People often ask me whether it is good for the body to stretch. I think it depends on the intensity of the stretch, but read on and decide for yourself.
In general, stretching commonly involves pulling against the nerves of a muscle (golgi tendon organ and muscle spindles) which tell you by tightening when to stop a movement. In other words, overstretching is often felt as forcing the body to lengthen against this resistance. This is a special kind of message to the nervous system where the mind commands the body to overcome the body’s boundary of protection. Imagine holding on to a teddy bear while somebody else is trying to pull it away. That’s an extreme example of feeling of resistance to force.
In contrast, to lengthen a muscle without stretching requires cooperation and coordination. This is a higher function in the nervous system. Instead of force, there is a sense of permission and security from the body to lengthen and stop contracting. The Feldenkrais Method® has progressive movements that are designed to lengthen muscles without forcing them to stretch. Sensing support is clear while lengthening without added resistance. I.e., “Would you be willing to put that teddy bear here for a moment, on the ground, while you move over here a little bit… Yes, I’ll make sure the teddy bear is safe. Can you feel the length between you and the bear?…” This is a different experience in the nervous system.
“Stretching” tends to involve force over the body’s resistance while the approach with Feldenkrais work is to coordinate with the body to find length. There are many ways to work with this boundary of resistance for those who practice yoga or other activities with stretching.
I don’t believe stretching is bad. The temporary relief can feel pleasurable and possibly reset some of the muscles/nerves that have been overly tightly held. However, I believe people tend to stretch the parts that already stretch well and force those parts that don’t. This kind of stretching may temporarily affect a movement pattern and will provide a sense of length. However, I’d even go out on a limb (like the monkey in the picture!) and say that forceful stretching (working against resistance) will reinforce habitual movement patterns.
Next time you stretch, try asking your body for permission to lengthen and also slow down your movement so the stretch matches the speed of your breath. If you run into a “wall of resistance,” there are other ways to explore length. For starters, back off from the stretch and begin to explore where you can breath easily. I’ll address this topic of alternatives to forceful stretching in later posts. (See posts on “Healing – Out of the Ditch”)
For now, what are your thoughts on stretching? Where is the boundary of resistance, safety and balance?
©Annie Thoe, www.sensingvitality.com 2012