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As a bodyworker and therapeutic yoga teacher, one of my main goals is to engender a sense of potential in my clients about their bodies and, by extension, their lives. One of my frustrations is the lack of clear, accessible information available to the general public about well-informed, scientific stretching; understanding how to engage in high-quality stretching is currently not the norm.
Clients tell me, "Oh, I stretch. I stretch every day, but it doesn't help my pain much."
Stretching requires a bit of anatomical sense and wisdom. Without it, what are you actually doing? What are you stretching? How are you stretching? How well are you stretching?
Sure enough, once I lead a client through structurally sound stretching, geared to constructively contact and address the most restricted places, unique to the individual, the client says, "Yeah... if THIS is real stretching, then the truth is, I've never stretched before in my life."
Let's look deeper into the nuances that make all the difference; let's unpack the science of stretching.
The Pitfalls of Uninformed Stretching:
1. It's possible to stretch the same fascial lines over and over, which means you're not getting to what's really tight and neglected.
2. The body often unconsciously and subtly shifts or twists to avoid the stretch. One conscious action of preventing this avoidance-shift, like firming an area towards the midline, rotating a thigh, or reaching through the big toe metatarsal, will completely change the efficacy and reach of the stretch.
3. Without some structural and physiological knowledge, we don't know when to activate counter-muscle groups or when to totally release. Either might be appropriate, depending on the circumstances, and the distinct methods offer different results.
4. Uninformed stretching often lacks order in the process. Creating organization in the tissue maximizes stretching's potency and benefits. Stretching is joined with toning and correcting the spatial relationship of body parts (alignment!).
5. If we aren't breathing and utilizing awareness, then our stretching is limited in effectiveness and is potentially unsafe. We need to breathe and be conscious, for the oxygenation of our muscles, for shifting and responding in the moment, for integrating the discomfort and backing off or going deeper!
6. We need strategy for informed stretching. We might be choosing to do stretches which seem logical but don't really target our needs or affect our imbalances.
7. Our stretching may be benign or even generally positive, but we might not be getting the most out of our time. There's a good chance that with more skills and information, our stretching can offer a more potent, rich and effect use of our time.
Golden Rules of Scientific Stretching:
1. Open the most restricted places to open what's tight and move towards balance.
2. Activate and engage muscularly to prevent the body from shifting to avoid the stretch.
3. Use appropriate methodology in the moment; activate counter-muscle groups appropriately and engage in a more passive approach when appropriate.
4. Create order as much as length and release.
5. Use breath and awareness for safety, tissue oxygenation, and the integration of consciousness for maximum benefit.
6. Strategize your stretching so you know what needs stretching and why.
7. Be effective: work in a way that goes beyond "just ok" and actually offers a potent, significant transformation.
For some guided scientific stretching, check out the Decompression Project Yoga Video Library.