May 9, 2013

What is stretching, really?

A number of people have asked me recently to try and explain what stretching really is rather than what they know about it from reading scientific research and articles in popular magazines.

This is one of a number of videos that I am going to offer on the subject and today's begins with the concept of grace and ease in the body. I am personally not convinced that the usefulness of stretching has anything to do with sarcomeres and Z-fibres, and all the other things the scientific community is interested in. Stretching has everything to do with quality of life and the experience of being present in this moment.

Read transcription

Hi, Kit Laughlin here. I've been asked by a number of people recently to give my views on what I think stretching is really all about and how it can be useful to an individual in his or her own life. And I thought long and hard about this. And what I've decided is for me personally, and for most of my students, the most important aspect of stretching has nothing to do with range of movement or all the other things that it can very effectively be used for. Rather, it has everything to do with the experience of grace and ease in the body. So if that's true, let's unpack this notion a little bit.

The greatest impediment in most people's lives to the experience of ease in daily life movements and just the feeling of sitting and being by oneself is aches and pains in the body. Neck pain, back pain, shoulder pain, hand pain, a whole variety of pains. And if you are experiencing pain in your body right now, as you know, it tends to take over one's consciousness. It affects everything in one's daily life. It affects the relationships you have with other people, it affects your mood, everything. So at that mundane level, one of the most practical uses of stretching is simply over time to rid the body of those aches and pains, because there's no doubt that the majority of neck pain and back pain, for example, is simply muscular tightness or asymmetric muscular tightness, or it could be that a muscle is actually inhibiting a nerve in the case of say, piriformis in the hip or those sorts of things. And we, we have deep and long experience in those areas too.

But for me, one of the most useful ways of using stretching on a daily basis is simply to find out what the body needs that day. What I'm going to demonstrate with you in a moment is that the perception of what's happening in your body is usually completely mistaken, sometimes radically mistaken. And in one sense, we could say that your perception or your mind is lying to you most of the time. So, and we'll get to that. So one of the other uses of stretching is by exposing your body effectively to a few simple challenges like forward bending, or sideways bending, or rotation, you can find out what the body itself actually needs today. Because when you get to a place and start to work it, the body will talk to you. The body deals only in sensations and sometimes in emotions. And it lives completely in the present moment.

When you stretch something, the sensation that comes back to you will either be pleasing or painful or somewhere in between. And then once you have a bit of experience in stretching, you can say, "Ah, I know what this is. This is the QL, quadratus lumborum, on this right hand side again. I need to stretch it. I need to work it in a particular way." And what you find is that comfort is the result of that. And so that's another aspect of stretching, is that a deep knowledge of what's going on inside your body can be made available to you if you do some stretching from time to time. And unlike most practitioners, we don't recommend people do a huge amount of stretching. It just has to be stretching of a particular type. And it has to be done with a particular frequency. For example, in the case of someone with back problems or neck problems, we'd recommend that you use your important exercise only once or twice a week, not the two or three or 10 times a day that some other practitioners recommend.

There's lots of different reasons for this, but the main one is you simply can't concentrate on something and put your full awareness into it if you're repeating it 10 times. By the time you get to repetition four or five, you're thinking about lunch or dinner or your girlfriend. So we recommend strongly that when you are practicing stretching exercise in this way, that you focus very strongly on the full suite of sensations of what's happening inside your body, tune into it, be fully present with it. The body will tell you which way it needs to go and how far it needs to go, and just simply pay attention to those sensations. So let me just show you the extent to which one might argue that the body lies to you all the time.

If you sit up straight for a moment and turn your head like this, I'm going to go as far as I can to the left. And follow me along as I do this. When you get to a point, and that point will be different for each person, the body will tell you – or the mind will tell you – through sensation that that's it, that's as far as I can go. But watch. If you take a breath in, and then as you breathe out turn the head further, lo and behold, you'll go further in the range of movement. And this is the incredible thing. At that second point in the range of movement, it will feel exactly the same as the first point that you stopped. And watch, we can go way past there.

If I go back to this point now, and then take in another breath, as I breathe out the head turns further. And up to a certain point, this can be repeated. Normally three or four times is the most improvement in movement you can get out of the body at a particular stretching session. And here's the other thing, watch this now. Having done that, and I didn't warm up for this or anything like that, but watch when I turn my head now it goes straight back to that third position. So what were those first two sensations? They were nothing more than what your usual pattern of movement is in daily life.

So if, for example, you happen to look over this shoulder as you drive the car out of the driveway each day, you can be pretty sure that when you turn your head to the right, that will feel familiar to you and easier than turning your head to the left, or vice versa. And in fact, what happens when you turn your head to the left like this, that first time we did, and you come to what feels like a solid barrier, that is simply the proprioceptors in the muscles saying, "Ah, we've reached the end of the range of movement. And so we're going to contract other muscles to limit that range of movement from here on in this moment." But the thing is, it's not accurate.

The map, of course, of your range of movement is only built up of what you normally do each day. So here's the interesting thing. You add a few stretching exercises to your routine on a weekly or daily basis, and what happens is that you notice you become more flexible. We're certain this has absolutely nothing to do with sarcomeres and is Z fibers and myofibrils, and all the other things that scientists talk about. It has everything to do with experiencing the actual reality of the movement. And by that, I mean, if you turn your head to the left, like this, lo and behold your neck flexibility to the left will improve. It really is as simple as that. And, but there's more. When you turn your head to the left like this, it's a strengthening and stretching exercise for half of the muscles in the neck. And when you turn the head to the other side, it's the other half.

And so in addition to being – and this particular exercise is a safe exercise to do – in addition to being a useful stretching exercise, it's also a strengthening exercise. And the fact is, again, most modern daily life, which is characterized by sitting motionless in front of a computer, it's not just the case that a lot of muscles in the body are very stiff, it's also the case that they're quite weak too, in many cases. And of course, nothing happens symmetrically around the body. Your use patterns drive all sorts of adaptations which you, as the owner of this body, may end up regarding as not helpful to you. And so grace and ease in the body is the first of the things that stretching can show you in a very experiential and very practical way.

The other thing is that when you do become familiar with moving your own body, at some point, there will be this momentary experience of just simple pleasure. The joy of movement and the joy of fully experiencing the sensations which are coming to us in huge amounts every minute of every day. But because most of us are so locked up in what our head is doing or what our mind is doing more explicitly, and we basically tend to believe the thoughts that we have about this and that rather more than the experience of this and that, when you start to tune more into the body and develop a closer relationship with your own body, that will change hugely. Not only will you find yourself calmer and more relaxed, you'll find yourself more present in each moment as well. And this simply gives you more options or more choices, I should say, of what to do in each particular moment, rather than being driven by a reflex habit from the past.

So look, I'm going to make a few of these videos over the next couple of weeks or so, but that's my first attempt at explaining what stretching is about. And as you can probably tell, it has very little to do with touching your toes or doing strong backbends, even though those things have usefulness in their own pleasure, in their own right, if you're loose enough to do them. So try that neck rotation exercise and see whether your perceptions are lying to you; very likely they are. And after that experience, you'll understand why we find it so funny when somebody says, "Well, do you want to improve your neck rotation? All you have to do is turn your head." Try it and you may find that you like it.


    • Yes, if you do it (the stretching) with awareness of what’s actually happening in the body as you do it, and what this all feels like. Thanks for commenting.

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