To stretch or not to stretch?
I’m often been asked what I think about stretching. I think it is because it seems to be absent from my “warm-ups” when I teach, while at the same time I do place a lot of emphasis on expanding the possibilities of what one can do: surely stretching is also a way to get more flexible?
In my experience I’d say that the answer is, no it isn’t! At least not when the thinking behind it, as so often expressed, is to stretch out the muscles so that they can become longer in order to become more flexible.
Stretching is half of all movement
So am I against stretching? No. Of course not, I love to stretch. It’s half of what I do when I’m moving is stretching. And I love to move.
Our muscles move us, skeletal muscles are mostly found in pairs – agonists and antagonists –those which open and those which close joints. When one member of a pair is contracting (muscles only have one action, contraction) then the other is being lengthened, in other words, it is being stretched.
What I think it is important to understand is that muscles do not have a life of their own. They are not simply components in some kind of human construction kit from which we are assembled. They are part of the organic whole that is ourself. Within this organic whole, there is an intimate relationship between our muscles and our nervous system. Without our nervous systems, muscles are simply flaccid dead meat.
The nervous system affects the muscles in two ways. It tells the muscles when to contract and it also sets their latent tonus (the amount of contraction present in the muscle when it is at rest). To my mind there are three points to address in considering increasing flexibility, and in all cases it is at the level of the nervous system, rather than the muscles themselves, where the change can occur.
Improving coordination around joints
Firstly, one can improve the coordination within an opposing muscle pair around a particular joint. In order for one muscle to contract efficiently, it’s opposing muscle or muscle group must be able to let go of its work of contraction, in other words, relax. It’s not so simple since this simultaneous contraction/relaxation of muscle groups is not a simple on/off thing. It’s gardual and proportionate.
Since we live within a gravitational field, in order to, for example, lower one part of ourselves, the muscles that are involved in relaxing need to do so in a controlled fashion in order not to fall. In most situations graduated, finely-controlled, coordinated contraction/relaxations are required.
The point to remember here is that these patterns of coordination are learned. In our passage from babyhood we learn to coordinate our actions. Walking, kicking a ball, brushing our teeth, may feel automatic, but they were all learned actions. And in learning them, once we achieved our goal, we mostly didn’t bother to fine-tune them too much.
At the level of individual joints, this refinement consists of finding this balance between contraction and relaxation around a joint. If the relaxing muscles are overworking in their action of relaxation, then the contracting muscles have to work a bit harder. And if that happens repeatedly over time then a joint is unnecessarily compressed leading to wear and tear.
What I feel when I watch people stretching with the idea that they want to stretch a muscle out is that they are in fact pulling against opposing muscles that don’t know how to relax fully. In my way of thinking, it’s like they are at war with themselves. What’s needed instead is to work on better coordination.
Improving coordination throughout oneself
Another tendency I notice is that of focusing on the muscles around one particular joint, or even one particular muscle, rather than seeing the pattern of flexing or extension that sequences throughout the whole self.
Joints rarely move in isolation. They normally work together to achieve some specific action. At least they have the potential to do so. We all have parts of yourself that we have easy access to and others that are more hidden from ourselves. A clear example of this is throughout the spine. What tends to happen when we bend forward or backward is that more work is done between some vertebrae than others.
The overall function of bending one’s spine could therefore be improved by waking up the sleeping intervertebral joints. What I often see however is people trying to “stretch” their backs. When this is their only focus, then what tends to happen is that they overwork the parts of their spine that work well already. When they go a little further what they’re really doing is stressing an already overworked part of themselves. And it doesn’t look so elegant either.
Again, this focusing on one joint rather than seeing flexibility as a pattern involving the whole self is a question of coordination, this time of the whole self. The coordination that we enact is one that we have learned. And again I would argue that increasing flexibility is a matter of re-education of the whole nervous system and not one of simple muscle elasticity.
The third component of flexibility is latent tonus. In many ways it is merely another aspect of what has already been discussed. Latent tonus is simply the overall pattern of contraction throughout the body when we are at rest. It’s a function of being alive. One could say that it’s analogous to having the motor idling on a car, so that we’re ready to go at a moment’s notice (when the motor stops idling, we say it’s dead!).
Our latent tonus is reflected in our standing posture and indeed in everything we do. It is an expression of who we are. It is susceptible to change, but when it does, one can often be left with the impression of being someone else, at least until any changes that one can accept have been integrated.
At a muscular level, it is the antigravity muscles through which the tonus expresses itself, broadly speaking, the extensors. The extensors have a different quality to the flexors, largely because of the antigravity work which they are required to do. They tend to be slower to contract but less susceptible to tiredness. We know this on an instinctual level, given the choice of hanging from a bar or standing, we’d chose standing every time. They are also slower, reluctant even, to relax. You can feel this when you lie on the floor. The extensors are the ones that stop you from lying completely flat. Their work also tends to be invisible to us.
In considering flexibility, one can see that the overall latent tonus plays a part in both of the cases above, coordination around joints and within the whole self, especially in the range of folding (flexion). In short, again re-education is the key to increased flexibility.
The stretch reflex
To come at this from another angle, let’s consider the stretch reflex. This is a mechanism that muscles use to protect themselves form over-stretching. Put simply, whenever a muscle feels itself to be approaching the limit of its ability to stretch, it reflexively contracts to save itself from injury. This is well known.
Some books that I have read on stretching suggest that by repeatedly stretching to just within the limits of a muscles ability to stretch, then somehow the muscle is stretched and can therefore go a little further next time. There are also some methods of stretching that deliberating trick the muscle into resetting the point where the stretch reflex is triggered.
My personal experience is that neither works in the way they are explained and that the increase in flexibility is short lived, if there is any at all.
In the latter method, a variant of which was recommended when I attended a circus school, what I observed in myself (for the short time I practised it) and in others who continued that there was no extra gain in flexibility and actually when you came to stretch again the next day, then there was actually less flexibility. It felt like fighting a losing battle.
In the former method, I think, again from my early personal experience that it is all to easy to fall into over-stretching and hence trigger the stretch reflex, through internalisation of the “no pain, no gain” thinking that pervades our culture – the idea that if it doesn’t hurt then it isn’t effective.
To sum up, the stretch reflex exists for one reason, to protect muscles from being stretched beyond their capacity. It is by this mechanism impossible to stretch muscles beyond their natural length. To do so will only cause tearing of the muscle tissue, pain, scarring and ultimately a loss of length. The only way to gain in flexibility is by changing the way you use your muscles and the way to reach that is through the nervous system.
How to get more flexible
As stated a number of times, my belief based on my personal experience is that increasing flexibility comes from refining ones ability to move – moving with greater awareness, self-knowledge and bodily intelligence. For me, the Feldenkrais Method and Experiential Anatomy, Body Mind Centering, Release Technique are what I have most experience with.
What is conspicuously absent from what I have written so far is any mention of yoga, which is often regarded as synonymous with stretching, though of course there is a lot more to it in its original and more sophisticated form. It’s something that I have tasted but not really gone into, though I have watched from the periphery as people I know have.
Again, I imagine that it succeeds when it is taught well and that this happens when it is taught in an educational fashion in keeping with its eastern roots. I imagine that this involves steering people away from the stretch reflex and promoting the kind of self-awareness and mindfulness that promotes better overall coordination as I have outlined above.
I fear however that it is often done in a form cut-off from its history, relocated within a “no pain, no gain” culture where the “man-as-machine” model is dominant with its muscles to be physically elongated. In this case I believe it does little to promote flexibility despite its claims. (As always with all methods, it is worth remembering that they are performed by individuals, teachers and students, and that all methods have better and worse practitioners.)
I love to stretch
After all I’ve said, I feel like I need to say again that I love to stretch. I love that feeling of when I’m dancing and there’s a moment where I extend into space, or into the earth, and feel stretched to my pleasurable limit. Opening and closing, flexing and extending, folding and unfolding, compressing and stretching are the basis of my movement language and I like to speak it all together when I move.
Sometimes when I move I feel like something opens inside and a feel myself stretching further than ever – whether it’s objectively true or not I don’t really care, it’s the feeling that I’m in love with – finding extra flexibility in the action of dancing.
Flexibility is a obviously a concern of mine, considering the background I have. The ways that I have found to increase my flexibility are to be found in the forms that I practice. None of them involves stretching explicitly and yet my experience has been that my flexibility has improved hugely, and that it continues to improve.
In all of these forms that I practice one is encouraged to listen to one’s inner wisdom and steer a path away from pain and towards pleasure. My advice for those who love to stretch as an activity to adopt a similar attitude.
And finally, if you catch sight of me doing the sun salute or doing something else that looks like stretching, which I do from time to time, the you can be sure that I am doing it for the pleasure of it and not in order to stretch out some muscle.