Stretching: the truth (part 1)

Stretching can be as formalized and challenging as a yoga pose:

Or as simple and mindless as what you do to accompany your first yawn of the morning:

This morning, when I got out of bed, I went into my habitual yawn-and-stretch routine, but stopped midway and decided to analyze what I was really doing with myself.  If I am going to be totally honest, what I did was to hold my breath, tense various parts of my spine until they were immobile, pull my head down hard onto the top vertebra of my spine, then let it all go.  It was like a parody of bad postural choices: first too rigid, then too lax.  Why does this feel so good?

Perhaps the satisfaction I get from my self-abusive stretch comes from just feeling anything in my body.  Like when naughty children act out to get attention, even negative attention, which is better than no attention at all.

Or maybe this kind of stretching falls into the category of all-change-feels-good-at-first.  Like that $50 lumbar support that felt like heaven for the 37 seconds that I tried it out in the store, but eventually did nothing to ease my back discomfort at the office.
In any case, when I compared my morning stretch to the wake-up routine of my chihuahuas, I noticed some crucial differences.  Most importantly, the dogs don’t hold their breath at any point in their stretching.  Second, they move through an extended range of motion with their limbs and spine, but never stiffen them; the whole canine movement is very fluid.  Third, the doggie version incorporates their whole bodies: you can see a gorgeous line from the tip of the jaw to the end of the tail.  With this level of skill, it’s no wonder that we’ve named two of the most common yoga poses (up dog and down dog) after our best friends.  (Apologies to the cat people out there!)
If you have a dog—or a cat, I must admit, which is also an exemplar of healthy stretching—watch it stretch and emulate its technique.  Or just keep in mind the three aforementioned elements that distinguish canine from typical human stretches: 1) let your breath flow throughout, 2) move through whatever range you can manage without stiffening, 3) let your whole body participate.
You can experiment with these dog-inspired directions throughout the day.  Feel free to leave comments describing your experience.  In my next posting I’ll let you know about my explorations and give some guidance on how to stretch like an animal as part of your exercise regimen.

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