Last week, on the Stretch Therapy forums (ST Forums), forum member Tris posted a topic entitled ‘Great Insight While Stretching‘. The post is talking about the experiential dimension of a ‘big release’ in a stretch; and of the somewhat illusory nature of the sensations presenting immediately prior to the relaxation and re-patterning.
This made me think of the first time I really, tangibly had this experience – and as it was quite a profound experience for me, I thought I would tell my story..
It was probably 6 months, or so, into my joining the Advanced Posture & Flexibility class, at the ANU in Canberra. Originally I thought nothing much of stretching, and being of above average flexibility for a male human I couldn’t see too much benefit in it ‘other than as a warm-down’ after martial arts practice. I was eventually convinced to attend a Posture & Flexibility course by a combination of my martial arts teacher’s (Chris) recommendation that it might increase the speed and power my striking; by the fact that Jen (Chris’s partner) was a teacher and I had talked to her about the classes, and from reading the introduction to Kit‘s Stretching & Flexibility book – which offered other reasonably interesting reasons for doing flexibility training. I think, perhaps, that martial arts and strength training had put me ‘into my body’ enough so I was actually getting very intrigued by physical training of all sorts. So I enrolled.
I had done a beginner’s course (with Jen), after which I was invited to the Advanced class instead of Intermediate. I had found out that the classes were actually fun (who would have thought..)! I had found that, although my spine and shoulder flexibility was high, my hip flexibility had much work to do (and it’s always the spots that are tight for you that give the widest re-patterning).
It was around this stage (circa ~2007) that Kit was on his ‘Hip flexor stretching answers the Great Riddle of Life and Death; cures all diseases and adds two inches to your…height’ phase – i.e we did unrelenting hip flexors, hip flexor partials and warm-up for more hip flexor stretching for about 18 months.
I had already experienced that interesting physical sensation that when you contract a muscle on stretch, the Golgi Tendon Organs over-ride the stretch reflex in the muscle spindles and produce, seemingly miraculously, an increase in range of motion (and sometimes a decreased “pain/stretch” sensation). I had got used to this sensation, and was stretching how most people who use PNF methods do (i.e minor/moderate change in range of movement; few breaths and come out – nothing too profound).
Now, sometime very shortly after my arrival in the Advanced Class, Kit decided my purpose for being there was as his new guinea pig (aka ‘training partner’). This was actually a fantastic experience for me, as the way Kit stretched himself was different again from how the other teacher’s in the class stretched(the class was like a mini-workshop, in that everyone there was a teacher or had long experience with the method; and/or did other physical training) – and I got to digest this kinesthetic food, and my stretching practice was greatly nourished from it.
One class I was doing a stronger version of THIS hip flexor stretch (it looks kind of odd when you walk in on a room full of people doing this, if you’ve never seen it before), and was in a very strong stretch position, and starting to get the ‘it’s time to get the fuck outta here’ sensations building up.
Kit, sensing this, turned his head around and said something along the lines of “I know you want to come out right now, and I will certainly let you out at a moments notice, but if you have any energy left, do another contraction -and then 5 more deep, slow breaths”. Now, I am not sure if I said anything back, but for the stories sake let’s say I said “Are you fucking crazy, fool!? My fucking hip flexor will snap off, motherfucker!!” – as this was precisely my thoughts towards the suggestion to contract again instead of abandoning ship.
It was, also, precisely the sensations coming from my body. It felt like there was no way in hell I could go deeper without snapping my hip flexor clean off. Now, as a brief aside, I will mention that I have never actually injured myself stretching. IF you have insufficient body awareness and experience with stretching in the way that we do with the Stretch Therapy method, the potential is there. Also, Kit knew fair well that I had sufficient body awareness to do another contraction without risk of injury, and would definitely have let me out at a moment’s notice if I had asked (it is the person in the stretch who controls the stretch, in ST).
And then.. and then, the oddest thing happened. I decided to see what would actually happen if I contracted. I slowly and with full awareness contracted again, then with a deep breath and a massive sigh, let go and focused on deep breathing. The effect was a turning point for me, both physically and conceptually. I immediately dropped 1.5-2 inches (which felt like 6 in the moment), which was shocking enough, but more interestingly all the strong sensations (largely emotional and nervous system freak out, in retrospect – but felt ‘physical’ at the time) evaporated*.
I then, in partial euphoria, easily completed the 5 full breaths, before coming to another barrier of resistance much further down, and deciding to call it quits for that go. Walking around afterwards my entire bodymind was re-patterning, with sensations rushing around all over the place (especially spine, and obviously hip complex).
I have had many such experiences since then, but that marked, for me, the beginning of my ability to do stretching. Before I had just done ‘stretching’. They use the same postures, but occur in different universes.
One of the primary things I took away with me from this experience was that sensation can be illusory. Every thing of that magnitude I had felt in my body in my life up until that point I had taken as 100% accurate. Having the sensation evaporate in a moment whilst actually going into a deeper position was a real mindfuck for me, at that stage. “This throws my whole view of Reality into question!”. If that had seemed so real, and disappeared like that, maybe there were other such things of equal illusion in the body (the answer is ‘yes!’ and ‘lots!’)?
Along similar lines, I found, as have others, that people with low embodiment and body awareness label any strong sensation as ‘pain’. Part of the process in using stretching in this specific manner is to heighten the embodied awareness of the person (this, for me, is a higher benefit than achieving extreme postures and range of movement – which is also fine to work on, obviously). Via increasing one’s vocabulary in the language of the body (sensations), with awareness one can get a far more accurate assessment of what is ‘real pain’ and what is a ‘strong stretching sensation’ – and there are many, many finer layers of sensation than this. It is also possible to separate out what is an emotional barrier or fear (apprehension) barrier, and safely work on these.
*picture that scene in the Simpsons, where the Head of the Stonecutter’s sacrificially burns Homer’s officical Stonecutter™ underwear as he is being excommunicated from the group – and all the evil spirits howl and fly off in a cloud of smoke.