Principles* of Stretch Therapy™
The key principle of ST is that the body‒mind complex is more than the sum of its parts (so wholistic, or systems theoretical perspectives are favoured over mechanistic, or reductive ones—unless there is a reason to favour the latter over the former!**).
A second principle is that living organisms tend to a dynamic homeostasis, and that the homeostasis exhibited at any time is the result of choices made earlier in its development. A developmental trajectory may be inferred. A corollary of this principle is that some choices constrain future options.
A third principle is that the form and function of the human body is a map of all the forces that have acted on that body in previous times, and that these are constrained by one’s genetic inheritance (‘genetics’ for short). This principle is consistent with ancient oriental perspectives that tell us that we have a certain quantum of energy that can be nurtured or squandered by lifestyle choices.
The fourth principle is that any living organism continues to adapt until it stops functioning altogether; the speed and degree of adaptation depend on one’s available adaptive energy; adaptive energy is dependent on one’s fatigue state (from rested to exhausted) and one’s nutritional status (from all necessary nutrients present to one or more being depleted) and all constrained by genetics (I will never be 6′ tall or have brown eyes, for example, but I might change my state and function radically within that constraint). Stress, used in its engineering sense, is applied to the body to gently change its developmental trajectory. Stress that is applied to the body unconsciously tends to change it in ways we don’t like!
Realising that revision is inevitable is the fifth principle. The further requirement is the integration into the larger perspective of any new information revealed by this activity. The goal of ST is grace and ease, and no principle is held to be immune from revision (including this one)! More on this aspect below.
Techniques of Stretch Therapy
We use the term ‘technique’ interchangeably with ‘method’ or ‘approach’; and as used here, is synonymous with ‘tool’, or a device designed to produce a specific effect.
The C‒R approach
The core technique of Stretch Therapy in respect of improving Range of Movement (ROM) of any parts, or whole-body functions, is the Contract‒Relax (C‒R) approach, based on the method called Proprioceptive Neuromuscular Facilitation (PNF); see the recommended reading list for references. Note that, traditionally, ROM was considered to be a property of bones, muscles, ligaments, tendons, and nerves; current thinking is moving towards considering the body to be a continuous fascial web, separated into pockets containing muscles and bones, and all innervated by the brain, via the neural system.
It follows from this that any stretch affects all systems of the body, but local variations can emphasise one tissue over another. For example, if stretching the arm and pec major, all involved fascia, nerves, and muscles are stretched, but by extending the wrist in the final position, nerves and fascia are emphasised.
The C‒R approach has three stages:
– Taking a limb into a stretch position and holding it there for 20 seconds or so (larger muscles are held for longer) until the part being stretched relaxes tangibly; a partner can give feedback on this
– Gently pushing or pulling against a suitable resistance using the muscle in which the stretch is felt
– Stop contracting, and relax, and take a breath in
– On a deliberate breath out, re-stretching and holding that final position for 30 seconds or so (longer for larger muscles); all the while, cultivate the deepest possible state of relaxation you can (apart from what you need to do to support the position). Make sure you are experiencing the full suite of sensations the body is reflecting to you (so, being present), and not practising avoidance behaviour!
The C‒R approach ensures that a deeper and longer-lasting stretch is attained, making Stretch Therapy far more effective than simply stretching and holding a position.
The latest research suggests that this effect is achieved by remapping the somatosensory cortex’s map of what the mind believes the body can do—without this kind of stimulation, the map is resistant to change; this is one of the features of homeostasis. ST uses the bones, fascia, muscles, and nerves of the body to remake what the brain believes the whole system can do. “Stretching” does not change muscles at the cellular level: it changes the system’s perspective on itself.
This is the newest part of ST; and its emphasis is fascia. RS uses sticks, balls of various diameters, and rollers (we recommend the TravelRoller) to increase the effect of any stretch position. ‘Fascial remodelling’ is a reality; this term describes what happens when this tissue is stressed in particular ways and it is permanently altered as a result. Recent research has shown that all of the conventional neural structures of muscles and tendons (Ruffini, Golgi, Pacini, and undifferentiated) can be found in fascia, too, and far from it being ‘inert ground substance’, as it was when I was taught anatomy and physiology, fascia is now being considered as a sensory organ itself. Google Schleip, R, for many references.
Other key elements
Adding to the core principle of C‒R, Stretch Therapy evolved with input from Yoga, Pilates, dance, gymnastics and traditional Japanese exercise forms, as well as its own innovations, which include:
– Using knowledge of anatomy to design new stretches
– Incorporating results from work with athletes and non-athletes alike
– Adding partner poses to increase proprioceptive feedback; to make the holding of any position easier; and to enhance the end result
– Adding partial poses to increase awareness of restrictions in the chain of muscles/fascia involved in any function; to provide specific tools to adjust these
Safety and effectiveness
All Stretch Therapy exercises have been subjected to a huge amount of testing by our teachers, therapists and students. Of the 100 or so standard exercise forms we use, we have rejected at least a similar number for failing to satisfy this criterion.
All potential Stretch Therapy exercises are weighed against the criterion of effectiveness (efficiency). If two exercises are equally safe, the more effective one is selected.
How ST evolves
We have more than 20 teachers and advanced students who meet every Tuesday evening at the ANU Sport & Recreation Association. Every new idea is tested and evaluated by the group. Successful exercises are then taught in ANU classes the following week and feedback from students is incorporated the week after.
Outside Stretch Therapy, our many teachers, therapists, and students work and study in different stretching environments and we strongly encourage their input. Stretch Therapy is committed to using any techniques that contribute to the goal of achieving grace and ease in the body, safely and effectively. As a result, Stretch Therapy is constantly evolving with input from many different influences.
*I am indebted to Dr Jeffrey Maitland for making this distinction clearer—principles are assumptions about how things work; and, as assumptions, may be tested.
**for example, if the muscle called piriformis is possibly indicated in one’s sciatica, then a specific (hence reductive) piriformis stretch might shed further light, diagnostically and therapeutically; similarly, working on the scalenes if one suspects Thoracic Outlet Compression Syndrome, or TOCS (sometimes TOS).
Kit Laughlin, Noosa, 2012, revised Canberra, 2013