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.
Techniques include manipulating the three fundamental neural reflexes of the body, use of a number of core techniques from the original “PNF” manual including Contract–Relax, and Deep Relaxation. A number of new techniques that have emerged over the last ten years, including pulsing, long-holds, micro-movements, directed breathing, controlled cramping, and more.
Reciprocal Inhibition reflex
This is the key to efficient strengthening of the body, particularly when you want to establish a new motor pattern, and in stretching it is ‘free’ flexibility, once you know how to use it.
Post-contraction Inhibition reflex (there are five other names)
Once in a position where the stretching sensation is being experienced, an isometric contraction is done for a period. This is stopped, and a full breath taken. On a breath out, the awareness is directed to the abdomen, and the whole abdomen is relaxed (“let your tummy go soft”). A second breath is taken, and the re-stretch is performed during the period of the breath out. New range of movement is the result. The end position is held for a period of time (30” minimum, up to minutes for certain exercises) and the student is asked, “What does that feel like?”, “Can you relax more?”, and “Can you move the sensation?”. Repetition of this approach enhances the student’s capacity to feel. Contractions can be repeated from the new position, too.
Named in the 4th edition of Overcome neck & back pain, this term refers to the projection of, or anticipation of, the discomfort of going deeper into any stretch or ordinary movement. People in pain experience this more acutely; apprehension is the major limiter of returning to any former range of movement. Defeating the natural self-protection mechanism that this term denotes will change your experience of working with your body forever.
Most of our best stretching exercises use all three.
The Contract‒Relax 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 (or “PNF”); see the recommended reading list for references.
Traditionally, one’s range of movement (“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. This reconceptualisation has profound implications for how we best work with the body.
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 in the complex. Similar alterations to the approach can favour other tissues for specific reasons.
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.
Over the last fifteen years or so, there has been a renewed emphasis on helping students to acquire the direct experience of deep relaxation. We use a combination of feeling or visualising parts of the body in a sequence, particular ways of breathing, small slow movements to relax parts of the body further, and directing the awareness around the body in different ways. We have found that the lying position is the easiest to learn this technique by, but the techniques can be used in standing, moving or sitting positions, too. And once this state has been experienced enough times, it can be re-created in normal daily life, with wonderful benefits. The same feeling–state is brought in to the stretching exercises, too, with enhanced sensation and deeper range of movement being the results.
Pulsing, pulses, or pulsations
Found on the continuum between static and ballistic stretching, pulsing is achieved by adding movement of small amplitude and of various frequencies; in combination, an almost miraculous alteration in the perception and experience of what ROM is available can be achieved.
Pulsing avoids the potential risks inherent in ballistic stretching – at least for the beginner – of over-stretching or of being unable to easily control the end position of any movement. In time, full power ballistic stretching can be achieved but we feel pulsing is the more effective intermediate step.
Long held gentle positions
This might not look like a technique, but it is: stretches held for minutes at a time, at an intensity that allows normal breathing and complete relaxation of the body and the mind most strongly affects fascia. Accordingly, once new ROM has been achieved by C–R and pulsing, the end position is backed off slightly, and held in the most relaxed way possible for anywhere from one to ten minutes.
Long-levers, supported and unsupported
“Long levers” refers to using the trunk’s weight as a force to provoke adaptation. Using the arms to control the amount of weight that the stretching muscle experiences allows extremely fine calibration of the true end point of any ROM; the subtler the force, the more easily the body can accommodate, and adapt to, it. As well, because of the subtlety, it becomes easier to relax in any end position. Conversely, unsupported long levers can help you develop considerable strength in the end ROM positions – a unique feature of the ST method.
Extremely small movements, sometimes one part of the body; sometimes the whole body, can facilitate a different kind of adaptation in the parts being worked. Micro-movements are done at the end of any ROM; in contrast, pulsing is done from an almost ‘no stretch sensation’ position to beyond the current ROM, momentarily. Each has unique effects.
“Where attention goes, prana follows,” the Vedas say. Stretch Therapy uses a combination of tactile cues and visualisation to direct breathing into particular parts of the body while in a stretch position. Effects can range from becoming more strongly aware of the tension that is habitually held in an area all the way to the direct experience of the tension being released on the out breath.
Kit often says that there is no point in telling someone (or yourself) to relax, if the direct experience of relaxation has not been experienced in the part being worked. Stretching facilitates part of this process; directed breathing can provide the missing element.
An oxymoron at first glance, controlled cramping is particularly effective for strengthening ‘asleep’ (or forgotten) parts of the body. For most people, a cramp is a contraction that cannot be relaxed, and is almost always regarded as a negative. ST uses a little-understood feature of cramps – that a much higher proportion of the muscle fibres are activated than one can achieve voluntarily – to achieve rapid strength gains and almost instantaneous activation of dormant parts of the body. An example is the exercise we use for activating tibialis posterior, the main muscle that forms the medial arch of the foot. Search for “flat feet” on the ST Community Forums for a long discussion. The same controlled cramping technique can be used to wake up a muscle that's fallen asleep – something we are seeing increasingly in the modern era. The same technique can be used to magnify the difference between applying tension and fully letting go of that tension by increasing the contrast between the two.
Having many tools at your disposal means that you will find a technique that suits you.
It’s not really about muscles or ligaments
The latest research suggests that this improved flexibility 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 resistance is one of the characteristics 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 about itself. This has to be experienced before the full force of this assertion can be appreciated.