Do You Have ‘Stretching Guilt’?
Do you have ‘Stretching Guilt, the guilt of not stretching regularly? Perhaps you wonder if a healthy dose of Stretching Guilt would motivate you to to stretch more? What if it just took five minutes? You can do that! I have been guilty of running off after class without stretching and this month I’m committing to five minutes of stretching after class or before bed. I may stretch longer, but five minutes minimum. Want to join me?
The Brain is in Control
Stretching means to reach beyond oneself, extending past perceived limits. Whether stretching the body, mind, or another aspect of yourself, when you want to reach past your limits, the key is what your mind thinks you can achieve. Stretching physically is no different — it is also controlled by your brain and your perceived limitations.
It is well documented that under anesthesia, the body relaxes such that even a man with rigid c-shaped back lay totally flat on the table under anesthesia. On waking up, his body returned to his former, rigid, hunched over position!
That doesn’t mean forcing anything. On the contrary, it means the way to achieve flexibility is through regular stretching and deeply relaxing. Maybe there’s a lesson in that persistence for the other areas of my life I wish to stretch.
Even if you’re running out after ballet class, a few quick stretches while your body is still warm can help lengthen your muscles and increase your range of motion, improving your flexibility and keep you dancing longer. Plus, it won’t take long. I’m not a believer in sitting in stretches for long periods of time. You can overstretch your ligaments that way, and put yourself in danger of injury. After being in a stretch for longer than 60 seconds, a muscle shuts down and takes about thirty minutes to become fully functional again. That’s another reason to stretch after rather than before a class or workout, or at the end of the day before bed.
How to Stretch
With any kind of stretching, it’s important to listen to your body. If you feel a stretch, and it feels good, great. If you feel pain, back off, ease out, that’s too far. When you stretch, invite your muscles to release and relax, don’t demand. Getting injured will only set you back and slow your progress. It doesn’t help your body to inflict pain. Pain just makes muscles tense up to try to protect themselves.
I write this as a dancer and a ballet teacher, not a physical therapist. If you have injuries or pain, go to a doctor. Skip any of these stretches that aren’t for you. For each stretch, breathe in and out three to ten times fully and completely, imagining deep relaxation in the area where you feel the stretch, softening and releasing as you exhale. This is one of the things I learned from my yoga training. For all my years of ballet, it wasn’t until yoga taught me to breathe and release that I began to see more results in my flexibility. Be kind to your body – you only get the one – and
new parts are very expensive.
- Butterfly stretch or Baddan konassana. Sit on the floor, bend your knees out to the side and bring the soles of your feet to touch. If your knees are very high, sit on a blanket or pillow. Hold on to your ankles with your hands and sit up tall with your back straight. If that is difficult, try putting your hands on the floor behind you to help you sit up on your ‘sit bones’. If you feel a stretch already, stay there. Otherwise come forward with your back flat, lengthening out the top of your head, and lengthening the front of your body as well. You may find more openness in your hips by opening the soles of your feet as if they were a book on your lap. You can also round forward to feel a slightly different stretch. When you’ve breathed there for a minute or so, open your legs to:
- A la seconde stretch. (Pictured above.) Open your legs wide, roll your inner thighs back and sit up tall. Don’t judge yourself. However wide you open your legs is fine. This isn’t a contest, it is just where you are today. Place your right arm across your lap and the left in fifth position and bend sideways to the right over your right leg. Try to keep the your left sit bone on the floor as you bend right. You may feel a stretch along the side of your body and along your inner thighs. Bend right and breathe, then do the left side, and then put your hands on the floor in front of you and crawl your hands forward bring your body forward between your legs. As you come forward, anchor your legs firmly to the floor and roll your inner thighs towards the ceiling. Imagine your legs are spiraling upwards and outwards from your hips as you breathe and release.
- Ankle to Knee or Thread the Needle Lie down, bend your knees and put your feet flat on the floor. Put your right ankle across your left knee, flex your right foot to protect your knee and open your right knee to the side. (Don’t forget to flex your right foot!) You may feel a stretch along the outside of your right hip. One of the biggest areas of tension, stretching your hips is enormously helpful to the health of your knees and back. One muscle that gets a stretch in this position is your piriformis muscle, located on the outside of your hip and which acts as a stabilizer for the standing leg among other things. It can get very tight if you do a lot of walking or standing. If this is enough of a stretch, stay here. If you want to increase the stretch, reach your left hand on the outside of your left thigh, and your right hand through your legs (‘threading the needle’) to the inside of your left thigh and use your hands to bring your left thigh towards your chest. Lengthen your spine and try to keep your tailbone on the floor You can use your right elbow to open your right knee for an additional stretch. Once you have stretched there for a few breaths, it might feel nice to allow your legs to fall towards the left side so that your right foot is now flat on the floor. Roll your body open to the ceiling and press your right knee away from you to feel a stretch in the front of your hip.
- Hip Flexor stretch lying down. Lie on your right side, bend your left leg and hold your left ankle or foot with your left hand. Gently pull your heel towards your butt to feel a release in the front of your hip and thigh. To increase the stretch, lengthen your knee away from you and lengthen your tailbone, knitting your ribs towards your hipbones.
- Hamstring stretch Lie on your back and place both feet flat on the floor. Extend your right leg 45 degree away from the floor, towards the ceiling, lengthening behind your knee and opening the hamstring muscles along the back of your leg. If you cannot straighten your leg, lower your leg towards the floor until you can get your knee all the way straight. If that is too easy, work with the leg at 90 degrees if you can. If you want to use a belt or yoga strap, loop the belt around your foot and hold an end of the belt in each hand. The idea of the belt is to support the leg, allowing for relaxation. Using your hands as a support is fine too. A belt is not intended as a torture device! As your leg relaxes and opens you may move the leg slightly higher. But rather than focus on height, work on lengthening the leg as well as your torso. Square your hips, and enjoy a moderate stretch, while actively pushing into the strap or into your hands as you hold the leg steady. Whether you have a strap or can hold your leg with your hands or not, breathe deeply wherever your leg is, then switch sides. There may be a difference between your two legs, that is normal. Hold for a few breaths and let it go and you’re done!
Stretching is asking the muscles to lengthen. It is an invitation, a welcoming, a yawn, a request for some opening. It is an alluring overture, a gentle suggestion, an easy enticement. Listen to your body to know when to push and when to back off, and then let it all go and trust that the work is done. You may not reach your goal today. Change happens over time. But notice the small differences in your body right now, after just a little bit of stretching. You may breathe easier and deeper, feel less stressed, more relaxed, feel more attuned with your body, more focused. Whether you’re heading for bed or work or to the barre, there’s no guilt today.
Please see the Classes page for my current teaching schedule. I’d love to see you at the barre!