Flexibility, Movement

Stretching the Senses

In the spirit of this week’s theme of incorporating the senses more deeply into all aspects of life, here’s a look of how it connects with flexibility.

First of all, I’d like to say a heartfelt thank you to my flexibility mentor Stacey Nemour for very generously sending me a newer version of her stretching straps very recently.

I’ve worked with them in the course of this week, and they are helping me in more ways than I expected, which I will expand (ha) on a bit more below.

I have learned over the past year that flexibility is so much more than just a matter of ‘doing stretches’.

Moving your body in ways that gently challenge the edges of your comfort zone (and being smart about the form and sequence, too!) will definitely help to expand your range of motion, but other senses make a difference just as well.

Feeling safe is one of the prerequisites of your body/mind to allow flexibility. If we feel unsafe (in any sense of the word), our body (and mind) will tense up in a protectionist reflex.

Here are a few ways you can use this consciously to your advantage:

Sight: Visual input makes a difference. Stacey’s advice is to create a ‘safe’ space for working on your flexibility – keep it simple, uncluttered, clean, add some soft light if you can and – if you’re as sensitive to visual input as me – I make sure to have a window in sight, and to go easy on the bright colours. No TV, and no phone in the line of sight preferably. Less is more.

Sound: I like to do my flexibility practice in a quietish environment, or with an interesting podcast running not-too-loudly in the background – depending on whether I am working with a stretching video or on my own. I know some people like to have music playing in the background, but that personally distracts me too much, as I instinctively start to choreograph if I enjoy the music 🙂

Smell: I prefer to air out the room I am in and have as much fresh oxygen circulating in the apartment as possible before starting a deep stretching/workout session – it boosts my energy, and I know I will be breathing deeply throughout.

Taste: For some reason I am more inspired/motivated to work on my flexibility after I’ve brushed my teeth.. or when I have eaten a tangerine and/or something with lemon – but that could be just me (and/or the energizing scents, see the point above!)

Touch: As mentioned before, this might be one of the sensory inputs that makes the most difference in our flexibility/state of mind. Only when the body feels safe will it grant us more range of motion. This ties in very closely with proprioception – and thus also with our sense of balance, of gravity, pressure, and temperature – as well as other more subtle senses.

Ways for the body to feel physically more safe include:

Grounding – having literal contact with the earth, and/ or the floor. The more grounded we are the safer we feel. This is one of the reasons why changing the position of a stretch in such a way that we have more contact with the floor really helps: eg lying on our back – and having the legs higher than our head (legs/feet/hips propped up on a chair/block/foam roller or using a strap – unless these positions feel less safe to you personally, in this case simply try the reverse and prop up your head/torso instead) Another way to use gravity as your friend is by simply taking a bit of time to lie on the floor for a bit comfortably before doing anything. All of this can help enormously to feel more ‘open’.

Breath – using breathing work is one of the most direct and practically applicable ways to consciously alter our state into one of deeper relaxation/rest.

Posture – everything is connected, in every (ha!) sense. Your state of mind is linked to how you hold our body, and how you hold your body will impact your state of mind. The influence goes both ways. Furthermore, just as with strength training there is a ‘radiation effect’ to relaxation as well. If you tense your glutes and abs, and if you clench your fists, the strength radiates into other parts of your body. Feel what happens if you do the exact opposite, and experiment with different modalities and body parts: for instance, while in a stretch, relax your hands  – what does it do? Now open your hands and spread your fingers as wide a you can – did anything shift?

Temperature – Feeling cold can make it harder to physically let go, so I’d advise to either dress warm enough (layers!) or find a slightly warmer spot to stretch. I personally find that doing flexibility work – especially when working the upper body and lower back – generates lots of inner heat though, so I dress in layers and adapt as I go.

Props – A few of the many reasons I enjoy working so much with props (be it yoga blocks or stretching straps) are:

  • The bio-feedback of a strap (or my hands, like for instance when holding a foot) will immediately grant me more range of motion in my joints – Especially if the feedback is a soft(!) touch, or a strap that feels sturdy (ie safe), yet soft to the skin.
  • The gentle (or stronger) resistance of a bendy strap allows me to work on my strength while my limb/torso finds itself in new-to-me shapes and ranges of motion. Building strength and coordination safely in tandem with flexibility is the most direct way to ‘save’ and retain newly found ranges of movement over time.
  • As mentioned above, propping my feet/hips up on a block, or using my hands can help either deepen a position or lighten it , and it changes the influence of gravity, which allows me to adapt my routine minutely to how my body feels on a given day/moment.
  • Using a prop/strap also allows me to either rest my hand/arms completely, or free them up so I can use them instead to spot myself using a wall/barre/sofa. This helps to increase my sense of safety and balance even more, which in turn will allow me to go even deeper into stretches without added effort or strain.

Soul – Speaking kindly to ourselves (and/or having a patient and knowledgeable teacher/coach who models this for us), especially when challenging ourselves to expand beyond our inner limitations, can make an incredible difference in increasing not only our capabilities but  our very potential for growth. If we can find safety in your own company (by speaking kind words, as well as thinking kind thoughts!), and make sure to seek out the company of people (or animals/plants :)) we can trust, the seemingly impossible can be made into a reality over time.

Attitude – Cultivating attentiveness, kindness, persistence, patience, love, gratitude and generosity are incredibly powerful antidotes to anxiety in all it’s forms. It aligns very closely to the way of the Stoics.

Nature – Go outside. I’m not kidding. It is a free and immediate re-set for your consciousness, and a respite for your senses.

Sleep – When we are rested adequately, excessive input and daily stressses can be processed bit by bit. If sleep is lacking, then tension will start to build up over time, and we’ll feel increasingly less safe as a consequence. Sleep is one of the most important – and often underestimated – factors of inner and outer safety and health.

All of these factors combined will help you feel more flexible – instantly as well as increasingly over time – in body, mind and soul. Enjoy!

PS: If you’d like to try Stacey’s online flexibility courses – which apply many of the principles mentioned above – and/or her stretching straps/props, use code ‘D4C’ for 10% off all purchases at www.flexibilitymakeover.com

Bonus geekery: The complexities of our sense of thirst (Wikipedia)

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