Over the holidays I read an extensive, funnily (and partly slightly obnoxiously!) formulated article about how there is no scientific evidence that stretching does anything of what sports and health experts for decades have claimed it does. According to the author (- a Canadian massage therapist with years of experience, who has read a large amount of research on this subject) the only thing any of the traditional forms of stretching in itself is proved to be able to do is to make you feel good while you are doing it: It simply feels good to stretch when you get up in the morning, to feel your body, to wake up, to get out of your curled up position. And when a muscle is hurting and tense it can feel tempting on the verge of manic to keep stretching it out ( – like scratching an itchy spot). Stretching however does not improve performance, it does not make you faster, help you warm up or reduce the risk of injury. It does not help heal, align or really change the shape or position of your muscles. Possibly it could make you more flexible if you do it often and long enough, AND if you have the right body build for it to start off with. However having more than normal flexibility, or being a lot more flexible than you actually need in your daily life does not in itself add to your health or wellbeing. On the contrary, many who too zealously aim for more flexibilty end up crossing the boundaries to what is healthy, ignoring the pain signals of the body and thereby damaging joints and muscle tissue. And if you do experience that you can reach your toes more easily after months of stretching exercises, it is most probably not connected with an actual change in your body (- i.e. your muscles getting longer, softer and more tender), but more likely with a change in your sensibility to the pain and discomfort of the position – your body getting used to it and therefore allowing it. ( – this is basically a short summary of the arguments and claims made in the article…)
It is funny, because during reading I find myself do millisecond shifts between angry defensiveness and excited agreement. I have advocated stretching so many times to friends, family and clients, because I see and feel it do a lot of good. But I can also totally see how many of these arguments against it make a lot of sense: Holding a static position in a specific way with a lot of effort can definitely do more harm than good. It is feasible that stretching, physiologically seen, does not really help warm up the muscles – and can rather create another resistance to counter when the muscle wants to activate and contract to perform movement afterwards. And I can also clearly see how the romantic image of long, lean, stretched out muscles, can be just as misguiding as the idea of hard, stable, corsett-like muscles holding the core of your body together and protecting your spine (- a subject that I keep hearing about in the past months and that I would like to investigate and reflect more at another point). Overall I always find it problematic with this idea of forcingly shaping our bodies into an ideal form, following generalized schemes and ideas that don’t take much consideration of our original shape, size, strength, condition, limitations and physical history.
But there is also especially one important idea that the article brings up (- in relation to medative movement practices), that I cannot agree more with: What makes a difference to anything we do has to do with the intention and attention we do it with. We can do hour long yoga sessions and run five marathons in a year and feel great OR do a lot of harm to ourselves through it. The intention to become better and faster at something – to excel in a certain field and to prove it in competition against others can be a highly inspirational force that can make us find new sources and potentials in ourselves that we wouldn’t have believed possible. However if this intention makes us narrow our attention for everything else in our lives and around us – to how we feel and what we need, then there is a high risk that we will do damage to ourselves in the long run.
When I think about stretching I don’t think of what I learned in gym class – not forcing myself to stay in awkward positions that simply feel straineous and wrong (and looking over my shoulder to see if I get as far as the others…!). The stretching that I have learned to value a lot through my work and practice in the past years has to do with using movements to feel into the body, to wake up the sense of the body, and to move between positions using the natural intuition and feeling for it. Moving, breathing, extending into space, feeling the extent of the movement, resting, enjoying it… Stretching should be pleasurable. I really think this should be the intention for doing it. It should feel right. It shouldn’t have anything to do with forcing the body to do something it doesn’t like. And at best it should be done with as much of our attention as possible in order to sense this sometimes thin-line difference between feeling good and trying to force a change.
Feeling good is a good enough reason! –That it feels good is a good enough reason for stretching! – And having attention for what feels good and in what way is an extremely important knowledge to have, to develop and to deepen. In fact I believe that one of the biggest health problems we are facing at the moment is that this is not given enough importance. The static idea and the image of health – what a healthy body should look like, measure up to and be able to perform – is allowed far too much to take the overhand over what it actually feels like to be well. We get flooded by statistics and rules and different forms of diagnosing to be able to tell if we are healthy or not. Sometimes we find it helpful and inspiring, but many times it brings insecurity and doubts where it is not needed, or where maybe it even makes us react in ways that are really not healthy for us. For example being so careful not to move in any ‘false’ way with a ‘damaged’ back that we end up just adding to the tension that was the origin of the back pain in the first place. (- Another subject I would like to dig deeper into another time.) Or getting so stubbornly stuck on the image of how to quickly fix or solve a pain or other symptom that we end up overtraining or in other ways try to force it away as if it wasn’t part of us – often thereby rather irritating or aggravating the place than soothing or helping it heal. ( – This, I believe, is the ‘itchy’ kind of stretching that the author of the article speaks about – when we have the urge to keep stretching out a painful muscle even though it doesn’t bring us any noticable longer term relief.)
It can be extremely valuable to get advice and tips from people with knowledge and experience: To hear what could be good to eat or what might be good to avoid, to learn exercises that have already been proved many times to help strengthen or develop specific areas, to be motivated from someone else to take a practice to a new level, to try new moves, or get guidance how to get there, or to have someone else add their attention to ours in order to notice, interpret and learn more about what our bodies might be telling us in cases where it is not so clear for us anymore. (- If I thought this was useless I surely wouldn’t be doing the work I’m doing!) But at the same time I do believe that all of the above reasons for turning to expert advice become counterproductive if we by doing this, end up loosing our trust in our own sense for what we are feeling and what we need. The advices and instructions we get from others have to make sense to us in a most basic way – it has to feel right. And this implies also that what is good for us at one point in our life could just as well not be so good for us at another point. And what is good for one person is not necessarily good for someone else. Its trial and error – or trying and experiencing and allowing for change.
AND coming back to the core of the argument from above: I believe we can achieve great things and create important changes in our lives by having more attention for our surrounding, the situation we are in, and for ourselves – what we feel, do, wish, and how we do it. When we manage to really bring our attention to something we can move and shift it in a really profound way – even when we in practical terms do very little. And in this way, anything we do, big or small, can have a big significance and change things for us depending on how we bring our attention and intention to it.
A small experiment at this point: Look around you and choose any small object (- a pen, glass, cup, book, piece of paper…) close enough for you to grab, simply close your hand around it, lift it up and then put it down again and let it go. Now again reach for the object, but this time focus your attention on it, feel how your hand is closing around it, feel the texture and temperature of it, feel the weight of it in your hand and the muscles you need to activate in order to lift it, feel the effect it has on the rest of your body holding the object – the slight shift in your weight in order to compensate. And when you put the object down feel the amount of control and minute coordination it takes to let it go at the right time: How does your hand open? How does it help the object to come to rest at the table right at the spot where you want it to be – not droping it from a height but right there on the surface? A simple routine act. But what difference does it make doing it with or without attention? What is the effect on you, on your body, on the way you perceive the room and the things around you?
At any time we have the possibility to use our senses in this way to focus our attention on something outside or within us. We can decide to sharpen our hearing and listen actively for the sounds around us ( – Which sounds are in the room and which are outside? From which direction do they come?). We can focus on the sensation on our skin (– Where is it more sensitive? Where does it feel numb? Where does it prickle? Where does it feel warmer, where colder?). We can let our eyes focus in on a small detail or open our focus to take in as much of the room as possible. And we can decide to feel into a certain part of our body and explore the sensations there – simply with our attention, without having to move, or touch, or do anything particular with it. And every time we focus our attention in this way it makes a difference to the way we perceive, to how we are, to the situation itself.
Relating this back to stretching: What does it do when we stretch with this kind of attention? – to the different sensations in the body, to how one part affects another, to how our body relates to and feels in the space around us, to our weight and the pressure of our feet on the floor…
I am convinced that giving ourselves some time stretching (and also generally moving) with this type of attention can do a very great deal for our health and wellbeing. And also that in this sense feeling good doing something is a very good reason for doing something – to feel how something feels good and why is a very good way to be in contact with our body and with ourselves.
So to anyone that I might have inadvertedly given any false hopes about greater flexibility or quick healing by advocating stretching – I appologize for that – but if it feels good for you, please do continue to stretch and move exactly for that reason and with that intention – not more and not less. Feel into your body. Be curious. Find different interesting new ways to move. Challenge yourself if you want, but don’t force it. Feel yourself. Have confidence in what you feel and how you feel. And find ways to be well with and in your body. This is what I hope I help contributing to through my work. And this is my wish for you (and for me!) for 2016.