The desire to stretch is a natural impulse – you stretch to relieve tiredness or stiffness after being in one position too long. As a form of exercise stretching is easy, enjoyable and safe, the perfect antidote to physical and mental tension. Stretch is good for your entire body, above all for the spine. It releases tightness in the muscles. It improves circulation and relieves stress, leaving you fresh and relaxed.
By practising regularly, you will not only undo recent muscle tensions but, gradually, long-standing ones as well, so that slowly your posture and your whole range of movement will improve.
Stretch is, however, far more than the undoing of tension. It is the dynamic extension of the muscles, while you focus your attention on the movement of your entire body, rather than just working on a particular group of muscles or a particular joint. This concentration brings insight and awareness of the way your body moves, and you will find your physical, mental and emotional energy reviving.
Breathing deeply is part of stretching. When you stretch to relieve fatigue, you tend to yawn at the same time, taking a deep breath in followed by an out-breath at the end of the stretch. This link between the movement of your body and your breath is developed when you stretch regularly. Take care not to hold your breath and to breathe slowly and evenly. After a while breathing as you stretch will come naturally. Each of the seven stretches in this section is designed to stretch and strengthen your spine, thereby energizing your entire body. The order in which you practise the stretches is important. Not only do the opposing movements have to counter each other, but the strong outward stretches must be balanced by more centred positions.
You should therefore learn the stretches in the order in which they appear in this section and practise each stretch every day. Once you are familiar with them, you can put them together into programmes. The intensity of the stretch will vary enormously from one individual to the next, and
it is important to understand that keeping your body supple and relaxed is not a competition. In fact, however fit and flexible you are, you should start with the ‘less stretch’ movements to ensure you are feeling and understanding the stretches correctly. Regularity of practice, not intensity of practice, is the key to success.
Read the following points before you start to stretch.
They are important if you want to stretch in complete safety and get the most out of your practice.
1. If you are healthy, you can stretch. The simple ‘less stretch’ variations of the basic positions should be possible for anyone to do. If you have any doubts at all, take medical advice before you start to practise.
2. Go slowly. If you decide to follow the basic programme, learn the ‘less stretch’ positions for each stretch first, so that your body gets used to the correct movements. The ‘more stretch’ positions demand strength and. Even if you have been doing other forms of physical exercise and your body is already very supple when you start stretching, you should practise the basic stretches daily for some months before you try anything more advanced.
3. Practise the stretches in the order in which they are presented. Try to learn them in sequence, not picking out one or two in isolation.
4. In many of these positions you keep your legs straight. To prevent yourself from pushing into the backs of your knees and injuring your ligaments, pull up your kneecaps by tightening your front thigh muscles.
5. Wear loose clothing, whatever feels comfortable. Leotards and tights are not essential.
6. Work on a non-slip surface with bare feet so that you can stretch your toes for maximum contact with the floor.
7. Do not practise immediately after eating.
8. Rest when your body is tired. Your stamina will increase as you practise regularly.
9. Relax your muscles and never force your body into a stretch. As you extend your limbs, your muscles elongate away from your spine, enabling your joints to move freely.
10. Go into each movement on an out-breath and then breathe normally. Do not hold your breath, as this causes tension and strain. As you come up out of the stretch, breathe in.
11. Jump your feet into position, when you need to take them wide apart. If you are pregnant or elderly, however, it is probably more sensible simply to step into position. The instructions suggest how far apart you should take your feet. These distances are only approximate and may be varied according to your height.
12. Hold each stretch for as long as you can comfortably continue releasing your muscles. At first this will be only a few seconds, but as you begin to practise regularly the time you can hold the position will gradually increase.
13. Be conscious of the way your spine moves as you stretch. Feel the movement along the back of your body as well as the front. If this is difficult ask someone to help you with a pole (see Section Four).
14. Do each side stretch on both sides, holding the position on the second side for the same length of time as on the first. You may find you tend to stretch more on your stronger side; make sure you work on both sides evenly.
15. Come up out of the positions with as much care as you go into them. To come out of a stretch, repeat the movements you used to go into it, in reverse order. You should take extra care with the upside down positions, as coming out of them too fast could put excessive strain on the vertebrae of the neck.