Wow, I always knew I should stretch, but I considered it boring. My exercise consisted of dancing, skipping and hopping around a room to the beat of the music, because that was fun. I liked to crank up the music and go. I didn’t want to be bored just stretching. But these words from my masseur truly resonated in my body, and was the beginning of my journey toward yoga.
Yoga was the way I chose to stretch, because of all the other benefits it provides, but it’s certainly not the only way to do it. Simple, non-yogic stretches can be done in many different ways. Some require a partner, others are a bit dangerous, and some should only be done when the body has had a sufficient warmup.
Safely stretching is very important because tight muscles can wreak havoc on the body. They can pull bones out of proper alignment, cause bone spurs, increase your risk of injury, limit movement, make you feel rigid, worsen your posture and create pain. Of course, there are many reasons backs, necks, hips and knees can hurt. But muscle tightness, which can be caused by inactivity, too much sitting, age, injury, poor posture, intense workouts, lack of stretching, stress, and more, is common.
The interesting thing is, muscles have memory. If they are repeatedly contracted, or shortened, they actually remember, and will stay in a shortened state. If they are stretched often enough, they will remember that, and stay lengthened.
Here’s an example: We have a muscle called the “psoas.” It attaches to the vertebrae of the low back (lumbar spine), moves down and forward through the body, attaching to the front of the upper end of the thigh bone. When this muscle contracts, it either lifts the thigh up, or bends the body forward. While seated, this muscle is in a naturally shortened state. Because of muscle memory, if one sits for extended periods of time, this muscle remains shortened even upon standing. If it’s not stretched periodically, it will eventually shorten so much it will pull the lumbar vertebrae forward, causing stress in the low back, creating pain.
Another commonly tight muscle group is the pectorals, located in the chest. When these become tight, they pull on the shoulders, rounding them forward. This creates poor posture, and possibly neck, upper back and/or shoulder pain.
If you don’t have a stretching routine, and yoga isn’t for you, here’s what I recommend to gain flexibility, and help stay, or move, out of pain.
Choose a muscle and stretch it to a point where you feel a pull that is uncomfortable, but not painful. Come out of the stretch, releasing the muscle, just a little as you inhale for a slow count of three. On the exhale, press carefully back into the stretch to a slow count of three. Repeat this six to 10 times. You may notice that each exhale allows you to move deeper into the stretch. Challenge yourself, without hurting yourself and be satisfied no matter how far you go.
Make sure you move with your breath. This gentle movement will help pump blood to the stretched muscle so it won’t get sore, and the breath will give you an opportunity to connect your mind with your body, creating a calming effect.
Of course, another wonderful option is to join a yoga class. I have done many types of exercise throughout my life, and yoga is the one that has provided my body with the most benefits.
If you don’t want the enjoyment in your life to be limited by pain or less than optimal range of motion, choose to take care of yourself by increasing your flexibility. Your body may just surprise you with how much better you feel.