Why stretch when you can load!
I often hear from my patients: "I stretch to relieve the pain, but the effects don't last long," or "I have to roll out my quads every day." We often think stretching is the answer to common aches, pains and tightness in the body. Why are we stretching and why are the effects short-lived?
For this discussion, I am mainly referring to traditional at-home stretch exercises, rather than yoga. Yoga has tremendous benefits for the entire body and soul, and I incorporate it into my daily practice. An emphasis on breath, flow, strength and length connects the limbs, mind and heart thus creating integrated expansion versus simple stretching.
Typically, stretches at home are small pieces of the puzzle that do not target the real reason why you may be feeling "tight" or uneasy in your body. You see, we are a sitting society that folds over and towards our work in ways that compress the front (ventral) side of the body, while overstretching and under-facilitating the back (dorsal) side. This limits the body's natural ability to disperse the constant downward force of gravity.
Our modern postural adaptation is actually increasing the compression and accelerating its effect throughout the body. Sitting also turns off essential postural muscles, such as hamstrings, glutes and back muscles. Simple stretches (think of forward folds, where you passively reach for your toes to "stretch" tight lower back) can accentuate already lengthened, weak hamstrings, glutes and lower back.
When your body absorbs forces in focal areas, then vital blood supply and nerves that give you life and freedom to do what you love will be compressed and compromised. What else contributes to this compression and tension? Posture, stress, emotions, acidity, chronic and acute injuries...
What I am getting to is this: your body needs, and I mean needs! to be lifted, elevated, expanded, and decompressed to thrive. Simple stretches are local short-term solutions for a global problem. Stretching may provide relief for a short time, but doesn't target the real reason why you may be feeling hamstring "tightness", low back pain, headaches, knee pain, sciatica, neck pain etc. The body is meant to disperse forces across larger muscles groups called chains. Think about it this way: we are actually 1 muscle held in over 600 bags, instead of a group of individual muscles that perform specific, independent tasks. That is why posture is so important. Posture is an endurnace sport. Training yourself to stand up tall will bring more chains of muscles into action.
Another question to consider around stretching is this: What prevents you from reverting to those habitual patterns of "tightness"? What I have found is that loading (engaging) and lengthening your tissues at the same time - eccentric loading - connects these chains of muscles and beneficial tension across the whole body in a healthy way (rather than at a focal point (joints) that may already be over-stressed). Practiced regularly and over time, this will make you stronger, more flexible and even taller.
The practice that I teach and live by on a daily basis is Foundation Training. Many of you have heard of FT, read the book, watched the DVD's, or taken a class, but to get the full benefits you really need to live it every day. Changing your relationship to chronic holding patterns and breath patterns takes time and dedication. The key is to remember to practice more often throughout the day and not to forget that you have the ability to consciously rewire your patterns. You can do it!