Stretching Is a Mental Thing: The Real Cause of Your Inflexibility

Stretching is a mental thing.

We think it’s just a physical thing. We crank and hold our bodies and think we are doing some great good for it. We’re not. We’re actually doing it all wrong.

photo courtesy of The Motley Fool

But who can blame us? We really don’t know any better. We are taught:

“The harder you try, the better you will do”

“Push yourself to your utmost limit”

“No pain, no gain”

All of these statements are fundamentally true and they are words to live by. However, it is extremely critical that we examine these commonly accepted truths before we begin to apply them to our lives (and our bodies). We do ourselves a great disservice by simply taking things at face value.

It is our duty to ask questions like:

“How should I try? In which area should I be focusing my effort? Should I just be trying to reach my goal? Or, should I be trying to watch the way that I try? Should I be trying to try different approaches? Should I be trying to make my tries more meaningful, more thoughtful, more refined?”

“Which limit are we referring to? Should I be focusing on the obvious limit of each circumstance, or should I be searching for the less obvious underlying limitations from which many of my limits originate? And how should I push? Do I just focus on pushing against the limit? Or should I be paying attention to the way that I am pushing? Are there inherent limitations in my style of pushing? Shouldn’t I be trying to push those limits?”

“Which pain are we referring to? Is it the obvious pain of pushing myself beyond my current capacity? What about the pain of having to accept that I’ve been doing things wrong? How about the pain of changing the way that I try and the way that I push? Does having to fight the mental battle of changing my habits count as pain? Which type of pain is most useful? Which type of pain really yields the most gain?”

Phew. That’s some heady stuff.

Let’s get back and apply this cyclical language to something as basic as stretching.

Let’s look at these phrases one by one and try to apply them more creatively:

“The harder you try, the better you will do”

Try very hard to not yank on your body. Try very hard to stop forcing yourself into an uncomfortable position. Try to let go of what you believe to be “proper form”. Try extremely hard to be honest with yourself about when your muscles are actually starting to resist.

Your musculoskeletal system is like a chain. When you pull on a chain, the weakest links will stretch first. Likewise, when you pull on your body, the point of least resistance will move first.

photo by Toni Lozano

Think about this the next time you’re struggling so hard to reach the area that is causing you discomfort. You’ll never get to it by gritting your teeth through your habitual stretches just a bit longer. Try to change your approach. Try to scan the rest of your body and find out where you feel locked, rigid, or stiff. These areas represent the hardest links of the chain. You need to identify them. Keep doing this mental scanning. Keep using your brain to sense and feel where you are gripping and holding. This is an entirely different type of trying. It’s not a physical effort; it’s 100% mental.

“Push yourself to your utmost limit”

Instead of exerting all of that physical energy on pushing and pulling and cranking and yanking, try working in a different area. Try pushing yourself to change your approach.

Try using your brain as an observer instead of a judge. This is the key to effective stretching.

Your brain tells you to keep pulling and fighting because you think that’s what you’re supposed to do. Push yourself to direct the attention of your brain differently. Push yourself to be meticulous in scanning every nook and cranny in your body for areas of tension, holding, and disconnection. Believe it or not, there are most likely entire muscles and/or segments of muscle in your body that you have no idea how to use. Your brain literally has not formed a solid connection to them. To put it in sobering terms, you are partially paralyzed. Push yourself to discover these parts of your body—they are in desperate need of your help.

“No pain, no gain”

With any type of body training, a commonly held belief is that you need to push till you drop. There’s obviously pain associated with that. Whether or not it is necessary is a different discussion.

But there are many different types of pain. Ask yourself if you are avoiding certain types of pain. It’s much easier to keep putting your body through the wringer than it is to hold your psyche to the fire.

For instance, we all know how difficult it is to have to work extremely hard (and sometimes blindly) at something before seeing any results—there’s a lot of mental suffering associated with that. Or how about breathing fully into every corner of your body? This practice can bring on extreme agitation. What about the frustration of knowing that you need to stop what you’re doing and completely change your approach before you are able to locate, move, and release the deeply held tension within your body?

You literally need to sit there, watch it, and learn it before you can begin working with it.

It’s as if you’re starting from scratch. There’s something agonizing about having to put your head down and “start over”.

So, the next time you’re feeling like you need to get the funk out of your body, shift your focus away from habitual, mechanical movement and try putting your brain to work instead. Allow your observations to guide your movement. Never mind what you’ve been taught about correct form and whatever else. If you are really using your brain to quietly observe what’s happening, you will discover that the most miniscule physical movement produces an enormous effect. When you are tuned in, you will see that it is the subtlest of movements that reach the deepest areas of tension in your body. This discovery should keep you safe from all of the injuries that come from a lack of awareness.

And if you come to realize that you’ve been trying ineffectively, pushing in all the wrong places, and subjecting yourself to unnecessary pain, then fret not! Rejoice! You are on your way to better places.

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