What gets stretched?
A question from a workshop attendee, asking whether we are planning to cover “tissue release” on an upcoming workshop prompted this brief post.
When we stretch (defined in the ST system as moving a limb or whole body into a new range of movement, or ROM), we need to consider momentary changes (changes that happen as we stretch), as well as changes over time (months to years).
Most people think of muscles and tendons when they think of ‘what gets stretched’, but in reality, all aspects of the body play a role in what limits ROM, and hence what gets ‘stretched’ as new ROM is explored—and this includes the mind. When I use the word “mind”, I am not referring to the brain, that mostly cholesterol grey matter a neurosurgeon might work on, but rather our image of ourself, who and what we think we are, what we think others think of us, our emotional responses, and most of all, our reflexive behaviours.
From a physical “tissue” perspective, we might separate restrictions into muscular, fascial, and neural—but the closer we look at the relations between these substances and the mind that controls them, we see these distinctions are not clearly defined in reality. In fact, they do not exist at all—they are the artefacts of asking particular questions. Looking closely, we see the mind is everywhere in the body (the neural system), but this is not a simple ‘top-down’ model I propose. The body is everywhere in the mind, too—all our thinking is done with physical metaphors* as root level, and layers of abstraction are built using these basic physical building blocks.
When one dives deeply into a stretch, the emotional response is fear; the body is hard-wired to protect itself, as are all its cells. An amoeba on a Petri dish exhibits the same behaviour: it will recoil from a probe’s touch. All injuries, past or present, will have involved “splinting”: the phenomenon of muscles surrounding an injury contracting to ‘splint’ the area. And, speaking more systemically here, no human responds to stress or threat by opening, lengthening, and relaxing. Protecting ourselves is hard-wired, and is useful—but must be changed in order to acquire greater ROM.
Now considering limits to increasing ROM temporally, the fastest responses are found in the neuromuscular systems: mind–muscles–fascia–neural structures. If we engage one of the reflexes we use as our way into improving ROM (Reciprocal Inhibition Reflex, RIR, Post-Contraction Inhibition Reflex, PCIR, or Apprehension Reflex, AR), then the momentary adaptation that yields increased ROM is the brain, and one specific part of it, the somato-sensory cortex, where the information from all the proprioceptors and mechanoreceptors is ‘processed’, or experienced (but not consciously). Literally, if the use of these tools (RIR, PCIR, and AR) is successful, then the map of what the mind believes/feels it can do has been changed. This happens in seconds to minutes.
If we move into new ROM via manipulating the neurophysiological systems, at some point further repetitions of the reflexes produce no further increase in ROM—at that point we are ‘hanging’ off the fascial system (superficial and deep fascial systems, themselves richly innervated with all four nerve types (Pacini, Golgi, Ruffini, and undifferentiated, plus type-C nociceptive structures). In this moment, we have reached the limit of the fascial system—and to influence its length-tension relationship, we need to back off the intensity of the stretch a little, and simply hang out there. Ideally, for big stretches (think front and side splits), we need to spend a few minutes, perhaps as many as ten, from time to time.
And if we add ankle and wrist flexion or extension (and internal and external rotation; six combinations in all) to stretches that involve arms and legs, the neural structures themselves are physically lengthened more than other tissues (as the nerves end in the toes and fingers, and must lengthen for mechanical reasons as these additional movements are incorporated). This needs to be done carefully, with full awareness of sensations held clearly, because potentially these are the most dangerous of the stretches. As when working on fascia preferentially, these additional excursions of the outer limbs need to be done in a completely relaxed state, and need to be done particularly slowly, so the stretcher can accurately monitor what’s happening. Neural stretches tend to come on remarkably rapidly, and sometimes with only a millimetre or two of movement in end ROM of the wrist or ankle.
And when all of the physical means of adaptation have been taken to their present limits, we are facing/experiencing the restrictions of our minds—for most, this is the physical experience of aversion (‘I don’t like that’; ‘I want to get away from that’). Once again, this experience needs careful, gentle handling: you cannot, ever, force yourself to become more flexible. One must wait, take in a deep breath, relax the abdominal area completely, and allow one’s whole body to relax, deeply. For most people, this is the hardest part, if not impossible in the beginning, but it is also the most important: we are literally remaking aspects of our false image of ourselves (the ideas we have of ourselves). If successful, one simply creates new options for responses in the next stressful situation you find yourself in. The last few paragraphs have been describing changes that only happen in the unfolding present, in the activity we call “stretching”. A session might be a few minutes, and a long one a few hours.
When we consider these changes accumulating over time, we see the typically inflexible person becoming softer, more open, more flexible from a ROM perspective, showing less purely reflexive behaviours, and a greater capacity to maintain equilibrium while others cannot.
So, the simple answer to a question of great depth is “If stretching sensitively, whatever needs to lengthen to acquire greater ranges of movement will lengthen—and whatever restrictions that you have created in yourself will change, over time”.
*Further reading: “Women, Fire, and Dangerous Things”, George Lakoff, and “The Body in the Mind”, Mark Johnson. These guys put “conceptual schema” on the map.