Every human being has his pet areas where he “grabs himself”—the back of the neck, the jaw, the knees, the abdominal muscles, the coccyx; no matter where the grasp takes hold, the muscles are held as tightly as possible, to keep the bones “fixed,” to give a sense of security in space.
—Mabel E. Todd, The Thinking Body
The deeper I get into the yoga class, the more obvious my particular physiological challenges become to me. I am unable to go easily from Pigeon Pose, an extreme hip opener that shows up any tightness in the piriformis muscle and hip flexors, directly into Downward Dog, a pose that uncovers tight hamstrings and overall body fatigue. Although my experienced yoga teacher provides me with modified postures to save my low back, where I can often feel a familiar pain, it’s almost as if I am stuck in my hips—my bones are set and I can’t let go.
I love yoga, I adore yoga, but why do I sometimes feel as rigid as a plank? And why am I so afraid of deep stretching? Fear is a perfectly reasonable safety mechanism in place to protect the body. But what is less helpful is judgement and/or comparing yourself with others around you. I myself have done this.
Sometimes I feel that after years of Pilates and yoga classes my low back problems, hip stiffness, and hamstrings tightness have not really changed much. Why is this? Perhaps it is how my body is made. Or perhaps, for some of us, it is as much personality as body type. Or, it may be natural that we focus on exercises that come effortlessly and thus are the most pleasurable to do over and over, rather than deal with problem or weak areas.
The body can be a measuring stick of personality
In my case, addressing problem areas really means taking the time to stretch them out. The more goal oriented I become with strength training, the more I hurry through my stretches. I flourish with intensity and challenge and do not have the patience for low-key, holistic activities such as stretching. Perhaps you can relate?
Ask yourself this: Do you value strength over flexibility? Strength is good, but with strength (in personality, as in the body) comes rigidity. Flexibility of the mind and the body expands us and can help connect us to others as well as to the world around us.
Stretch like a cat
Joseph Pilates was said to have studied the movements of animals; he believed that symmetry and lengthening of muscles were as important to body maintenance as developing pure strength. Have you ever watched how a cat is constantly stretching its limbs and flexing its spine? These movements are not second nature to us, as they are for animals. They seem to stretch for both function and sheer pleasure.
Perhaps we should start to view stretching not as exercise, but as a way of maintaining our bodies and rewarding them with a sensation of pleasure and relaxation. We don’t have to overthink as we stretch. This is not the moment to fault find or wonder why we’re so tight or stuck in our bones. We should let our bodies respond to stretching in their own way. And in their own individual time.
The ball as a stretching partner
One of the reasons I love using the ball to enhance the workout is that both large and small balls are great partners in muscle-specific static and dynamic stretches. The ball can help you adjust the amount of stretch. And the unique air-filled quality of the ball safely supports and relaxes the body so that the muscles involved can release and elongate rather than tense up involuntarily while trying to hold the body upright. By making a small adjustment in the position of the ball, you can ease yourself deeper into the stretch. For example, in a hamstring or a hip stretch you can start with a small sensation of stretch and then, after 20 seconds or so, roll the ball a fraction of an inch closer or further from the body, allowing the body to ease into the stretch. Ball stretches are luxurious. Using the tug of gravity to maximum benefit, the sleek sphere of the ball opens the body and helps you focus on the part of the body you are stretching.
Under-stretching is better than overstretching. Your muscles, tendons and ligaments support your body and protect your joints. Overstretching can cause areas of the body to move beyond safe range of movement. Pregnant women should not overstretch, as their bodies are producing the hormone relaxin and can be more flexible at this time, especially through the pelvis. Increased laxity in the joints increases the risk of joint injury.
The video in this blog uses a large ball to enhance your stretches, but there is no reason why an ottoman or short padded stool couldn’t be used instead. The stretches using the ball isolate one major muscle or muscle group and are designed not to put the low back in a position where stress on the pelvis, the spinal ligaments or the sciatic nerve could occur. The intermediate stretches rely on balance and some muscular strength to hold the body upright. Use caution if you have any knee issues. And as always prior to stretching, make sure you are warmed up before following this 10-minute video.