To Stretch or not to Stretch… That is the question
Many people associate stretching with greater flexibility. Flexibility and range of motion often promote the sense of comfort and freedom in movement. Physical mobility is also indicative of the mental clarity and/or lack thereof. Since everything is interconnected in the human body, I cannot speak of mental flexibility without addressing physical flexibility as well: one cannot claim to be a relaxed person if one’s muscles are tense.
First of all, when exploring your flexibility, please bear in mind that Qi Dao does not teach to stretch muscles or other tissues. When temporarily stretched, your muscles will act almost like rubber bands tightening up as soon as they are allowed to. This is called the “stretch reflex;” it challenges many athletes, martial artists and Yoga enthusiasts puzzled by the scant results of their stretching exercises despite the formidable efforts to gain more flexibility. Instead of stretching, Qi Dao suggests lengthening your muscles. This implies contracting the muscle and making it tired before allowing it to lengthen while exploring the range of your flexibility. Lengthening requires no physical force but rather effortless relaxation to enjoy greater flexibility.
At this point, you may need to take a brief excursion into the principles of Qigong Therapy in order to establish the groundwork for the following investigation of stretching. Just imagine for a moment a muscle that you would like to stretch: it may remind you of a rubber band – elastic and resilient. Some muscles may be stretchier than others; some are stiff and rather inflexible. What response can you expect from such a tissue if you start to pull it by the opposite ends? Not unlike the rubber band, it will most likely rebound and shorten after being forcefully stretched. Indeed, this is a well-known stretch reflex in action. The more you try to pull the poor muscle apart, the stronger it will fight against such a heavy-handed approach. This may shed light on the meager, if not disappointing progress of many martial artists, dancers and yogis when it comes to improving flexibility. This example may also suggest another, less invasive way to work with tense muscles. If you have been doing something that did not bring you the desirable results, consider doing something different for a change.
Now imagine being able to communicate to the muscle so that it can tell you how it feels and what it wants. If it is sore and tense, suppose that it is trying to tell you that it wants to experience something… may be it wants to experience being tense and short? With all due respect, you may have to oblige and assist the muscle in manifesting such an odd dream. In fact, you may regard the whole human being as a sum total of different parts that are constantly dreaming of something. This may also remind you of interpersonal relationships: the more you help others in manifesting their dreams, the more they will assist you in manifesting yours. Similarly, the more you help all of your muscles, organs and other parts to manifest their dreams, the more they will support you is manifesting yours. Plus, it would just feel great to have happy and healthy muscles as well as other parts of the body-mind, would it not?
How can you help your muscle manifest its dream? If you listen attentively to the body language through touch and observation, you may notice that the whole body-mind will respond differently to stretching versus lengthening of the muscle. The difference between stretching and lengthening is in the initial actions: the former begins with pulling the ends of the muscle apart from each other, the latter begins with bringing them closer together. When the muscle is allowed to shorten, its first response will be shock. If it could speak it might say, “Do you really mean it? Will you really let me shorten instead of stretching me over and over?” When it realizes that it no longer needs to spend any effort to stay short and tense, it will start letting go of tension. As soon as this happens, you may notice the sigh of release, which to many massage therapists indicates that the body-mind is ready to let go of the internal issues that were causing the external tension. Your muscle will begin to lengthen naturally in response to your enticing it to relax, as opposed to your former attempts to coerce it into relaxation, which only led to shortening it.
All of these explorations should be done slowly and gently. First, find the center of your comfort zone, and explore the extent of the comfort zone. Then find and explore the edges of your comfort zone. There is no need to dive off the edge of the comfort zone by pushing your body beyond what it is capable of at any particular time. With practice, you will learn to transcend the limitations imposed by pain and discomfort through shifting the attitude towards those edges so that you find the ways to manifest your dreams and aspirations lying beyond the edges. Being present at the edge of the comfort zone can allow you to expand your comfort zone and you may find yourself capable of experience more freedom each time you shift from perceiving the edges as obstacles to perceiving them as learning opportunities.
Lama Somananda Tantrapa