Kit developed Stretch Therapy over the last 35 years and he presents workshops world-wide in these techniques.
Kit has written three best-selling books about Stretch Therapy, Overcome Neck & Back Pain (for injury rehabilitation, now in its 4th Edition), Stretching & Flexibility (for performance enhancement, well being, and injury prevention, now in its 2nd edition), and Stretching & Pregnancy, 2nd edition (intended for prepartum and postpartum women), numerous videos and many articles.
Kit teaches Stretch Therapy to practitioners of Chiropractic and Osteopathy, Physiotherapy, medicine, Yoga, Pilates and Massage Therapy and to people everywhere who want to rehabilitate or avoid injury, enhance performance or maximise wellbeing, in Australia and around the world.
He was awarded a Master of Letters degree (M. Litt.) by the Science Faculty of the Australian National University in Canberra (1992) and was runner-up in the Crawford Prize for that thesis. He was granted a higher-stipend Australian Postgraduate Research Award (1993–96) for Ph.D. research (20 awarded nationally that year), after winning an ANU PhD scholarship. Back pain was the main case study of his research.
His first book, Overcome Neck & Back Pain, had become a best-seller in the year he was due to submit the PhD thesis. With the blessings of his supervisor and advisors, he withdrew from the PhD course, choosing instead to present workshops to help people with neck and back pain.
Kit Laughlin’s life has been active but definitely not always flexible!
In the 1970s Kit trained for Olympic and power lifting before losing considerable weight to become a middle distance runner in the 1980s. At this time, it was his inflexibility that caused amusement amongst his fellow trainers at the H.K. Ward Gym (Sydney University) and earned him the nickname of “Rubber Man”. It was a nick-name he wore ruefully.
Below is Kit’s story, from inflexibility and pain, through discovery, study, experiment and research, to Stretch Therapy (formerly Posture & Flexibility), told in his own words.
Before I went to Japan
During the early 1980s I was a television director and a struggling athlete. I trained for the 800- and 1500-metre races, the middle distance events. Directing the Australian Broadcasting Commission’s nightly current affairs program Nationwide was stressful enough on its own; together with all the running training – we ran 160 kilometres (100 miles) a week in the winter months – I now think I was asking too much of myself. I used to hold a tremendous amount of tension in the middle back muscles. Despite physiotherapy and chiropractic treatments, the problem never really improved beyond temporary relief.
Life as an athlete
Some sort of insight occurred one day when I bent down to touch my toes after an interval training session at Sydney University. At full stretch my fingers came a few inches below my knees, and that was with my back bent like a bow. Someone took a photograph of me doing this, and it ended up on the wall at the H.K. Ward gym (where many of the local track and field athletes did their weight training), suitably inscribed “Rubber Man.”
Was I symmetrical?
The next insight occurred when I was using the seated heel-raise machine (from the seated position a padded bar over the knees is lifted by the feet to strengthen soleus, one of the two calf muscles). I placed my feet evenly on the footrest and positioned my heels level with each other. One knee contacted the support bar. The other was a full centimetre or so lower. Naturally, my first thought was that the machine had been bent by one of the serious bodybuilders using too much weight on it. I looked at it carefully, got a tape measure from the attendant at the front desk, and after careful checking decided that it was straight. Only then did the possibility that I might not be straight occur to me. Careful measurement revealed that my right leg from knee to heel was noticeably shorter than my left. I mention this only to highlight the point that we resist the notion that there might be something less than ideal in our own physical makeup, but consideration of all possibly relevant information is essential if we wish to overcome our problems.
Once I had accepted the difference (in fact my right leg is shorter by about 2 centimetres [three-quarters of an inch], evenly divided between the upper and lower leg), I began to think about the effects this structural asymmetry might have caused. I had trained for both Olympic and power lifting for years before losing quite a deal of weight to become a middle distance runner. I realised that years of weight training had adapted my body to two major stresses: the training itself and the asymmetric distribution of those forces as resolved in my particular body. So, not only had I become extremely tight in the process, but I had also developed an individual pattern of flexibility. I began limber classes at a Sydney dance studio, and these patterns became very clear, very quickly. I also realised that the approach adopted in these classes was not efficient for teaching adults how to become flexible. The young students were very supple and had become flexible while they were still children. What looked like stretching classes were really preparation or an extended warm-up for their ballet classes later in the day. My experience there made me think about the differences between adults’ and children’s bodies, and how one might improve on the standard approaches to the problem of how to teach adults to become flexible.
Experiences in Yoga classes
During the late 1970s I attended yoga classes at various places around Sydney. I found the classes relatively inflexible in their teaching approach: students lined up in neat rows and there was little dialogue. The strict atmosphere often discouraged questions at the very time one needed assistance. I was disturbed by the tendency for some teachers to accept the pronouncements of their own teachers uncritically. Guru worship was commonplace, and many teachers had adopted the mannerisms and aphorisms of their own teachers. What I subsequently learned to be the correct form of various poses was being distorted by many students in their attempt to imitate the teacher, through simple inflexibility. Questions like,’Why do we do it this way?’ were left unanswered, or deflected with replies like ‘Tradition’, or ‘That’s the way the posture is taught by my teacher’, and so on. I met few teachers who had more than a passing acquaintance with anatomy—the one aspect of western medicine normally unquestioned by the alternative healing arts. Of course, these were my particular experiences at the time; much has changed since these early days, and anatomical knowledge is now emphasised in contemporary yoga teaching.
Martial arts stretching
During this period I also resumed martial arts training, and so did the kind of stretching usually employed in these arts during the warm-up – vigorous dynamic movements, assisted by a partner or an instructor, and all over in 15 minutes before the real training began. No attention was paid to form in the exercises, and I injured myself a number of times using this approach. On one occasion, I pulled a groin muscle (one of the adductors) that took nine or ten months to heal and which was subsequently injured at another training session.
The Japan story begins
I had my thirtieth birthday in Japan. I had had enough of television, and decided to go to the source for martial arts. I was dismayed to find the same approach to stretching used there, too. I found disbelief on the part of teachers who could not accept that someone who had trained for ten years or so was not perfectly flexible. They had no effective suggestions on how to become more flexible. They had all done the usual stretching as children (usual in Japan, anyway), started their martial arts training at an early age and consequently did not need to know how to make an adult flexible. The severe training I went through (I was a live-in student, called an uchi deshi) made my back muscles even tighter. After nearly a year and a half of this life, I found myself unable to recover from an illness that alternated between a cold and influenza for six months. A friend had been studying a form of oriental medicine for a year or so (shiatsu) and, fed up with being kept awake at night when I visited, he suggested that I go to see his teacher.
First shiatsu experience
It was a revelation. Never have I let anyone hurt me so much. I was holding a tremendous amount of tension in the muscles of my body, and all the places he worked on, including my back, were incredibly tender to touch. The sensei (Japanese for ‘teacher’ or ‘doctor’) told me that although my body was strong it was holding excessive tension everywhere, which he felt was the result of the stress of the work I used to do plus the effects of the rigorous current training. He would poke my body and say in English,’Too hard, too hard’. I confess I was sceptical of a treatment that consisted merely of maintaining a leaning pressure on various places using the elbows and thumbs mainly, together with a few simple stretches and manipulations of the bones of the body. However, I started to feel better that same day, and by the time of the next treatment (a week later) the cold had gone. It was at the conclusion of the second treatment that I was introduced to a woman who would change my way of thinking about flexibility. Ms K was a diminutive Japanese woman around 35 years old. She was the translator for the shiatsu classes presented for foreigners at the centre. Sensei mentioned that I was interested in becoming more flexible. Ms K’s way of getting to the floor for this conversation involved sliding through the side splits into front splits, then lifting herself into seiza, the normal Japanese way of sitting on one’s feet. It certainly got my attention!
Meridians and energy movement
Ms K and I were to do considerable work together on flexibility and shiatsu during the ensuing few years, as I became a student. She was the sole surviving shihan(senior teacher) of an exercise method called jikyo jutsu. Roughly translated, this means ‘self-help method’. Like tai chi, it is based on meridian theory, the practice of which is designed to ‘harmonise energy flow’ around the body and promote internal health, in much the same way as shiatsu. This improvement in internal health is said to be responsible for the increase in flexibility that follows. In other words, the acquisition of flexibility was deemed to be a side effect of health. Quite different to our western approach, I thought. The exercises themselves were an interesting mixture of dynamic stretching movements and pressure point therapy. In time I was awarded a shodan (a ‘first degree’ black belt). Sho is the Chinese reading of the character for ‘beginning’, and unlike other parts of the world where a black belt is often regarded as a pinnacle of achievement, in Japan it signifies a starting point.
Part of the learning process of shiatsu involves receiving treatment from one’s teacher. I received treatment for a year or more on a fortnightly basis, did the jikyo jutsu, and taught and attended yoga classes in Tokyo. By the time I had been in Japan for three years or so, my back felt considerably better and my flexibility was noticeably improved, particularly when I cast my mind back to the “Rubber Man” era. All was progressing, I felt. An incident one day on my way to teaching a stretching class at the well-known Clark-Hatch gym in Tokyo soon dispelled this complacency. While walking across the car park (thinking about something else), I inadvertently stepped off a low curb—no more than 8 centimetres (3 inches) high—and felt a stabbing pain in my lower back. The sensation was so strong it took my breath away. I continued walking to the gym, and although my back did not feel ‘right’, I taught the class. When I returned home that evening, I stripped off and looked at myself in the full-length mirror in the bathroom. Unbelievably, my hips seemed displaced so much to one side that the normal indentation of the waist had completely disappeared on one side, compensated for by double the amount on the other. I had trouble accepting the evidence of my eyes: I could not believe what I was seeing.
Why care is needed when walking!
The following days suggested that this distortion was going to be with me for some time. I had treatment variously from my shiatsu teacher, a local chiropractor, and in desperation yet another shiatsu teacher. None altered the displacement by any extent that I could see or feel. Worse still were their claims that they had not seen any equivalent problem in all their years of practice. I was so worried by this that I traveled four hours north of Tokyo to a famous chiropractor, but he could not help either. Very slowly, with careful stretching over a period of seven or eight weeks, my shape returned to normal. I now think that the incident resulted from an imbalance of too much flexibility and not enough strength, my body being predisposed to certain types of injury due to my leg-length difference.
I spent considerable time thinking about the physical structures involved. One chiropractor suggested that the distortion resulted from one hip bone (the ilium) moving with respect to the sacrum (driven upwards by the unexpected force of stepping off the curb onto my shorter leg while completely relaxed). This joint, particularly in men, is normally stable. The ligaments binding the sacroiliac joints on both sides of the pelvis are extremely strong, and the internal surfaces of the joint are irregular and fit each other. It is possible that all the hip abduction work (legs-apart stretching) I had been doing had upset the stability of the pubic symphysis (the joint where the pubic bones come together at the front of the pelvis), thereby permitting the much more stable sacroiliac joint to move. However, because the shape of the distortion appeared simply to be an extremely exaggerated version of the normal lateral curve in my lumbar spine induced by my leg-length difference; I thought this unlikely. Another chiropractor thought that my pelvis had ‘rotated’ with respect to the lumbar spine, and that was the cause of the problem. When my teacher suggested that enough shiatsu treatment would even up the length of my legs, I felt that I needed to consider the problem in depth.
Thinking about explanations more generally
The apparently conflicting explanations I had been offered for the problem led me to think about possible relationships between information produced in different frameworks, and about standards of evidence. It seemed to me then (as it does today) that there are various kinds of facts about the world, and there are different expectations of reliability in relation to these facts. ‘Information’ or ‘facts’ depend crucially on the assumptions underlying the different frameworks giving rise to them, and these facts come bound together with indices of reliability. In this sense there are no certain facts (we might say, though, that some facts are very reliable and others less so), but comparison of explanatory range, assumptions, reliability indices and suitable constraints permits evaluation of different kinds of facts. For example, with respect to my back problem, it was not that one perspective was wrong and another right but that each perspective provided one window on the problem – a window that revealed a particular view.
Causes and their effects in the body
These musings led me to think that, in respect to a health problem, we might conveniently divide the body into psychological and physical aspects for particular reasons, as western medicine ordinarily does. For example, the physical body might be considered in terms of a spectrum: from its least alterable to most alterable substances, as one way of deciding how to tackle a problem. One advantage of working with the physical aspects of a body (in contrast to the psychological) is that some of the cause and effect relationships are better known, and are often measurable. For instance, we know that the nerves of the body react most quickly to stress, followed shortly after by the muscles, then ligaments and tendons, and the slowest to change are the hardest substances in the body – the bones and teeth. How these substances manifest their reactions to particular stressors is well known. Knowing this about the body’s organisation, in respect to a problem like neck or back pain, we may affect the brain and nerves using relaxation techniques, we may affect patterns of muscular tension (the results of stress) by using the stretching exercises, and we can strengthen the body in various ways against expected future stress.
Directing focus to outcome
This simplified approach may seem like a structural and engineering analysis, but the oriental medical ‘umbrella’ permits useful association of aspects of the problem whose precise causal relationship is not clear. The oriental perspective allows greater freedom than the western medical approach, because it is a medicine of correlation rather than cause – it is a system of correspondence (Porkert, 1974). The essence of my approach is that, in respect of multicausal problems, analysis and treatment is better directed towards a desired outcome rather than trying to solve the problems of what caused what. This approach can avoid the pitfalls of symptomatic treatment, too.
In 1988 I opened the Shoshin Centre, specialising in shiatsu. One of the four main forms of oriental medicine in the modern world, shiatsu applies periods of still, manual pressure on the acupuncture points for treatment following the yin-yangand the five elements (or transformations) theories. Shiatsu was developed in Japan around the turn of the twentieth century by joining aspects of the Palmer chiropractic method with traditional Chinese massage, called anma in its Japanese form. Although I opened my centre with the intention of practicing preventive medicine, the majority of patients were seeking a cure for a particular problem affecting them at the time. Although I stressed the medium- and long-term effectiveness of lifestyle modification and the application of specific exercises for their problems, most patients preferred to return at three or six-month intervals for treatment. By the end of the first year, it was clear that most patients wanted help with neck and back pain more than any other problems, and this pattern has continued to this day.
I have no hesitation in recommending Kit and the methods he has developed to anyone who wishes to maximise their physical abilities and to aid the prevention of or recovery from injury.
Greg Chappell, MBE – Former Australian Test Cricket Captain