You know you have to. The longer you put it off, the harder it will get. No, you can’t just skip it. Your mother tells you. Your doctor tells you. The internet tells you. Sometimes it seems like the world is telling you: stretch yourself before you wreck yourself. So how is it you’re here again?—exhausted, splayed out over the floor, resistance band cast off to the side and forgotten like the refuse from a dissipated storm.
Stretching is just not a precursor to “real” exercise, or a postgame formality. Stretching allows us to slow down and tune into our bodies in a way no other movement does. All too often it can take a backseat to pursuits that are viewed as more vigorous and result-driven, but unconscious stretching is a self-fulfilling prophecy. Stretching on autopilot can stall our long-term results and even lead to injury, and a stretch that hurts the body is as unproductive as it gets.
Despite the misgivings or secret loathing your may harbor, there are definite reasons to lengthen and release those ligaments, some more obvious than others:
1. You’re a mammal. The urge to stretch is embedded into your genetic makeup, you warm-blooded sack of muscles. If you took a stringent oath to stop all stretching tomorrow, you would still find your foot flexing, your hamstrings humming, your shoulders spreading, directed by some glorious, subconscious splotch in your neurology.
2.Stretching with regularity increases flexibility and range of motion. Skeptical? Settle yourself into a cramped space for the next 24-48 hours and see how flexible and mobile you feel. Okay, don’t do that (seriously, Ms. Fit does not endorse shoving your body into crevices) but you can actively imagine the agony. Although you may not be able to immediately observe the physical changes taking place in your body , the logic follows that movement begets movement, and a flexible body is one that flexes (and often).
3. This one’s a little more appealing to those seeking instant gratification: stretching improves and increases circulation. The influx of blood flow while stretching brings with it oxygen and other nutrients necessary for muscle repair and rejuvenation . (You can feel this in action. Go ahead. Nobody’s looking. Lift those arms above your shoulders and give those triceps a real good pull. This is an extension—the muscles are at their tautest. The elevation and alignment with the spine counters and corrects that forward hunching position many of us assume throughout the day, as the stretch urges us upright.)
4. A good stretch in the right posture with the proper alignment feels AMAZING. Do you really need another reason to do something that’s good for your body? I didn’t think so.
A More Mindful Stretch
Mindful stretching may just be the anecdote to the mechanized method of practice many of us fall victim to. “Mindful” in this context is a concept as old as the ages—it’s the same awareness of movement practiced by yoginis through meditation and pranayama. But you don’t have to settle into your mat for a thirty-minute practice complete with Bakasana and a headstand sequence to mimic this effect. Try something as short and sweet as a quick pandiculation—bring your palms to your shoulders, raise your elbows, open your mouth, and unfurl a yawn to stretch out those ear drums.
Ah. Good start. But if the short, common stretch is the only sort you’re able to enjoy, you’re missing out. If it’s lack of motivation preventing you from adding to your retinue, fear not. You’re far from alone. Avoiding the stretch or rushing through it are among the cardinal sins of stretching , but amore conscious regiment can steer us around the usual sand traps.
Some find that following a set routine, like the parameters set by the PNF technique, to be effective. Often prescribed as a treatment for those with degenerative injuries, Proprioceptive Neuromuscular Facilitation can bolster more than rehabilitation. While the goal is to retain and/or regain functional movement, stretching through PNF can also be used to slowly strengthen underused muscles and relax abnormally tight or easily injured areas.
One such series is the aptly named “Hold and Relax”—a targeted method used to increase range of motion for a specific muscle group. In assuming a pain-free position and holding a prolonged isometric contraction, PNF patients then work on incrementally moving the relaxed muscle into a different range. Hold and Relax is a great assisted stretch, but it can also be practiced independently (With care! Novices should avoid Hold and Relax prior to athletic events. As with static stretching, some focused PNF movements may hinder immediate physical performance).
Many physicians and therapists that specialize in PNF stress the importance of individual end points—the idea that the stretch is finished whenever you feel it is, regardless of what that marker might be (a certain sensation, a passage of time, a number of contractions, etc.) For those seeking a regulated schedule for their daily and nightly stretching, the pull and release process of the PNF technique can provide just the right dose of mindfulness.
And then there are those of us looking to delve a bit deeper, the stretch-minded individuals who want to take their flexibility and awareness to the next level. So enters the often ignored and little discussed Myofascial Tissue—the web-like network of ultra-strong connective tissue that envelopes your muscular skeleton. Myofascial Tissue is the driving force behind your muscles’ support system, a main proponent of flexibility, and it can (and should) be stretched.
Chronic pain typically has roots somewhere within the Myosfascial structure, and Myofascial release is a method of relieving this pain. While Myofascial release can be triggered through massage, certain areas of the tissue prone to inflammation and damage can be easily stretched with the help of a simple prop, like a bolster or foam roller.
Myofascial release is a deep stretch that requires concentration and resolve to see through properly. While moments of a stretch may feel interesting, tense, or even tender, a stretch should never hurt, and pain is absolutely an “end point” to adhere to.
With the consistent practice of mindful stretching, you should be able to better recognize the differences, and through this awareness, develop a deeper connection and attachment to your individual stretching routine.
1. Gomukhasana, or the less eloquent English equivalent of “Cow Face” is a relaxed, seated pose that opens the chest through an extension of the triceps and shoulders. Typically performed while kneeling or in some version of crossed legs, Gomukhasana can also be performed standing, sitting at a desk, or even lying face down.
2. A side to side neck stretch is a must for any upright vertebrate, so pay attention. While it’s crucial not to strain or over extend, a gentle pull every now and then can help to alleviate pent-up aches and stress.
3. Most yoginis are more than familiar with the awesome powers of a correctly executed Pigeon Pose. The phenomenal hip opener can become habit for even the most stationary of non-practitioners, thanks to modifications easily applied with a blanket, towel, or block.
4. Relish in the awesome rotation that is The Scorpion. While the intensity of this spine traversing stretch is optimal to counter abdominal work, exercise caution, twist gently, and only venture so far as is comfortable and maintainable.
The final verdict on the enigma of stretching: just do it. Do it at the office, do it at home, do it with friends or do it alone, but do it gently, do it lovingly, and above all, do it consciously, because an un-mindful stretch is for stiffs.