A reflex is something that happens quickly before you are conscious of it. Anatomically it is a process that occurs in the nervous system without reaching the brain: (1) A designated sensory neuron sends a signal to a neuron junction in the spine; (2) another motor neuron linked to the same neuron junction, carries the signal to a muscle; (3) the muscle flexes, resulting in quick movement. This is how, for example, we pull a hand from the fire, quickly, without thinking about it. The brain is not a part of the process, until it gets other sensory information that tell is something has already happened.
One type of reflex is known as kneejerk – this is what doctors test when they hit you below the knee with a small hammer, causing your leg to flex. You can experience this reflex in action by jumping down from a chair. The reflex is activated when you land on the floor, and it prevents you from buckling at the knees – it automatically kicks in to stabilize you.
Such reflexes are engaged a lot in athletic activities. In jogging the kneejerk reflex happens thousands of times in a short period of time. This kind of repetitive activity shortens the muscles and as a result reduces flexibility. The muscles adapt and change – as if they are expecting this kind of sudden impact.
In physical Yoga practices you can consciously choose to reduce or increase the effects of such reflexes. If your practice is dominated by fast & dynamic movements then you are frequently triggering such reflexes and increasing their effect. If your practice is dominated by soft movement and static postures then you are avoiding reflex triggers. Soft and slow movement is better suited for Yoga practices aimed at length and flexibility (it also works wonders for strength – but that is a different story).
Some people have a tendency to approach their physical limitations by pushing harder, as if trying to gain momentum that will hurl them over & beyond their limitations. This is physically ineffective because reflexes kick in and counter their efforts. But there is another subtle aspect to this kind of practice – what takes place in the mind? In the mind this is an attack – an act of violence. Ironically, the reflexes make it a useless act of violence! Even more ironically, when the violence is ineffective it makes way for stubbornness – in an endless self-defeating cycle.
Some of the most substantial changes in my physical abilities came about when I applied & refined softness in my practice. Softness has been a key and recurring theme for all of my one-on-one students. It is an idea I often touch on when teaching group classes as well, though it is more difficult to get across in group-settings. Softness is a great way to introduce Ahimsa (non-violence) into your practice, it is a quality that will serve you off-the-mat as well as on-the-mat and it can take you to surprising places.