We all know the benefits of stretching your physical body. Although research has not definitively proven a link between stretching and injury prevention, some studies have shown that stretching can improve joint range of motion. Anyone who has limited mobility in any joint for any reason will understand the importance of full range of motion. Of course, movement in our bodies involves more than just muscle, but when we talk about stretching we are almost always referring to muscles and their ability to perform in the way we want them to. Every movement requires more than one muscle. In general, muscles are paired with both members of the pair playing an equally important role in joint mobility. For example, when performing a bicep curl moving the elbow joint, the bicep muscle shortens while it’s partner, the triceps muscle, lengthens. If either muscle is tight or weak, the range of motion in the elbow joint will be limited. This is a pretty simplistic view since there may be other factors at work here, but the point I want to make is that strengthening needs to accompany stretching in order to improve range of motion. So just as more than one muscle is needed for movement, more than one discipline is needed to optimize that movement. Isn’t it great to know that both yoga and Pilates provide stretching and strengthening to help us with the functional demands on our bodies as we move through our everyday lives.
But just as muscle movement requires more than just stretching, so moving through our lives requires more than muscle movement. When using the term “flexibility” in connection with muscle movement, we tend to think in terms of the limitations of our ability to stretch. For example, if you can’t touch your toes you think you’re not very flexible. If I had a dollar for every time I have heard someone say, “I can’t do yoga because I’m not flexible” I could probably retire to the Bahamas by now. Thinking that way misses the point. Yoga and Pilates are both practices, not goals to strive for. We practice to improve, not to achieve some ideal shape. Every body is different. Optimum range for one person may not be the same as the next no matter how much he or she works at it. Still even the most rigid person with the tensest of muscles can improve their range of motion with regular practice. Sometimes just learning how to relax can allow a movement to expand in a way that could not have been envisioned before.
Sometimes it’s more than physical inflexibility that limits range of motion. Fear can hold us back. Especially following injury. Once we’ve experienced pain in connection with a certain movement, it can be difficult to convince oneself that it’s worth trying to move again. And, in fact, moving the same way may not be a good idea or even possible. It may well be that a new technique for movement must be learned. This, too, can be traumatic. It can make you long for the simpler way things used to be. A friend and I were talking today about hindsight and how distorted our view of the past can become. We envision a kinder, gentler time when things were so much better than they are now. But often our memories are faulty. And even when they aren’t, sometimes that old way is just not possible today or maybe ever again. Enter the need for another kind of flexibility – the need to stretch and strengthen one’s mind. Overcoming the fear requires not only the stretch of a leap of faith into the unknown, but also the strength to keep moving forward even when the path is unclear. As I’ve journeyed through this latest recovery, there was a time in the beginning when I thought I would never get back the ability to move the way I had in the mythical pain-free days of yesteryear. And, in fact, some movements have not come back fully, but with patience and a large dose of self-compassion, much has been restored. And, for the most part, it all feels much better than it has for a long time. So the stop and start, on again/off again, push and pull of maintaining a practice is now paying off. Some days are better than others, but I’m so grateful for my renewed capacity in so many areas that I can accept whatever limitations remain for now and go with the flow.
Stretching the mind can be limited by more than just fear. Another common obstacle is habit. How often have you heard, “but we’ve always done it this way . . .” That’s another statement that could provide for comfortable retirement if payment was made each time it was uttered. Changing habits is another form of mental stretching that also requires strength. According to the laws of physics, every movement in the universe resists change unless or until it becomes subjected to an external force. Another way of putting this in human terms is that we would all rather stay the same until we are forced to change by something previously unforeseen. Injury, illness, accident – these are all external forces that necessitate change. Even when faced with these instabilities, though, change still requires us to stretch and strengthen. Despite our loud howls of disapproval, the universe will move on with or without us. It’s nothing personal. It’s just the way things are. Learning to become more flexible mentally as well as physically just might help when it comes to accepting change whatever the cause.
When speaking of yoga and Pilates, I often refer to the mind-body connection that these practices help to promote. For me this means that learning the principles and practice of stretching and strengthening the body also helps improve internal strength and flexibility. It has been said that yoga builds strength from the inside out. We never get to the end of a practice. There is always something new to learn and try. Sometimes what we learn is how to accept our limitations. But also we can learn that we all have more inner strength than we think we do. Through practice, we can learn to engage it in ways that we might not have thought possible. Through the years I’ve observed in myself and others that if one keeps practicing yoga in any kind of consistent way it will take you somewhere that you didn’t envision before you started. For me, that’s a stretch in the right direction.