The two activities that usually come to mind for achieving greater health and wellness are diet and exercise. “We are what we eat”, thus our eating habits play the most significant role in health and disease. “Use it, or lose it”, exercise is great way of maintaining a healthy body and mind.
Regular stretching has multiple benefits and it’s a great addition to an overall plan for wellness. Most people are aware, that stretching is beneficial, however few recognize its full potential.
Daily stress and injuries cause muscle tension to build up in the body over time. The developing tension gives rise to aches, pains and stiffness. When muscles are tense, they can also shorten and reduce range of motion at the joints, resulting in postural deviations and loss of mobility.
These restrictions and bodily limitations are one of the reasons why people look, or feel older as they age. Regular full body stretching releases constrictions in the musculo-skeletal system, improving posture and helping to retain ease of movement.
Stiffness and limited range of motion can also accelerate the development of degenerative joint diseases, like osteoarthritis. Increasing mobility helps distribute synovial fluid inside the joints, to lubricate the cartilages and so preserve joint health.
Eastern philosophy teaches that energy flows through the body along energy pathways, called meridians. Stress, injury, or illness cause the energy to stagnate, creating blockages. The physical and the energetic aspects of the body are intertwined, thus elongating the muscles and connective tissues can help release these blockages and restore energy fow.
This is one of the reasons why practicing yoga regularly is therapeutic and great for health. Many people who like stretching are drawn to yoga. But there is a caveat, most of the popular yoga classes (Vinyasa 2-3, etc.), are designed for strengthening and incorporate limited amounts of stretching in their routines. On the other hand, Level 1, or “Restorative” yoga classes dedicate abundant time for stretching.
In general, when tension develops, the muscles on the front of the body (the flexors), shorten. This is the cause of bad posture and this is also the part of the body, that most people never stretch. Backbends are the way to restore balance and joint symmetry.
Stretching maybe performed for different reasons. It can be a part of warm up for exercise, gain flexibility, rehabilitation for a medical condition, or part of a yoga routine. When stretching for a warm up, it is best done lightly and hold each position for a short time. On the other hand, if the intention is increased flexibility, stretches need to be more deliberate and held longer.
For many people, stretching seem to be a chore. The best thing to do is to commit to a routine, on specific days and times of the week. Soon a habit will develop and results will be seen, that can provide the motivation for continuing the practice.
Stretching in a group setting is more fun and is another way to stay motivated. Stretching can cause endorphin (the feel good hormone) release in the brain, this might be one of the reasons why yoga can be addictive. Being stretched also feels amazing. Thai, or Thai-Yoga massage incorporates many stretches and a great experience, that is not only relaxing, but energizing.
There are hundreds of YouTube channels, demonstrating all sorts of stretching routines, of various lengths, for specific muscle groups, or to treat chronic conditions. A 15-30 minute full body routine, 3 times a week is a great way to start, after some time it will be apparent which part of the body needs more focus.
The increased mobility and flexibility, gained through regular stretching gives a sense of physical freedom, expansion and self awareness.