This is a big question for many massage therapy clients as well as yoga students. How do I know how far my stretch should go? Many of us tend to go as far as we possibly can and strain to hold ourselves there. This this notion that stretching should be full of effort, and that there is a goal to be met can be our starting point for change.
Stretching is a wonderful way to achieve increased range of motion and ease of movement. It helps us gain a better understanding of how are body behaves, and why we may have restrictions from joint to joint. Stretching can make walking, swimming, lifting, living – more enjoyable. But what happens when we overstretch? How do we know when that has happened?
Over stretching can cause strains to muscular fibres, can damage ligaments, joint capsules and fascial trains. Scar tissue, trigger points and adhesions can form in the joints and muscular fibres leading our tissues to become even more restricted than we began with. How you stretch can make you tighter in the long run. The keys to avoiding this are proprioception, time, and relaxation.
Let us begin by letting go of any goal, preconceived ideas and attachments to what a stretch looks like. Instead, make the goal about sensation. This brings us to proprioception; how the body feels, where it exists, and how it moves, in space. In a forward folded position, say to yourself ‘I want to feel this stretch in my low back’ and explore folding forward from the hip to feel a stretch in the low back. Try bending the knees alternately, try keeping the back as straight as possible and bringing the hands to different heights along the legs, perhaps rotate your toes inward or out, hip width stance, maybe shoulder width stance... Explore the body. The reason a traditional forward fold with hands planted to the ground doesn’t create the sensation of a stretch in the low back for everyone, is because we are all different! Some of us are too tight in the hamstrings to feel a low back stretch here, some of us have bellies that won’t allow us to come far enough forward, some of need to internally rotate our feet to open up our hips enough to allow that fold to occur. Celebrate what makes your body unique and seek to find out what makes you work the way you do!
Next ingredient is time – meaning your body will open up when it is ready. Forcing the body into positions does nothing but damage tissue and psyche. Just as your mood can vary from day to day, so do the tissues. Be patient, and learn to listen to the signs that communicate when far enough IS far enough.
Okay, listen to the signs…so when IS far enough, far enough? This is where relaxation comes into the equation. You’ve come into your stretch, you have let go of your goals, you have found your body in space. Now to find the sweet spot. If the stretch you are holding creates a sensation so strong that you tune out of everything else happening in the body, you are too deep into the stretch. Continuing with the example of the forward fold – simultaneously you should be able to feel your breath naturally coming in and out of the body. Sense what is happening in the face, in the shoulders, in the arms – are they relaxed? Sense the feet, can you feel the ground beneath them WHILE maintaining your stretch? Experiment here, if you fold a little deeper into it can you still feel your whole body?
A tip is to scan the body from feet, through the legs, the pelvis, belly, shoulders, arms, neck, scalp face, breathing pattern, THEN come into the area being stretched. Adjusting and relaxing along the way. You will notice the body changes with every scan, tension will move from one area to another. Your stretch will naturally become deeper as you allow gravity to do the work.
Trust in the body’s innate wisdom – just as every body is unique and beautiful in its own way, so is the process of unfolding.