What is going on in your body right now? Where are you holding tension? Is your breathing shallow or deep? Don’t forget to look for positive feelings as well, what parts of you feel at ease? Taking a moment, or several moments, to check in on the body is an essential part of any health and wellness routine. The more attuned we are to what is going on, the less chance we get to the point where the body has to scream for our attention. This is precisely where stretching comes into play.
A few years ago there was a study that proclaimed stretching before a workout was not as valuable as once thought. Most of my clients read the headline of the article in the New York Times but few went further than that. For those who didn’t like stretching, here was proof they didn’t have to do it! The caveat was the stretching they studied was static (holding a stretch for 30 seconds or longer) and the impact it had when practiced before a workout. Performance was not improved because static stretching inhibits muscular response. The muscle is essentially in a relaxed state which causes it to fire more slowly . Therefore, if you want to warm up before a workout, you are better off performing an active stretch (moving through different ranges of motion without load on the muscle, mimicking the movement you plan on performing later in the workout). So where does static stretching fall into place in the overall health and wellness picture and is it worth the time and effort? If static stretching “weakens” the muscle and temporarily inhibits intramuscular response it makes sense that we might perform it when we want the muscles to be more relaxed.
There is a saying in yin yoga that we store “issues in our tissues”. Physical tension is tied to mental tension and vice versa. Just as positive emotion can have a relaxing effect on the physical body, releasing tension in the muscles can have a positive effect on our mental state. I look at stretching as a time to “check in” on the body and emotional state. After a workout it is more of the former (especially if you are in a crowded gym when doing so!), during a yoga practice it is more of the latter.
I remember being a little afraid to practice yoga or even take a walk by myself in the first few days after I lost Eve. Instinctively I knew that getting back to my body meant delving deeper into what was going on internally. As humans our initial response is to back away from discomfort, which works quite well when we mistakenly touch a hot burner on the stove but less well when we repress, distract, or numb ourselves to our emotions. Diversions have their place but it isn’t possible to turn away from uncomfortable feelings forever. They will need to be dealt with sooner or later, and better during downward facing dog than during a meeting at work.
The internal aspect of yoga can seem daunting but it is really not so. Sure, there will be uncomfortable points but by staying with the discomfort we learn some key things about ourselves. Notice what arises. Sometimes it’s as simple as “My hips are really tight from all the running I’ve been doing lately”. Sometimes it’s “I hate this feeling, I hate sitting with this feeling, oh, wait, it’s starting to lift.” The lifting and lightening is something that still takes me by surprise. I always knew that if I held a stretch or a pose for any length of time my muscles would eventually relax and release. For some reason it took me until recently to realize the same was true for emotions. I used to think that negative emotions must be acted upon but in the face of Eve’s death there is nothing I can do to right the wrong. When difficult emotions rise, as they often do now during my daily yoga practice, I acknowledge them, experience them, and watch them pass. It takes as much, if not more work, than the physical practice but seems to help strengthen and repair whatever it is that is broken in there.
“Finding the edge” is a phrase that often gets repeated in yoga class. The edge is the point of a stretch that is deep without going too deep, just this side of comfortable. Everyone’s edge is different and you can’t find your own without testing the waters. It’s the place where you are accomplishing without forcing, moving forward without pushing. It’s the balance between letting things be as they are and warming to the possibility of growth. What keeps things interesting is that our edge is constantly changing. Even if you are someone who likes to perform the same stretching routine or yoga practice day after day it will never truly be the same. The edge and the ease are rarely in the same places you found them yesterday.
What is the difference between a “yoga stretch” and a “fitness stretch”? Yoga stretches are performed with the intention of noticing what is going on internally. Fitness stretches are performed without this intention but may lead one down the same road by default. Releasing, relaxing, and moving with more ease…seems worth it to me.