The Science of Stretching: Part Two

So, after reading Part One, what does it all mean? And what does this look like in a practical sense? 

Pain and exercise science experts seem in agreement that movement, especially range of motion movement, is much more beneficial than stretching. This doesn’t mean we all have to stop stretching: doing it because it “feels good” can be an excellent reason in itself! It just might mean making simple adjustments to our daily routines. It could look something like: 

  •  Not pushing yourself to your edge in a yoga class.
  • Adding simple movements within a yoga pose (even if the teacher doesn't instruct it!)
  • Strengthening and stretching as part of your home routine.
  • Jumping jacks, arm rotations, and moving dynamically between poses before practicing your instrument, instead of passively stretching your forearms and wrists. 
  • Doing slow, gentle range of motion exercises for areas that are painful or sore

If you are in pain, trying to cultivate awareness as you move through the day: do you have any habits that may be contributing? Are you favouring one side of your body? Are there external factors that may be contributing? Are you holding excess tension as you type/drive/play etc.? Sometimes just becoming aware of habits can play a part in figuring out why things are hurting. And remember, the part that is giving you pain might not actually be the part you need to address. For example, a lot of my tension comes on the stronger side of my body because it is overcompensating for the weaker side. So instead of trying to always work on the stronger (painful) side, as I did for many years, I now try to work on the weaker side so it can share the load, even when it doesn't send me pain signals.

When I lead yoga classes, I try to find ways to move within each pose, add more general movement, and offer more variations. I have also been attending weekly Qi Gong classes and try to incorporate elements from this moving meditation practice (particularly shaking at the beginning of a class to warm up, and some of the freeing breath movements.) I “dabble” in as many different types of practices as I can, so that I can build my teaching and personal practice to incorporate different elements and styles. Still, it can be uncomfortable to make changes... but part of growing as a teacher (in movement or music or anything!) is continually questioning your methods, stepping into discomfort zones, and being willing to let go of old ideas that no longer serve you.

I recently interviewed dancer and yogi Elke Schroeder for a project on dance posture and methods. I want to share part of the interview where she talks about stretching:

"The idea of stretching out your body is a very strange idea. Think of an animal stretching out – they move through things very quickly and then are good to go. It depends what you want – if you want to be a contortionist or a ballerina, then you need to stretch. But this is where people get into trouble because they have stretched out so much, and overtime the natural muscle tone decreases, and then you are left with a very loose body and are prone to more injuries.

 We can find ways to move the body so that it is stretching gently but moving at the same time. Stretch is not necessarily a bad term, but it is when we think we need to open the body or increase the range of motion through stretching. I still teach held poses in yoga but just do not hold them for very long and move in and out of the poses. It is so ingrained, and it does feel good, but people can get the same kind of body high through moving as stretching.

You kind of have to let go of the fear of looking silly. Some people will have a big block around moving or being seen; so it is not only about getting comfortable moving, but being comfortable with the whole other mental/emotional thing that goes with it. For yoga people, their identity is linked to their mat. So take that away, and this identity crisis happens, because you don’t have that anchor anymore. If you are teaching people to find some kind of anchor or calming ground first, and then push a little bit beyond that safe zone to see where that can take you."

So what do you think? What could this change look like for you