The Space Beyond Your Comfort Zone

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.

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The Way Forward

In last week’s blog post I talked about acknowledging changes in our lives and finding the resilience necessary to accept the changes and adapt to the new reality whatever it might be.  Acceptance is the first step toward moving forward.  But what comes after that?  Depending on the type of setback, it’s length, your age and a host of other variables, the next steps will be different for each of us.

For some of us, the idea of returning to any kind of routine might seem impossible.  The change feels so great we may feel like the darkness is permanent and unyielding.  We can easily sabotage ourselves and become our own worst enemies.  For example, if you’ve fallen and suffered an injury you might develop a debilitating fear of a recurrence.  This might keep you from making even simple moves toward regaining your strength.  We’ve all heard the expression “get back on the horse that threw you”.  This can be a totally daunting prospect.  And, in fact, might not be appropriate in all cases.  Still, inertia can become a wall and finding a way through or around that wall can be overwhelming.  In previous blog posts I’ve often talked about the difficulty of resuming activity, especially exercise, after being away for a while for whatever reason.  Of course, it is important to take steps to avoid the circumstances caused the fall, but that shouldn’t become an excuse to stop you from all activities.

On the flip side of that coin, there are those of us who throw caution to the wind and get back on that horse way before we should.  Perhaps we have not fully recovered from the injury, illness or whatever precipitated a change in our lives.  Some of us might even have the hubris to believe that our case is special and the usual rules don’t apply.  This type of thinking might lead one into that “danger zone” referred to in an earlier post when your energy begins to feel restored and you start to feel like your former self again.  This is a place I know all too well.  The desire to return to the way things were overshadows the reality of the way things are.  Returning too quickly can lead to discouraging setbacks.  At best, the process of recovery will take that much longer or, at worst, may be jeopardized altogether.

Actually both cases call for the same prescription – courage, patience and above all the decision to go on with your life taking whatever baby steps are necessary to follow through on that choice.  Interestingly, in my opinion the same leap of faith is required wherever you’re at.  If you are the fearful type described above, the decision means taking that first dangerous step back into your life no matter how scary that might be.  If you want to start moving again, the first step is the hardest.

After my back surgery a physical therapist gave me some exercises to do right away.  They were pretty simple movements, but they were difficult at first.  Among them was the suggestion to walk for 5 minutes several times a day.  For a person who used to run ultramarathons that might sound easy, but just getting up and overcoming the initial stress of moving was itself a formidable task.  My doctor had given me the simple instruction, “If it hurts, stop; if you think it’s going to hurt, don’t do it.”  Sounds reasonable enough, right?  For the fearful person, that initial hurt might be enough to encourage stopping altogether.  In fact, I even found myself thinking I would never overcome that initial discomfort.  But what I discovered was that if I just got started, I would eventually start to feel better.  If I began to feel pain I stopped for a few minutes.  The pain would usually stop and I could resume the walk.  Or I could simply try again later.  I would set a timer for 5 minutes, stop it when I needed to wait for pain to subside and start it again when I started walking again.  It might take me half an hour to do 5 minutes worth of walking but I quickly learned that the more I walked, the easier it got.  I noticed too that once I got going and my body adjusted to the movement, the initial soreness would usually subside.

Our bodies are made for movement.  Fortunately, the medical profession has recognized that movement following a trauma like surgery is actually beneficial.  Anyone who has had surgery recently knows that patients are required to get up and move as soon as possible.  Although rest and sleep are important to the healing process, retraining your body to move as much as it can is also essential.  Still it’s not easy to overcome the many excuses that loom in front of the starting line.  That’s where the decision-making process comes in.  Making that decision to try to move even for a few minutes takes courage.  Beyond that is the resolve to follow through even if it the first few efforts are unsuccessful.  I knew the physical therapist would not have told me to walk if it wasn’t the right thing to do.  But I also knew I had to abide by my doc’s advice and stop if it hurt.  Even that was hard for me having been a person schooled in the old notion of “no pain, no gain.”  So both starting and stopping required decisions.  I had to consciously remind myself that extremes in either direction would not help my recovery.  That meant believing that I would, in fact, recover and that the directions given provided the road map to get there.

Bottom line – moving forward is not rocket science.  Have patience and be kind to yourself.  Do what is recommended and stick to it until you’ve healed.  After that be mindful in all your activities and avoid being careless, head strong or just plain stupid.  If it hurts, stop; if you think it’s going to hurt don’t do it.  That’s not an invitation to do nothing.  It just means pay attention.  Simple, right?  But not easy.

Making the decision and taking that first step is the hardest part.  Especially if you’re not used to moving in the first place.  If you keep at it, no matter what you are doing will get easier.  Although we often think of stress as a negative, your body needs a certain amount of stress to adapt to a change.  The trick is to know when to back off.  As acknowledged in last week’s post, life may be different after a set-back.  Those differences need to be honored.  But that shouldn’t be a license to drop out.  No matter what has changed, there will still be things you can do.  Give those positives a chance to shine and they will lead you forward.