Last week’s “stillness” blog leads perfectly into this week’s topic of “stretching”. This is where the four previous parts of the programme come together. Throughout my sporting life and indeed the initial part of my working life as a physio, I was of the view no pain no gain was the way to go. I used to do a lot of work with “trigger points” in tight muscles. At this time my main clientele were big rough tough burly rugby players. Of course they were of the perfect ‘no pain no gain’ mentality, so they came to expect an elbow into the trigger points of their tight muscles. I can assure you they were not so rough and tough by the time I had scrapped them off the ceiling. However, looking back on it if I had set them up in a specific yin posture for four to five minutes, with gentle breathing ,that trigger point would have melted away on its own….. then again I wouldnt have had half as much fun!!! And do you think they would have joined in???
As for my own stretching programme, given I was a bit of a whimp (well a big one really) my stretching sessions were short and sweet and totally ineffective. “Stretching” has that conotation of being put on a rack ….. I would rather use the terms ‘softening and lengthening’……….sounds much more gentle and kind….. and it is!!! So now I use the expression “no pain all gain”……….So how do we soften and lengthen?
Firstly, I guess we need to reframe our existing beliefs around the concept of stretching. Without nerves, muscles would not function. By and large muscles are either “tight” or “relaxed” dependent on the tone of our nervous system, if our nervous system is relaxed then muscles relax. Breathing in a particular way helps reboot the nervous system, calming it down; body awareness gives us a sense of what space to soften and relax; movement with awareness gives us a focus on moving the stiff parts of us to create new ways of moving and stillness gives us the time and space to actually witness the whole process.
At the end of each class you will most likely feel more calm, relaxed and flexible……. but what happens next? Remember we are creatures of habit, so we may well go back to moving in the same way as we have always moved.
For the past year I have been taking a daily 2 minute cold shower. This is a challenge to the autonomic nervous system, and initially viewed as a threat. When I first started I found myself holding my breath, my whole body would tense and become rigid, and that’s even before I switched the tap on!!!!
Over a period of time with graded exposure to the cold, practice and training, my breathing became calm, my muscles relaxed. I have learnt to respond in a different way. My nervous system now views this as an opportunity. Believe it or not I really look forward to my morning cold shower!
When we ask those stiff bits of us, to join in a movement in class there is a relcutance to do so, just as there was for me in jumpiing into the cold shower. There maybe a learned response that we have to chip away at. As in the cold exposure scenario, even before I turned on the cold tap my body would tense in anticipation.
Same when we come to “stretching”, it might be that we have suffered a previous injury and the muscles have solidified in protection mode around a particular space. There is not anything wrong with the tissue that we want to try and lengthen, but the nervous system is set up still on red alert viewing the “stretch” or movement as a threat. Of course that area of held tension could be emotional or mental tension, an area of us that would rather stay numbed than reintegrated back to being part of us.
We need to calm and reassure the nervous system ….’its ok’! Through gradual exposure, to erode away the bodies concept of “this is the way we have always done it”…. By bringing on line the parasympathetic activation with our breathing and body awareness we are creating a safe environment in which to explore new ways of moving. To let go of those stiff bits and milimetre by millimetre chip away at old unhelpful patterns generating new and exciting ways of moving.
I am not sure that the concept of “stretching” is actually overly useful. From my historial experience of ’stretching’ it was done before and after playing sport or doing exercise, with the aim of reducing the likelihood of injury. Of course there have always been those who has ascribed to idea that stretching was a waste of time. I remember as a 16 year old making my debut for Tiverton RFC third XV, the warm up routine consited of gathering around the team captain’s pipe. Interestingly, a research article back in 2004 from the university of York , concluded that stretching did not decrease the incidence of injury in sports people.
Improving flexibility and function might be a better tact to follow. We need to think, is what we do on the yoga mat useful to what we do in our day to day lives. Being able to touch your toes with straight knees, is that helpful? What functional activity can you do with straight knees? In the bigger scheme of things yoga is about an aweful lot more than just stretching muscles. The best yoga teacher I have worked with, Norman Blair said in one of his classes for teachers, ‘would you rather have long hamstrings or be more kind and caring?’ Food for thought…. yoga does not just connect with the physical.