The art of stretching? Shouldn’t that be science not art, you may ask. It’s the body and that’s medical and sciencey, right? Yes, it is true the mechanics of body movements is science and has its own field of study called kinesiology. The art of stretch is how you apply stretching and movement in your daily life. You can learn the science of stretch by its application and sensations in your own body, once you learn to listen to it.
First the let’s talk about the science. Human movement has been studied in various forms for thousands of years from India to Greece and back again, but the term kinesiology was first coined at the Royal Central Institute of Gymnastics, a physiotherapy school in Sweden in the 1850s. The word is a Greek/English translation of the Swedish word for Movement Science. The manual therapy developed utilized over 2,000 physical movements and 50 massage techniques to treat dysfunction and illness. In fact, Swedish-style massage modality we know today was first developed there by Per Henrik Ling known as the Swedish Movement Cure, combining both massage and physical therapy techniques. Applied kinesiology, the modern cousin, was a system developed by Dr. George Goodheart, a chiropractor in the 1960s using muscle weakness tests to determine imbalance and dysfunction in the body. Massage, nutrition, and manual therapy techniques were applied to return the body to balance. A human’s ability to move without pain or dysfunction plays a vital role in overall health and wellness.
One way to maintain ease of movement is for your muscles to have good tone, not too tight and not too loose, like Goldilocks, they should be just right. This is where moving and stretching daily factors in. In fact, the act of stretching is instinctive for the body. Think about when you wake up and yawn. This is your first stretch of the day. The body automatically wants to increase circulation from blood that has pooled while you slept and this sends out fresh blood and nutrients to the cells, and the dance of the innerworkings of the body continues. But you may wonder what happens to the muscle when it stretches.
When you stretch a muscle for the purposes of lengthening it to increase range of motion or reduce muscle tension or tightness is called an eccentric contraction. In a brief nutshell, this means the muscle moves one end, the insertion point, away from the other end, its origin, and the muscle fibers elongate. Once the fibers are at their maximum limit specialized nerves endings in muscles and tendons invoke “the stretch reflex” which send signals to the brain as a protective mechanism to reduce the risk of injury, particularly if these movements are sudden. Finding the right amount of stretching using the stretch reflex and holding the position will allow the nerve endings to relax the muscle fibers and eventually become accustomed to the new length. In yoga, this is the concept of stirum sukum, finding a place between comfort and stability. Moving slowly in your stretch in combination with breath allows the body time to process this new information and lets you find ease in the pose before moving into a deeper sensation.
When we are born, we are given one body that is built to move and last a lifetime, if we treat it with care and understanding. Even when we don’t treat our bodies with the greatest of care, the capacity and resiliency of the human body to repair and heal can only be matched by the equally fragile nature of life. It is the original ying/yang. So how can a person sort all of this out when you don’t receive an owner’s manual when you were born? People take for granted that their muscles, bones and organs are going to function and move the way they want with ease and pain-free. Most people do not know the difference between the olecranon and the patella or the biceps femoris vs. the rectus femoris, but they know when they experience tension, pain, tingling or numbness there. They may even end up at a local yoga studio, gym, massage therapist or even doctor looking for pain relief or better range of motion in the joints. These practitioners may be able to help depending on our condition and circumstance. Maybe your massage therapist can reduce the tension in your neck and shoulders from looking at a computer screen all day or in your low back from sitting or driving too much, but for any lasting affects you also need to add more movement. Think of the definition of insanity, keep doing the same things and expecting a different result.
Our bodies were designed to move with great efficiency, but years of repetitive movements and contorted posture slowly diminishes the efficiency which results in dysfunction and pain. Each one of us brings to this equation a unique combination of experiences in our physical bodies and minds that occurred over years or decades. The practice of yoga and stretching can begin a unique conversation with our own bodies and tissues. In the West, the experience most people have with yoga is the poses or asanas, you know the stretchy part, but the practice of yoga follows an eight-limbed path as laid out in the Yoga Sutras by Patanjali, which is the original textbook of classic yoga. In 196 sutras Patanjali’s lays out the path to alleviate suffering in humans with the goal being a union of body, mind, and spirit. The asanas (physical poses) and pranayama (breathwork) are number three and four respectively, so they fall in the middle of this eight-limbed path. The path is designed to slowly peel away the things that hold us back or do not serve us to allow for a deeper connection with our true selves. The classic meme describing yoga on the internet is a picture of an iceberg showing the small portion above the water line depicting the asanas or physical practice and the larger portion of the iceberg below the water line illustrating the depth of meditation and deeper enlightenment. Now even if you are not ready for this deeper connection, adding the practice of breath, movement and even meditation will improve your overall physical body wellness and clarity and calmness in the mind.
So now back to the art. The art of stretching is how we apply the science of stretching, like a dash of spice in a meal sprinkled throughout our daily lives. Even if you are not a high-performance athlete or want to be able to conquer Sirsa Padasana yoga pose (think bendy pretzel), you can improve your current range of joint motion, decrease muscle tension, relieve stress, and most importantly achieve a healthier body and mind. The main thing is to move and keep moving. Take frequent breaks from the computer or phone screens to move the neck and shoulders. Take breaks during long drives to move the legs and hips. Instead of being frustrated when waiting in line at the store take the time to practice balance. Work with a practitioner to develop your own stretch sequence based on your bodies needs and unique circumstances. Set aside time in your week to walk, bike, take a yoga class even if only 30 minutes. As you practice, you will develop a relationship with your body, and when you quiet the mind you might even learn to listen your body. In the end, the body always knows what it needs.