May 23, 2013


Why “Stretching Mindfully”?

A quick Google search on the term ‘mindfulness’ revealed “About 10,270,000 results”. Mindfulness (sati) is hot, it seems, outside the realm of Theravada Buddhism, where it has been a central concept and practise for over 2,500 years. There is even an App!

This is what I wrote about my work, and it’s on the Home page of my site today; it is still accurate:

Stretch Therapy™ (ST) is a comprehensive system that includes stretching, fascial remodelling, strengthening, neural re-patterning, and relaxation. The goals are grace and ease, and this is experienced as enhanced awareness and elegance in movement.

Applications of the ST approach span rehabilitation of specific physical problems, through development of more efficient alignment and movement patterns, all the way to improvement of elite athletic performance. Everyone will find themselves somewhere on this continuum!

We say that ST is a safe, yet extremely efficient, way to improve your flexibility, but that’s only a convenient way to open the dialogue. As one starts to work with the body, new needs will be uncovered and you will find yourself pulling on one of the many strands of the ST approach. Everyone’s path is unique, and our approaches reflect this reality.

What our work is about, first and foremost, is grace and ease, period, as our American colleagues like to say. BKS Iyengar (in the first chapter of the excellent “Light on Yoga“) observed that dancers and gymnasts may display graceful physical movement, but may yet lack equanimity, or equipoise. I realised then (when I lived in Japan, 30 years ago) that while the pursuit of the physical dimension of grace in the body was worthwhile, it is only part of ‘grace and ease’, for without internal grace and ease, the physical aspects are a pose or a role (as anyone who has watched a dancer float off the stage, go back stage, slump and light a cigarette knows!).

We begin with what we call loosely flexibility simply because improving one’s range of movement in the joints and muscles and fascia of the body always make somebody feel more comfortable. But I asked myself a long time ago (watching one of my cats lick itself) why is it we human beings need to do this? There are two main reasons: what goes on in the mind and the actual physical dimensions of what we spend most of our time doing on a daily basis.

What goes on in the mind is what creates tension in the body. Your body organises itself around what is going on in the mind at all times. Let me give you a gedankenor thought experiment: imagine you are at home with your loved one; you’ve had a lovely dinner, perhaps a glass of wine or two, and you both are sitting on the couch in front of the fire feeling completely relaxed. The phone rings. Still feeling the glow of well-being you saunter over to the phone and pick it up and put it to your ear. You hear the sound of the hated father-in-law’s voice: immediately your physical body reorganises itself into ‘hated father-in-law mode’. This has a shape and a suite of sensations. These are unique to this mode of being. In this example, the father in law lives literally over the other side of the planet—but the idea of him changes you here and now powerfully. You glance over at your partner, who is sitting completely relaxed, as she was a moment ago.

Wilhelm Reich spoke of character armour: he says that every insult or injury to a child’s psyche is stored in the body as patterns of tension and, in time, these became a protective armouring between the innocent child and the outside world. The body does not experience criticism or a sarcastic remark: the mind does and the body responds.

I often talk about the real difference between cats and dogs on my workshops. The primary one that is critical to understanding the point that I’m trying to make here is that a dog’s locus of attention is outside itself, on you, when you are with it. On the other hand, a cat has the locus of its attention on itself and it does not care what you think, and does not consider what you might be thinking about it. When you cat wants to be touched it chooses to come over and sit on your work or brushes past your legs. It purrs; we respond. Imagine picking a cat up: it is so relaxed that one end of its body hangs over one side of your palm and the other end over the other. Imagine picking a small dog up and doing the same thing. And as I wrote this, I was reminded of a dictum of one of my teachers who said “What someone thinks about you is absolutely no concern of yours”. For most of us though, this is not the case. And it is precisely this mental activity that creates the tension in the body and, in time, the armouring between you and the world. When we engage in activities that loosen all of the external and internal structures of the body we are literally remaking this armouring and giving the body increased options in any given moment, rather than responding via the armour (protective, reflexive habit) to what is happening.

One of the maxims of our work is “No unnecessary tension”. Immediately, the concept of ‘necessary tension’ is created too, as I was reminded last night while doing 30″ low speedskater squats followed by static holds on a chinup bar: tension is required! But if we follow this through it becomes clear that we need to be able to let go of necessary tension at will. Telling yourself to relax rarely has the desired result, especially if you have never had the experience of deep relaxation in the body. This is one of the reasons why we always do a lying Yoga Nidra practice on our workshops, so that at least once people get this direct experience of truly deep relaxation in the body. Once you know what that feels like you are one step closer to being able to recreate it at will.

Let me turn now to the second reason why we need to stretch—one’s daily lifestyle habits. For the vast majority of people in the western world sitting in front of a computer and experiencing one’s life as relatively stressful is just normal daily life. In our work we say that movement is as necessary to the body on a daily basis as food and drink. So in my own case Olivia and I have a pact that we will go walking first thing in the morning (up and down Mt Arrawang or Mt Taylor) simply because we know that if we do not do this early in the day, there is a good chance that “more important” things will get in the way.

The usual western lifestyle produces an absolute characteristic change in the shape of the physical body: the thoracic spine’s curvature become more pronounced; the head is held further in front of the body: and the shoulders round. And unseen, but even more sinister, is the shortening of the hip flexors in the seated position. As an aside, consider for a moment how the statistical perspective of ‘normal‘ is determined: researchers take a sample of, say, 1000 ordinary people and measure their hip extension. These measurements are plotted. Like most things in nature, hip extension will cluster around a certain value. Where roughly 70% of this group fall will be described as “normal”. Unfortunately there is zero connection between normal and desirable; most people believe that 0-10° of hip extension is normal and hence desirable but it is not; for good spinal mechanics and easy movement, we need quite a bit more.

So a minimal set of movements/exercises to restore the body to decent function will include the hip flexors, some form of backward bending over a support to open up the chest and the abdominal area; and something else to stretch the muscles at the front of the shoulders. And so doing only reduces the pattern imposed by one’s ordinary lifestyle but at least it’s a beginning. And once one has made the effort to start exploring the body this way, in time the body will tell you exactly what it needs—which I believe is  the deep reason to stretch.

I see that although I have written almost 1500 words by this point the term mindful  has not yet cropped up again! This project will need a few more chapters; I will return to this theme tomorrow. To give you a hint, mindfulness comes in in the way we work with the body. Á demani.

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