How to get the most out of a stretch class
From The E-Fitness Times - February 2019
A big portion of a stretch class is being able to relax. One could even say that there is a meditative aspect within the class, intended to allow you to get in tune with your body. The ability to lengthen one part of the body while keeping everything else relaxed is a skill that must be developed and the more you can get into your own zone in a stretch class, the more beneficial it becomes. For this reason, the amount of instruction and talking in a stretch class is limited. Too many reminders and corrections will become a distraction, perhaps even an irritation, leading to less focus and more tension in areas that we don’t want. So, it is best to go into a stretch class prepared. The next time you come to a stretch class, or simply during the stretch portion of the regular class, remind yourself of the following things:
1. The goal of a stretch class is to be able to reach, lengthen, bend, and twist without the muscles interfering.
That seems impossible but, it’s not. For some people this might come naturally. For others, it needs to be learned. If you’re used to sports, strength training, biking, or anything where muscle is the main focus, it’s hard to imagine your body doing anything without a muscle getting involved.
Before you can simply bend into position with no muscle involvement, you need to first concentrate on simply getting into the stretch. Once you’re at the limit that you can handle and want to hold, relax all surrounding muscles. That's phase one.
As your body gets used to this relaxation-of-the-muscles, your next phase is to prepare yourself before you stretch by telling all those muscles that would like to get involved, to relax. Focus then on just the reach or bend. You will most likely have to keep “letting-go” of the muscles as you ease into the stretch, but that’s okay. That was only phase two.
Phase three, your final phase and ultimate goal is to be able to simply bend, or reach, or lengthen like a rag doll; keeping the muscles relaxed not only while you’re holding the stretch, but as you enter into the stretch. A completely limber and loose body for an entire stretch class.
2. Breathe into the discomfort
With all forms of exercise, oxygen is the fuel for our muscles. Whether it’s lifting something heavy, training a fast-twitch muscle for sprinting, or extending a reach, breath will help you achieve it. A general rule of thumb is to take a nice, big inhale as you’re preparing to enter the stretch and then exhale as you extend your body into position, taking the whole length of the exhale to get to your final reach.
3. Visualize the “pain”
Yes, even though I’m saying stretching is relaxing and a meditative experience, let’s face it, there are times when your body is screaming (see point 4 below). As you’re breathing while in your hold, locate the main point of pain with your mind. Give the pain an image and with each exhale visualize that image breaking up. I often “see” my knots as static, like the “snow” on an old TV set. With each deep breath the pixels get further and further away from each other, eventually turning into a vast expanse of nothingness.
4. Stretch should be tolerable, not agony
There will always be an uncomfortable pulling sensation on your muscles when stretching. Over time that sensation will fade and allow you to stretch further thus improving your flexibility. The feeling is not pleasant, but it should never be agony. A sharp pain, or a sensation that makes you wince, is a definite sign that you need to ease out of the stretch a bit to a lengthening level that is more tolerable.
5. A stretch is a stretch, is a stretch
Flexibility is something we all need to work on and just like strength, it comes more easily to some than others. It doesn’t matter if someone reaches several inches further than you. If you feel it, you’re stretching. So long as you’re feeling that you are lengthening those tight muscles, the length of the reach is irrelevant. The part that’s relevant, is always continuing to feel the stretch. As your flexibility improves you push yourself to go further and further still. There will be a stopping point (for most of us this is long before acceptance into Cirque de Soliel) and from this point on, regular stretching is maintenance. Flexibility goes quite quickly when not working it.
So, the next time you’re in a stretch class, or in the cooldown phase of an exercise class, and the quiet in the room is allowing you to zone into your own body, think of these few points. Within time it will become completely natural and then the entire class becomes a rest for both the mind and body.