By Mary Debono
It’s not just runners and other elite athletes who suffer from tight hamstrings and sore, stiff backs. Even among people of varying fitness levels, it seems that many people struggle with tight muscles and stiffness. And it may come as a surprise to you that stretching is not the answer. In fact, studies have shown that stretching can actually weaken muscles. Dr. Moshe Feldenkrais, the originator of the Feldenkrais Method, spoke about the pitfalls of stretching decades ago, and now science has validated his teachings*. Dr. Moshe Feldenkrais espoused a more intelligent, comfortable approach that respects the innate wisdom of the body. His movement lessons enhance awareness, improve overall functioning and create a sense of well-being.
I invite you to explore the movement lesson below and notice how you can easily improve! Please go slowly and do not do any movement that is uncomfortable for you. Consult with a qualified health practitioner if you have any concerns or are in pain.
1. Stand with your feet about hip width apart. Gently bend down, letting your hands move toward your feet. It’s important that you do not stretch or force the movement in any way. Just notice how far you reach without any strain whatsoever. Then return to standing upright.
2. Bend your knees slightly. Put your right hand on your thigh, just above your right knee. Put your left hand just above your left knee. Let the weight of your upper body rest on your hands. Pulling your belly inward, gently round your back and look down. Then, pushing your belly out, gently arch your back, lift your head and look up. Do these movements several times, alternating between rounding and arching your back.
As you alternately round and arch your back, put your attention on your entire spine. Think of all the vertebrae of your spine participating in these movements. Many of us get into habits of over-using some parts of our spine and under-using others. Let these movements be an opportunity for you to “wake up” the parts of your spine that have been under-utilized, while you let the overworked parts do only their fair share. Notice what it feels like when the movement is distributed appropriately throughout your spine. Does the movement get easier and lighter?
3. Return to standing and bend forward, allowing your hands to go down toward your feet as in the first instruction. Do you notice any change?
4. Stand with your feet spread and your knees slightly bent. Lean with both hands just above your right knee. Like before, slowly and gently round and arch your back. As you round your back, look down and gently pull your belly in. As you arch your back, look up and let your belly come forward. It’s important that you not hold in your abdominal muscles. Do these alternating movements several times. Then stand and rest for a moment. Notice how you are standing.
With feet apart, bend your knees slightly and lean with both hands just above your right knee again. A couple of times, round your back as before, but as your back rounds and your head drops down, let your eyes look up toward your eyebrows. Just your eyeballs go up. Your nose still faces downward. Then, as you arch your back and your face goes upward, let your eyes look down toward your cheekbones. Let your nose move upward and let your neck muscles stay soft. Breathe! You probably will do smaller movements when you oppose your eyes and head this unfamiliar way. Be patient and do not force anything. It’s the non-habitual nature of these movements that can create big improvements in your functioning. Just do a few movements and then rest in standing.
After your rest, with both hands above your right knee again, do one or two movements in the usual way, letting your eyes look down as your back rounds and letting your eyes look up as your back arches. Rest in standing.
5. Stand with both feet spread about hip width and bend your knees slightly. Lean both your hands just above your left knee. Again, gently round and arch your back as you did previously. Is it different than when you leaned on your right leg? After a few movements, stand and rest. Bend your knees slightly and put both hands above your left knee. Do the movements again, this time opposing your head and eyes as you did before. Is it any easier now? Then do one or two movements in the usual way, letting your eyes and head go together.
6. Stand with your feet spread as you did in the beginning and bend down toward your feet, allowing your arms to hang. Do you bend more easily? Are your hands closer to your toes?
*”Stretching: The Truth”, by Gretchen Reynolds, published in the New York Times on October 31, 2008.