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What is Stretching?

I must be mad writing a short blog on this because it’s hugely complex. But It’s also inordinately fascinating and I feel, very relevant to yoga.  Have you ever thought about it…  What actually is stretching and why do we think we need to do it? This was a big area of discussion during my training with US based bio-mechanist and yoga teacher Jules Mitchell last year. Out of interest, I thought I’d google it and sure enough, hundreds, thousands of different answers, pieces of advice, unfounded claims.

One of the most common definitions is that stretching is ‘the process of placing particular parts of the body into a position that will lengthen, or elongate the muscles’. Really? If that was the case, given the amount of ‘stretching’ we do in yoga, wouldn’t we all look like Jar Jar Binks from Star Wars? Trailing our hamstrings behind us as we walk? At least I think he’s the one trailing things behind him…

Our tissues are truly amazing in composition, structure and mechanical behaviour. From an over-simplified bio-mechanical perspective we can say that a better definition of stretching might be ‘putting the tissues under tension’ (not load which is quite different). When we put our tissues under tension their composition, structure and mechanical behaviour are all changing, in many different ways. We might think of stretching not as lengthening or elongating muscles or tissues but rather, helping them to become more tolerant of tension.

So is this a good thing? Our amazing human bodies evolved to move, to lift things, to jump, to run, to reach for things. They evolved to pick up heavy objects in awkward positions and so on. Yet we have lost so much of this. In terms of stretching, yoga can be one of the ways that our tissues (and we ourselves in my view!) become more tolerant (of tension) depending on how we choose to practise. There are many other ways to achieve this, strength or resistance training to name but one. As those who come to my and other classes know, yoga in its entirety (not just purely through a physical lens) has many different benefits.

I’ve written this purely from a musculo-skeletal system perspective, but of course this cannot and does not work in isolation. Our nervous systems play a HUGE part in how we experience the sensation of stretch. Ask any hypermobile person and they will tell you that. Suffice to say even if we didn’t know, the biopsychosocial model that has emerged in the last 50 years is evidence enough that we’re so much more than just our physical selves. Much of what we experience in movement, in stretching, in health, in pain, depends on our environment, working/family conditions, anxiety and stress levels, our attitudes/beliefs.

I’m a firm believer in increasing tolerance ;-), in doing what we can to awaken to our true possibilities. In doing what we love and what makes us generally ‘feel’ better, connected on all levels and open to life. Right I’m off for a good stretch after all this computer stuff!