STRETCH YOUR BODY, STRETCH YOUR LIFE
"Oh no! Not another article on how to stretch properly!" you may be thinking. Well, don't click away yet... let's look at it from a different angle. Let's explore how stretching can be a great metaphor for how to approach life. And let's examine the fact that—despite knowing that stretching is important and having been told how to do it properly—we still avoid doing it and doing it well.
So, why do we try to get out of stretching? Why do we rush through it and do a mediocre job of it? Because it forces us to be in the present, it forces us to feel and experience, and it is uncomfortable. There you have it! In fact, if it doesn't slow you down and bring you into the present, if it doesn't make you feel, and if it isn't uncomfortable, then it isn't really stretching.
The Dance of Stretching
Let's take a closer look. What actually is a stretch? It is an activity where you invite a particular muscle group to engage in the action of lengthening fibers, thus releasing tension and habitual holding patterns. To actually stretch that muscle group, you slowly approach the edge where you begin to feel resistance and discomfort. A colleague and friend of mine, a brilliant body worker and healer, Chester Mainard, called this point the "resilient edge of resistance."
Over and over again, with my clients or at the gym, I see that people bounce while they stretch, or don't breathe, or push themselves too far, traumatizing the muscle and creating even more tension. They often think that stretching is supposed to cause pain or that they are supposed to get into extreme poses that they aren't capable of reaching. I have to remind them that there is a difference between pain and discomfort, and I help them discover that their edge is not as deep as they thought. This may be a temporary blow to the ego, but in the end they all sigh with relief, knowing that they don't have to work so hard to stretch. Stretching then becomes an open, expansive experience, as opposed to a restrictive, painful one.
The "resilient edge of resistance" is the point where the dialogue, or the dance, begins between you and the muscle group. Here's where presence comes in: you must be aware enough to listen to the muscles in order to dance on this edge. It is the muscle that determines how far you can stretch. Not you. It is important to emphasize that if you are not on this edge, you are not stretching!
This is a great metaphor for life! The Buddha has used this principle in explaining how to train the mind in the most beneficial way. He compared the mind to the strings of a guitar (or maybe a sitar?). If the strings are too loose, then you will not make beautiful music. If the strings are stretched too tightly, then they will snap. Again, no music. So, in order to make "beautiful music" with your own body, you need to get familiar with your edge, where it's neither too loose nor too tight.
Components of Stretching So what do you do when you get on that edge? Well, all you really need to do is hang out and let the muscle take the lead. You are not the leader in this dance, the muscle is. You just need to get yourself to that edge, hang out there and breathe! The muscle will take it from there. This is another important factor in stretching. If you are not breathing with your stretch, you are not stretching.
So, here we are, on the edge, we have invited the muscle to dance with us, we hang out on that edge as we take a deep inhale. Then, as we exhale, we let the muscle drop us a bit deeper into the stretch. This is probably a very small movement. With the exhale, we let go, we give up control, let go of the holding and we find, in doing so, that we have expanded our edge, our boundary, our limitation. We have been breathed into an expanded sense of who we are!
So, here are the important factors for a successful stretch:
- Presence and awareness
- Time and slow movement
- Slow protracted inhale to find your edge
- Hanging out on the edge
- Letting go on the exhale
- Letting the muscle lead you deeper into the stretch
- More hanging out. Repeat this process over and over again.
Try this with a particular muscle group, or a particular stretch. The point is to practice staying on your edge, not to do deep stretching. I always suggest a seated forward-bend because this is the one where most of us overstretch, or we actually don't even stretch, - we just slump our upper body towards the floor without even stretching the muscle groups involved, namely the hamstrings, glutes and all the muscles holding the pelvis in place. So, sit with your legs out in front of you. Try to straighten them. Now, tilt your pelvis upward and forward, allowing your tailbone, sacrum and lower spine to be perfectly perpendicular to the floor. Keep your upper body relaxed with your hands resting in your lap. This is already for many of us, especially men, a big stretch. If this causes you pain, place your hands behind you with palms on the floor as added support.
What you may discover, if you are being honest, is that you don't really move very much in this stretch. This is an important first step in any growth process, whether it be physical, emotional or psychological—we need to be honest with where we are at this moment, before we can move forward. This requires radical honesty and compassion because many of us would rather not see the truth.
So, move into your stretch, even if you notice that you don't really go very far, that there is little movement. Now stay there and breathe. No bouncing, no slumping over. Hang out there and breathe in and see if the exhale allows you to lengthen a bit more. Keep doing this. The goal is to keep the lower spine upright and moving towards the wall in front of you. If you happen to be gifted or skilled enough to go further, then lift your chest up on the inhale and let the breath bring your uplifted chest closer to the wall you are facing and hang out there. You may want to stretch your arms out towards the wall as well.
Practice this for a few weeks, every day or with every workout you do. Be aware that your movements will probably be very small. Notice if you see any lengthening over a period of time. Notice the enormous power in subtle movement, deeper listening, breath and dancing on your edge.
Stretch Your Life
Because stretching is uncomfortable and requires time and focus, many of us don't seem to give ourselves the time to do it. This is similar to how we approach growth, expansion, and living happy lives as well. We don't seem to fully understand that in order to achieve these things, we must go through a phase of letting go, change, and discomfort.
So, practice being uncomfortable. Practice stretching your body as preparation for finding ways to stretch your life. When you get to the edge of your muscle's resilience, you feel the discomfort, the pull, and the resistance to letting go. Stay there. Feel it, experience the immediacy of dancing on your edge, then open to the thrill of moving into the unknown. Let your muscles lead you into an awareness of yourself that is more expanded, more free, flexible and alive. This is how stretching brings you back to the fullness of life!