How to Stretch Safely

When you see a ballerina with her leg extended over her head, or a Chinese acrobat lying on her stomach with two feet touching the back of her head, or a yoga guru with one leg tucked behind his head, are you fascinated? Repulsed? Jealous? Awed? Bewildered?

These days, when I see extreme flexibility demonstrated, especially by a yoga teacher whose job is to help people learn to stretch their bodies SAFELY, I am angered and disgusted. Extreme flexibility at any joint, but especially at the hip joint, is NOT a good thing. This kind of flexibility does not equal health or fitness. An overly flexible joint is a destabilized joint, a joint that cannot function properly because the tendons and ligaments holding the joint together have been permanently overstretched. Muscles are designed to be flexible, but tendons and ligaments are not. Once they are stretched out, they do not bounce back.

As a yoga teacher myself, I try to help people of all ages care for their bodies safely. And by safely, I mean avoiding injury. Yoga (and stretching, in general) should make your body feel better. And any physical exercise which you practice regularly should enhance your body's fitness and functioning. If, instead, your practice makes your body weaker, less stable, and more prone to injury and pain, why would you continue? This is the case with OVERSTRETCHING.

Yoga teachers, and often students, seem to attach some magical wonderousness to demonstrations of extreme flexibility. This practice was originally developed and encouraged by Indian yoga masters who taught only young boys in their ashrams. These young boys were able to contort their supple bodies into pretzel shapes and thus today's concept of yoga was born. Never mind that the philosophy of yoga only called for a few gentle stretches in order to help the body relax comfortably in meditation.

Safely stretching the muscles means moving slowly and gently. When you feel resistance, stop. Hold the stretch and breathe deeply. This practice should NOT be painful. If you cannot hold a stretch for at least 30 seconds, then that stretch is too intense. Back off. Do less. And keep in mind that strengthening your muscles is just as important as stretching them. Taking your various joints through their full range of motion while bearing weight will both strengthen AND stretch your muscles.

Here's an example: Pick up a weight that is somewhat difficult for you to lift with one hand. Maybe an 8-10 pound dumbbell, if you are a woman. Maybe a 20 pound dumbbell if you are a man. Stand up straight and curl the weight to your shoulder. (This is a simple biceps curl.) Then lower the weight all the way down, allowing your elbow to fully extend. The lifting phase is your contraction and the lowering phase is both strengthening AND stretching the biceps. Just taking the muscle through its full range will accomplish this. Pretty easy, right?

The point I'm trying to make is that we need BALANCE. A balance of strength and flexibility. When we push our bodies to either extreme, we end up with injury, pain, and disfunction. All undesirable! Do not worship at the pretzel factory. Join me in celebrating a healthy range of motion with strong muscles and stable joints.