We all know what stretching is – or do we? I find that among movement, bodywork and other experts there can be different interpretations of what counts as a stretch, what’s a movement, what’s just relaxing, as well as what is good and bad for you (I would call the latter over-stretching or incorrect stretching rather than just “stretching”).
At around 3 years old stretching is an instinctive yawn and reach, but by 10 years old we’ve probably learned it means reaching or pushing as far as we can while relaxing our muscles to try and extend our range of motion. Then depending on our inclinations as we get older it may become the lengthening and strengthening stretches of yoga practice, the dynamic warmup for our athletic session, a general stretch pre-workout, a form of rehab for an injury, or for others of us more of a distant memory.
Not many of us are taught to stretch instinctively – or move instinctively at all for that matter. There is a lot about movement that we do not explicitly talk about – that some movements are socially acceptable and some are not, that some of us exercise to avoid illness, some do it to increase social status and influence, and others just to feel better. We often don’t talk about how our posture can signal our status, mood and intentions to others (and ourselves). And not many of us are taught to move in a way that serves our bodies more than subjugating them. I feel that there are traces of old-school thinking that have been passed down from generation to generation, that can make us view the body as the servant and the mind as the master, and it can get us into all sorts of trouble physically, and even mean that we get annoyed with our own bodies for letting us down, even when the opposite is true.
So How Do We Stretch Instinctively?
Here I’ll set out a few suggestions for becoming more in tune with your body and letting it lead the way in your stretching. Don’t push through any pain, go further than feels natural or make sudden/jerky/extreme movements. If in any doubt ask a doctor or specialist for advice before stretching injuries or painful/ inflamed or recently-operated on areas (and for anything else that might be an issue).
I do think that as a form of resistance stretching, Moving Stretch has an advantage in terms of being instinctive and body-lead, because it is fluid, moving and engages the body in a more complete way. However, I have left it open so you can try to apply these tips to your usual method and many will work for a lot of different types of stretching, not just Moving Stretch.
1. Watch videos of animals stretching
If you want advice on how to get out of your head, go and talk to an animal (or maybe just watch them). They know how to be in the moment and their bodies are their livelihood and of prime importance, so in general (there are many exceptions you can see on YouTube!) they take really good care of their bodies. Think someone-who-adores-their-car-washing-it-on-the-weekend-careful.
2. Pause Before You Start Stretching
Before you stretch, especially if you’ve decided you need to stretch in a very mind-directed way, take a moment to pause. Just stay still, breathe, notice how your body’s feeling. Then take some time to settle in to yourself – make sure your feet are comfy the way you’re standing (or you’re sitting in the right way according to your body), shift your weight if you need to, let your breathing expand/ slow/ deepen as needed (as it wants to), check in with the alignment of your spine ( I just had to move as I type this!), where your limbs are, how relaxed or engaged your muscles want to be, how they want to sit, where your head wants to be, and your shoulders.
You can make small, fluid movements to check out your breathing, alignment, posture, weight distribution and amount of tension/ relaxation – to make sure it feels right for you. Then settle back in your centred position again.
3. Before Stretching – Notice/ Ask
Now, before you start stretching have the mindset of asking your body what stretch it wants/ needs – or what movement it wants to make. Try not to let your mind supply this answer, just wait with an open mind and you may find yourself yawning and stretching in a certain way or an image or feeling of a certain stretch may pop into your head. Go with it and see how it feels.
4. Stretch Fluidly, Kindly
A lot of mind-over-body attitudes dictate that we conquer our bodies through discipline, forcing them to do things and lots of repetition. Although skills can be mastered this way, bodies don’t really want this attitude. It may work in that it can get great results in terms of body shape or performance, but longer-term in relation to our health, wellbeing, longevity and our relationship with our bodies (i.e. do they trust us?) it is much better to foster a collaborative relationship. So rather than “attacking” limitations with aggressive stretching, if we encourage the body to open, train it through healthy movements and show it how we would like to be physically through healthy actions and stretching, we will end up with a balanced, open, relaxed body and maybe even better health (both physically and psychologically) than we would have otherwise.
5. Let One Stretch Guide You to the Next
Sometimes it’s a great idea to have a routine or a list of stretches, as that helps us get a good balance and also not avoid the ones we dislike (and need the most perhaps). But another way of stretching that is more intuitive is just to do the stretch you feel your body needs, with no preconceptions of what should come next and then as that stretch comes to an end, notice what movement you feel like making or stretch you feel like doing.
I hope these tips help you. As I mentioned before, sometimes it’s hard to know what is a movement and what is a stretch, especially with Moving Stretch which is always both! But bodies don’t really care about terminology, as long as you’re not doing damage, over-stretching, sporadically binge-stretching or doing anything that causes pain, they just tend to enjoy being in the moment with you, exploring limitations, possibilities and sensations.
When we can move and stretch instinctively we also discover new opportunities for building a strong connection with ourselves and even a sense of safety and groundedness in the world, so I feel that this ability is especially helpful in the times we’re living through. If you have a friend who needs to hear this please do share the link to this post with them and there are some free videos on this site you can try also, to see if they help you connect to your body in an instinctive and personal way. I hope you are feeling connected to your body.