American culture has been slow to adopt Eastern practices in health, wellness and life perspectives. Our culture, for the most part, is one of extremes: socio-economically and in health. Economically some argue there is a widening gap between the poor and the wealthy. In terms of health there also seems to be a large gap, one that might be narrowing in some regards – between the ultra, health conscious and those who are over-weight and exposed to many chemicals and toxins without realizing what the impact is. Of course, these are not hard and fast definitions.
There are plenty of unhealthy, thin or very athletic people who are living on processed, GMO body-building supplements and others who might be considered over-weight (large boned 🙂 ) who drink raw milk, eat all organic and practice yoga. In many cases, size is not an indicator of health, but rather your mindset plus how many prescription and over the counter drugs you take.
This is where stretching, yoga and pilates come into play. How? Because these exercises challenge you to think about what you are doing the benefits spill over into many areas of your life (as opposed to hopping on a treadmill, elliptical or other stationary equipment which is often propped in front of tv’s in homes and health clubs, or popping pills for symptoms rather than figuring out what the cause is). I realize there are plenty of you out there who think intentionally while you are running on the machines, but it’s too easy to zone out or tune into the news or whatever is on the tv rather than noticing your thoughts. Stretching, Yoga and Pilates are mind-body exercises because they take thought and intention. Stretching, yoga & pilates are not just about moving the body, which they do, but they have many other advantages.
What is the difference between the three? Stretching is simply that, stretching. It’s pretty much body movement, kinesiology and lengthening the body. Yoga involves stretching, but also strength, balance and often yogic philosophy which could be from the teaching of any number of yoga “gurus” or self-made leaders who have created a following. The word yoga means union, and often the practice of yoga encourages you to form a union with whoever or whatever you desire whether it is Hinduism, Buddhism or Christianity. Pilates involves lengthening the body with very specific movement involving the core (abdominal) muscles. The movements are very specific, targeted to muscle groups and gaining control over those groups by increasing your range of motion and the number of repetitions. These are very simplistic definitions for the sake of saving space, all three practices help you become more flexible and increase your range of motion. Regardless of how you practice stretching, you’ll benefit in many ways:
- More flexibility: in body as your muscles and ligaments lengthen, and in mind as you practice patience to achieve that length in your muscles. Building patience through stretching can help you become comfortable with stillness in your mind and body.
- Ability to manage stress Often we are so busy in life we don’t take time to reflect on our day and take time to understand how we are responding to daily activities or illness. Stress can be caused by many things. When you take time to slow down, stretch and become familiar with your body and mind it gives you the space to process how you are feeling and how you might be responding to any circumstances. Stretching your muscles creates a controlled kind of stress on the body, when your brain identifies how to deal with this controlled stress, it teaches you skills to deal with everyday stress so you’re better prepared. This includes stress from pain, stretching in a controlled manner will help you deal with chronic pain. Often stretching can alleviate pain if it is rooted in muscles or joints that are stiff.
- Clearer thinking The busy-ness of life can be an obstacle to keeping healthy perspectives and actually seeing truth. When you clear away the clutter from schedules, work and relationships it is easier to understand what your priorities are, what you can do in situations, and what you should let go of.
- Pain management Controlled stretching helps your mind and body deal with stress, which pain creates. Often, just moving the body helps you realize where your pain is coming from and discovering movements that can alleviate that pain. I always encourage my students to explore movements rather than just striking a pose and holding it one way. Without movement in stretching, you stretch muscles only one way, maybe just like you might have been taught in elementary or middle school gym classes. Pain management improves when you learn breath exercises and specific stretches to ease tension in the whole body.
- Improved body awareness Life is busy and often our self-awareness is one of the first things we neglect. Whether it’s feelings of hunger, fatigue or pain, ignoring your body’s signals that something is wrong can become a chronic habit until something major happens. Stretching gives you the time and space to tune into your body and realize how you are feeling physically and emotionally. One of the most important elements to helping this happen is to do stretching in a relaxing environment away from any distractions that will keep you from focusing on what you are doing.
- Better sleep When your body is tense and muscles tight, it can keep you from relaxing at night to sleep. Many of us carry tightness in our muscles without realizing it. The shoulders, back and belly are the main areas most people carry stress. Simple stretching can help release that tension and help ease you into a peaceful night’s sleep.
- You’re less likely to get injured Bodies that don’t bend break. As people get older, their muscles and ligaments often get tight making it more likely they will break some bones if they fall. Keep your body limber and it’s more likely to bend or bruise a muscle (less traumatic than a broken bone) if you fall in a funny way rather than breaking at a weak point: often a hip, ankle or knee
- Make you happier overall Scientists have found that exercising only 7 minutes a day can help you feel better, lessening your chances of suffering from depression. Yes, stretching is exercising. It’s not for wimps, it’s for regular people, kids, athletes, anyone who just want to move their bodies, stretch and feel good about themselves. It’s exercise.
- Lose weight stretching helps all your body systems work more efficiently. It increases circulation, gets fresh oxygen to your muscles, brain and all body systems. Your body can eliminate toxins more easily and often that results in lost weight. Weight loss with stretching is often a nice side effect of managing stress, breathing better and stretching.
- Improved balance and posture As your muscles become more limber, it helps your body to balance. Stretching helps you to free up areas in the body that are rigid, it is these imbalances that make our posture out of alignment. When you stretch and free up areas of tightness, it allows your body to become more symmetrical and you’ll see almost instant improvement in your posture. It’s important to continue stretching to create new muscel memory, at least some simple movement everyday with longer sessions 3-4 times a week.
The goal of stretching does not have to be extreme, to do the splits or hold positions for minutes at a time. Simple, intentional movement everyday can benefit everyone and make it less likely you’ll get injured whether your are a high school football player or a weekend warrior. These benefits show up pretty quickly if you are consistent and patient. What do you find is the biggest challenge in doing more stretching? Time? Instruction? Unsure how to begin? Let me know in the comments below!