One must become in the present moment to fully function.Thanks for reply

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    3. Kelly, What is the evidence base to Pilates helping with SI joint pain, along with widespread myofascial pain, disc bulges, and osteophytes in the spine ? I am interested in exploring Pilates and CS, if I get answers that have educational explanation. Thanks.

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  8. I think the proces in the brain of a reflective pandiculation that goes together with a yawn, follows a different process in the brain than the conscious pandiculation. I think (and experience) there is less or no learning activity of the sensory motor cortex during reflective pandiculation. Interesting to figure out in more detail.

    Thanks to Lawrence Gold, Thomas Hanna (DVD unlocking your body), Martha Peterson, and yet in this blog of Colm (all involved in somatics education), I have learned about conscious pandiculation and the benifits of it. During sport training, yoga, chigong or fysiotherapy, I have never learned about it.

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    1. A reflexive and spontaneous yawn can be very informative. You will instinctively contract into the areas that are tightest. Pay attention the next time you yawn and you will see.

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  9. I love, love, this blog! I’ve been sharing it and the topic is certainly causing some tension (no pun intended) but some great dialogue. How do you explain strengthening vs.voluntary control? It seems, most practitioners think it’s the same thing…..go figure :/ Have you blogged about that? If not, perhaps in the near future:)

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    1. Hi Debra, it’s all about the SMA, you got to resolve that before you start strengthening. I will do a post on that for sure. Thanks for sharing the blog, it’s good if it’s getting people talking about these things.

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  10. Hi. I am curious of your thoughts about the Yoga Tune Up method. It was created to alleviate the woes of over-practicing Yoga, in my opinion. I think that it aligns with your method well. Massage balls break up tissues that have been dormant and then mobility exercises where the muscles are actively stretched and strengthened. I guess my bigger question is….do you believe in massage and even self-massage with balls or rollers followed by an activity that gets that newly aware tissue to work is a good method to relieve a person’s suffering. (in the form of muscular pain)

    P.S. sorry for the can of worms.

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    1. Hi Brent, Thanks for your question. I am not familiar with Yoga Tune Up method. Using a massage ball might feel good temporarily but it ignores the fact that the muscles are tight because the brain is telling them to be tight. ‘Dormant’ muscles? That is Sensory Motor Amnesia, it is a brain event and it can’t be rolled or massaged away. Somatics does away with the need for massage/self-massage. The brain can make the muscles softer and more relaxed than ANY massage when you know how to pandiculate effectively. I am a qualified Sports Injury Therapist so I have given and received plenty of massage. While it does have benefits and certainly feels good, the bottom line is that it doesn’t make lasting changes because there is no learning involved or the brain. You gotta get the painful muscles back under the control of the brain and the quickest way to do that is to pandiculate. I hope this response is helpful. Thanks for reading the blog.

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      1. how can u make statements that Somatics does away massage/ self massage and things can not be rolled away. I have done all of the above any more other modalities. The more i experience the more i know i do not know and can not say in all honesty one thing does it all.. This is not somatics.

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    1. Hi Robert, thanks for your question. I have no experience of Gyrotonic, but having had a quick look online it seems to be movement based which is positive. Beyond that I can’t really comment. I’m not a fan of traction though, it’s just stretching by another name. Best wishes

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      1. well try gyro before u make an opinion about it. Like the guy said before qi gong and such as been doing this over a thousand years u just put a different name on it. U seemed very fixed in your position of knowing. Some times the brain is fixing the muscle cause of deep emotional trauma to and for this reason some yoga what u might call static are really not the body says i am save and can breath now the muscle can let go. There r some many ways the reasons y the muscles can be tight and as many to open it. I have done all these works and do not believe only one is the right way.. Go some some gyro u might be surprised

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      2. Hi Robert, I will check out the Gyrotonics. I agree with you regarding the link between tension/muscle pain and emotional trauma. I refer clients on to other modalities when that is the case. There are two Somatics Exercise demo videos in my most recent post. Check them out and see what you think. Thanks for the discussion. Best wishes

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  11. It is certainly interesting and usefull to explore different modalities to better understand and improve the “dynamic movement system”. No modality brings all the possible knowledge together, is my idea. That would be arrogant to claim ! Interestingly, John Loupos, mentioned in the next blog of Colm, teaches tai chi and kungfu and hanna somatics (see jfkunfu.com and painandmobility.com). He has also written a book, and explains why he has learned also hanna somatics.

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  12. I am a yin yoga teacher, but curious always to learn more about the body. I read the comment about and I think a couple of things I teach address those points you raised and I’m curious to hear your thoughts – 1) I ask students to NOT go beyond their ROM (in fact, I usually recommend they only stretch to 30-60% of their capacity, depending on the student), so as not to trigger the stretch reflex, 2) I emphasise mindfulness and an exploration of the areas of the body that contract in response to the stretch, that feel tight and tense, and I ask students to encourage the brain to get involved in actively relaxing the areas that hold tension and 3) I encourage slow, diaphragmatic breathing to stimulate vagus nerve and develop vagal tone. The way I see it I teach body awareness, breath awareness and use movement (tension & compression of the tissue) to increase circulation to the areas of the body that get most ‘stuck’. Basically meditation with a bit of movement. In my body I’ve released a lot of tension and become more flexible. Same in my students. I am careful to recommend strengthening to the students who need it and refer on, often, if necessary. Just wondering what you think about this from your POV. 🙂

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    1. Hi Tahnee, thanks for your comment. Clearly you take great care to ensure your students don’t hurt themselves in their practice and also that they make progress. All those things you mention, staying within ROM, attention to the area they are stretching and conscious breathing to assist, they are all brilliant teaching cues. Your students are lucky to have you as their teacher. However, if a person has Sensory Motor Amnesia, and most everyone does to some degree. Stretching won’t get rid of the SMA. Because SMA is a brain event, you have to contract the muscles affected so that the Sensorimotor Cortex can sense them again, regaining cortical control, and then, relax/lengthen them. If you haven’t already, have a read of my first 5 blog posts. They explain SMA, the three sub cortical reflexes and pandiculation. This provides some context for the utilization of pandiculation within Somatics. I am not in any way against Yoga or any other activity. I encourage people to practice Somatics so that they can get more out of whatever it is they like to do. Any activity is much more enjoyable when you have better muscle control. I recently posted two basic Somatic Exercises, one for the back of the body and one for the front, here: http://wp.me/p5JEyK-8d. Check them out, watch them first then try them, and afterwards perhaps try a Yoga pose that involves bending forward and one that involves banding back. See if they feel any different having performed the Somatic Exercises. I’d love to hear your thoughts afterwards. The goal of Somatic Education/Somatic Exercises is to eliminate the Sensory Motor Amnesia, that is the point of difference between it and anything else. When the SMA is reduced/eliminated doing anything else will be easier.

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      1. Thanks! I’ll have a look and as I’m teaching today, see if I can incorporate some of your Somatic Exercises into the class and let’s see what happens! I’ll let you know. Appreciate the links for further reading too. The SMA thing makes sense, it explains some of what I’ve witnessed in students. Report back soon!

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  13. Some muscles need to be strengthen in for other for others to be released …….Substitution pattterns . Let`s not fall into a paralysis by analaysis syndrome ….. This from an Iyengar Teacher of 37 years . The Iyengar method when taught with skill understands every thing you propose . Blessings , George

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  14. Learning so much here from the comments and really loving the inquiry that is going on here and the sharing of experiences. I too am a somatics educator,, as well as a craniosacral therapist and Yoga teacher. I love somatics, and find it very powerful, but like Robert above, need other modalities at different times. What I am curious about is why does Yoga feel so damn good if it’s not making long term changes for the body, and is (if I understand what you have written) in fact contracting the muscles we have tried to stretch? I am a bit confused.

    I know too in my experience that many, many of my students have talked of their increased flexibility in my Yoga classes. Can you talk more on this please Colm?

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