The Painless Truth: How Thoughts and Sensations are the Same Thing

From the perspective of your body, there is no difference between your thoughts and your experiences. When you think about pleasant or unpleasant things, your brain activity is the same as when you experience pleasant or unpleasant things.  For example, when you are just falling in love, all it takes is the thought of your lover to send a rush of pleasant, excited sensations through your body, just as if you are seeing your lover in person.  A thought can trigger excited physical sensations in the same way as the experience of seeing triggers excited physical sensations.  The same is true of unpleasant thoughts.  After a terrible break-up, the thought of your ex-lover can send a rush of unpleasant, agitated sensations through your body in the same way that seeing your ex-lover might feel agitating. It is perfectly normal and natural to think either pleasant or unpleasant thoughts, and then have corresponding pleasant or unpleasant physical sensations.  From the perspective of your body, the pleasant and unpleasant physical sensations associated with thoughts are just as real as the pleasant and unpleasant physical sensations associated with actual experiences.

You experience physical pleasure and displeasure responses to all of your thoughts and all of your sensory experiences.  Those physical pleasure and displeasure responses are the main subject of this article. For example, this article discusses the physical sensations of exitement and attraction you feel when thinking about or seeing your new lover, or the physical sensations of repulsion and anger you feel  when thinking about or seeing your troublesome ex-lover. You sense things, and you think about things, and in both cases, you feel physical body-responses to your senses and your thoughts.  This article is about your physical body-responses to your senses and your thoughts.  These physical-body responses are connected to what we call “emotions,” but it is important to distinguish between the physical sensations of your emotions and your mental activity about them.  This article is primarily interested in your physical sensations.

Like thoughts, sensory experiences activate the body’s pleasure and displeasure responses. When you experience the warmth of new morning sun on your skin, the sensory nerve endings in your skin send impulses through your nervous system, up your spinal cord, and into your brain. Once that sensory information reaches your brain, your brain activates a hormone response, which you feel throughout your body, internally, in exactly the same way that you experience the pleasure that arises from pleasant thoughts.  If you think, “Ahh.  Nice sun,” then that thought activates your hormonal pleasant-expereince response. There is the sensation of the sunlight, and the happy thought-feeling that arises as the result of the sensation. Thus, from pleasant sensory experiences, you feel two kinds pleasure: the immediate physical sensation of the original warmth of the sunlight, and the sencondary neuroenocrine activity associated with that pleasure.

When you experience any sensation, it activates a mental process that creates an internal hormone-based pleasant or unpleasant experience.  Not only is the actual nerve-ending stimulation of warm morning sun pleasant, but also the thoughts and emotions associated with that sensation in and of themselves create an internal sensation.  This is also true, of course, with respect to unpleasant physical experiences.  You experience the pain of a sunburn as the immediate stimulation of pain receptors in your skin, and also as the distress activity of your mind and brain, with its corresponding physical distress thoughts and sensations. “Damn, I have a sunburn,” is both a physical pain response, and a emotional distress response.  You experience both the thought and the experience as sensations in your body.

We can map out this activity in a simple way that will help to clarify what’s going on.  Thoughts arise in the part of the brain called the cerebral cortex.  That’s basically the top, front surface of the brain.  Once the neural impulse of those thoughts is generated, the stimulation moves down, deeper into the brain.  Really, the signal spreads out quite a bit, and affects many structures, but in this case, we’re mostly interested on the deep brain structures called the amygdala, hypothalmus, and hippocampus because they are the meeing points between thoughts, experiences, and the internal sensations associated with them.  When the signals associated with a thought reach the amygdala, it relates those signals to stored memories in the hypocampus, and then it turns those signal/memories into the activation of an appropriate hormone release via the hypothalmus. The hormones released give rise to your physical/emotional sensations of pleasure and displeasure.  What starts as a happy thought becomes a pleasant physical sensation because the amygdala responds to thoughts by activating the release of pleasant-experience hormones into your blood.  If you think unhappy thoughts, then the amygdala responds by activating the release of unpleasant-experience hormones into your blood.  Once the hormones are in your blood, you experience the secondary physical sensations associated with your pleasant or unpleasant thoughts.

The same process occurs in the amygdala in response to physical stimulation.  When your sensory nerve endings are stimulated by the warmth of sunlight, for example, that sensory signal travels up the spinal cord to the lower brain.  In your brain, your amygdala receives sensory impulses before your cerebral cortex – before your conscious mind.  That means that your body has a chance to respond to physical stimulation before your mind.  Your sensory nerve endings feel the warmth of the sun, then your spinal cord and the lower part of your brain pass that information on to the amygdala.  The amygdala responds to that stimulation by activating the release of pleasant-experience hormones, since the body’s memory of warm sun is positive, and at present the sensation is not pain. Then, your cerebral cortex receives sensory information just miliseconds after the amygdala receives it.  There’s not a big delay between your body’s response and your mind becoming aware of what you are experiencing, but there is enough of a delay that the hormonal pleasure response may begin before you are conscious of what is happening.  Once the information recaches the cerebral cortex, then you have the chance to evaluate and interpret your physical sensations with your conscious mind.  You may, for example, think, “Oh, how nice!” and settle into the natural pleasure-response.  Or you may become concerned about getting a sunburn, and generate a negative response to the sensation of the warm sun touching your skin.  That negative mental response is sent to the amygdala, hippocampus and hypothalamus, who basically say, “Oh! This is negative now,” and trigger the release of stress hormones into your body.

In the case of physical sensations, then, we have: (1) The stimulation of the sensory nerve endings; (2) the propagation of the nerve signal through the spinal cord, up to the brain; (3) the initial response by the amygdala and hippocampus and the corresponding hormone response via the hypothalamus; (4) conscious recognition of the sensation in the cerebral cortex; (5) interpretation of the sensation by the cerebral cortex; (6) a new signal sent to the amygdala; and (7) a new, often modified hormone response.  First you feel it, then your lower brain responds, then your conscious mind responds, then your lower brain responds to your conscious mind.  From this you can see that all of your emotional responses to your sensory experiences are in fact responses to mental  interpretations of your sensory experiences.  The pleasure or displeasure you feel in response to the sensation of sunlight warming your skin is a pleasure or displeasure that is the result of mental and emotional interpretation, and not just raw physical experience.  Most of what you feel emotionally in response to your experiences is regulated by your interpretation of those experiences, and not by the content of the experiences alone.

The amygdala is one of the first structures in the chain of neurons and endocrine glands that create the emotional/physical feelings of pleasure and displeasure that you have in response to your thoughts and sensations.  Thoughts arise in the cerebral cortex, and then move to the amygdala.  Physical sensations are interpreted in your cerebral cortex, turned into thoughts, and then fed back to the amygdala.  Thus, the emotional/physical sensations of pleasure and displeasure that seem to be the result of your sensory experiences are actually responses to your secondary thoughts associated with the experiences.  While your amygdala, and thus the rest of your body, may initially respond to sunlight with the feeling of, “Warm.  I like it,” that response may be quickly changed into, “Warm. I don’t like it,” through the interpretation of your worried cerebral cortex.  While your new love may seem beautiful at first, after a betrayal, that same person may seem ugly.  While the image of that person or the sensation of warm sun may be the same in terms of sensory stimulation, the interpretation of the image or sensation is what gives rise to your overriding attraction or repulsion.  In general, you do not respond to the world as you sense it to be, but rather to the world as you think it to be.

Once your amygdala and associated brain structures respond to a stimulus, either sensory, thought, or both, the rest of your body is subject to whatever response they generate.  If it is a pleasant response, then you experience pleasant body sensations, and the activity of your cells and organs is calm and peaceful.  If an unpleasant response is generated in the brain, then you experience unpleasant physical sensations, and the activity of your cells and organs is agitated.  Although your mind and emotions seem complicated, and there are an infinite variety of circumstances that you face each day, your basic response to thoughts and experiences is always one of two varieties: rest-and-recover, or fight-or-flight.  Pleasant thoughts and sensations generate the rest-and-recover response, and unpleasant thoughts and sensations generate the fight-or-flight response.

Most of the stress, and therefor most of the physical discomfort of tension and fatigue that people in rich, modern, first-world environments experience is the result of thinking that activates the fight-or-flight response. We rarely face physically dangerous circumstances. A relatively small portion of the population in rich, developed, first-world nations suffers from hunger, war, and predation by animals – and those are the stressors that our body was designed to respond to with the fight-or-flight response.  Instead, we trigger our fight-or-flight response primarily from within, with our thinking.  While infant mortality is much lower, and life expectancy much higher in developed countries, studies show that we experience as much stress in our surprisingly peaceful lives as people in much less fortunate circumstances such as war, famine, and predation by animals. Our continuous mentally-generated low-grade stress response causes a build-up of inflammation and fatigue in our muscles, and the resultant tension, pain, and fatigue of this stress response inspires people to receive massage. Luckily, since we are not starving, not at war, and not in danger from predators, we can afford to set aside an hour or two to remind ourselves just how fortunate we really are.

One of the most basic mechanisms by which massage and bodywork promote healing is to increase the amount of positive stimulation in the sensing body and decrease the amount of negative activity in the thinking mind.  In the modern, chronic low-grade stress state, people tend to respond to most new stimulation, and to most of their own thinking, as if they are stressors.  Our job is to show our clients the reality of their situation. Through non-invasive, pleasant touch in a quiet, warm, safe environment, we give our clients no excuse but to recogngize that they are very safe, nothing bad is happening, and everything feels good.  In the hour or two that our clients are with us, they are essentially captive in a state of peace – they cannot escape to hurry around getting things done, and the pleasure of their experience overrides their tendencies to worry.  Eventually, they must accept that in fact their lives are quite nice – luxurious even – and that all they have to do to reduce the stress response in their bodies is to reside in their awareness of the peaceful present moment.

When the mind resides in the peaceful present, especially when the body is in a warm, quiet, safe place being touched in a pleasing way, all signals coming in through the senses, and all signals being generated by the cerebral cortex tell the amygdala the same story.  In turn, the amygdala shares this information with the hippocampus and hypothalamus.  The hippocampus accesses memories of similar experiences – primarily associated with being in the womb and being held during infancy – and verifies the safety of the situation.  The hypothalamus decreases the release of stress hormones, while non-stress hormones and non-stress neurotransmitter production increases body wide.  The result is a flooding of the body with sensations of pleasure and safety from all directions: sensual information from the dim lighting, the warm space, the quiet sounds and the soft touch, and mental/emotional information from the cerebral cortex and deeper brain structures.  Every aspect of the body/mind works in unison to produce a state of deep relaxation.

Ultimately, through repeat experience with the peace-state achieved through receiving massage, clients come to recognize the source of most of their stress experience is their negative thinking mind – and are naturally trained, though the experience of receiving massage, to change their thinking.  It gradually becomes apparent that while the circumstances of life are often out of our control, the circumstances of our mind are not.  When again and again the solution to the stressful experience of tight, sore muscles is found in simple breathing and self-relaxation, clients naturally become aware of their ability to dissolve not only their tension, but also the mental causes of it.  The state of the mind is reflected in the matter of the body, and the experience of the body affects the state of the mind.  Place both body and mind in a state of peaceful, present moment awareness and sensation, and there is no escape from the painless truth.

Healing Energy: Nature’s Way

When I teach energy work at the Arcata School of Massage, I start by saying that nothing that I teach will be hypothetical, metaphorical, esoteric, imaginary or faith-based.  I also say that all of energy work methods I teach are based on my own personal experience.  By personal experience, I don’t mean my thoughts, ideas, beliefs, or fantasies, and I don’t mean ideas or techniques that I’ve learned from someone else – I mean that I will only teach those things that I have experienced directly through my own physical senses. 

reiki There is a commonly held assumption that arises in our minds when a massage or bodywork therapist starts talking about healing energy. We assume that they must be talking about a magical, invisible force that they imagine comes flowing out of their hands and into their clients’ bodies.  The assumption that healing energy has magical, supernatural qualities is so widespread that when I first tell my students that I will not be talking about any of that, I can see the looks of wonder come across their faces.  If energy work isn’t some cosmic New Age idea, then what is it?

Everything in the universe is always becoming something else.  There is absolutely no object, large or small, that isn’t in a constant state of transformation.  Things that seem to be standing still are just changing slowly compared to us, but there is no exception to this rule: Everything in the universe is always changing.

Consider all of the things in the room with you right now.  Someday, all of these things will disappear. These words, the chair you are sitting on, the building that you are in – at first they didn’t exist, and then someone made them.  Now they are slowly decaying, and someday, they will crumble, to become something else.  Your body, every rock, every planet and every galaxy comes into being out of something else, and then gradually becomes something else. Everything is like this, without a single exception.  All you have to do to know this without a doubt is to watch the world and think about it for a few minutes.  It is an indisputable fact.

Not only is every object in the physical world constantly arising, changing, and then ceasing, so is every thought and concept that arises in your mind.  Thoughts arise and cease in your mind like smoke rises from incense and then disperses into space.  No thought lasts for long.  Emotions are the same, coming and going in waves like the tides.  If you don’t like an emotion, just wait, it will change.  Physical sensations run through your body as quickly as a river flows down a riverbed, a constant stream of sensations. Everything that we can be aware of, in our minds, in our bodies, and in the world that surrounds us, is in a constant state of motion and transformation.

This universal movement and transformation gives rise to what we call life.  Life is an interesting form of universal movement, because living things do not transform in the same ways as dead things.  A dead body immediately begins a process of organic decay, and undergoes rapid transformations that we can see progress much more quickly than in living bodies, until all signs of life are gone, and we are left with dirt and water, heat and wind.

Living bodies will eventually die, but from the moment of conception, they transform in ways that prolong their own life processes.  Living organisms maintain their organization longer than would the non-living components they are made of if those components weren’t organized in a living way.  Our cells die, and are replaced by new, living cells, but the organism as a whole maintains a remarkable state of continuity throughout its “life.” In this way, living beings move and transform differently than non-living things.

Noticing this marked difference between the movement and transformations of living organisms compared to non-living objects, human beings throughout history have naturally come up with the idea of life force, or energy.  The story goes something like this: As long as there is life force, or energy, living organisms move and transform like living organisms.  When the life energy of an organism decreases, it gets sick, it moves more slowly, and it approaches death.  When the life energy is gone, the organism is dead, and then it moves and transforms in the manner of all non-living things.  This story corresponds very accurately with what we can see happening all the time in the world around us.

Or we could describe it a little bit differently and say that all living organisms need to ingest and transform the stored energy of the sun – plus a little dirt and water – to maintain our life energy. First, plants take in the energy of the sun and transform it with the help of air, water, and nutrients made of the dead bodies of other organisms and non-organic compounds found in the soil.  In this way, plants capture the energy of the sun, and become food for animals and other plants.  Animals eat plants and other animals, and so we eat the stored energy of the sun.

When it comes down to it, we all eat sunlight, and the heat that we produce as a result of ingesting and releasing that stored energy is the heat of life.  When we eat enough sunlight, we get enough energy, and then we have the energy we need to move about to get more sun/food.  If we don’t eat enough food, then we get less energy, and find it harder to move about.  If we don’t eat at all, soon we cannot move, and when we cannot move, we cannot get food, so we run out of energy and die. Even if we get enough food and water and air all the time, our aging cells will still eventually begin to fail to maintain life.  No matter what, we will die.  We will become dirt and water, heat and wind.  The sunlight warmth of our life energy will disperse into space.

The entire universe is always moving and organizing itself into life, and then disorganizing that life back into dirt, water, heat and wind.  While there are some differences in the movements and transformations of living beings versus non-living things, it is the whole movement of the universe that ultimately gives rise to life.  Life is made of non-living things.  In this way, we can understand what people mean when they say that all things – living and non-living – are moved and organized by life force.  This concept of universal life force describes how non-living things become living things. All human cultures have stories, myths, and healing traditions based on the idea of universal life force.

Some conditions are not conducive to life.  Living organisms need the right amount of air, water, heat, food, and movement in order to stay healthy.  Living organisms can be damaged, so that the organism as a whole has a more difficult time maintaining its life force.  Stress, injuries, diseases, and poor nutrition all have this effect.

Beautifully, all living organisms have the ability to self-heal as part of their natural function.  The ability to self-heal is an indispensible aspect of the life process.  In fact, the ability to self-heal is the characteristic of life that makes life possible.  As soon as an organism loses its ability to self-heal, it begins dying.  We call the organized universal movement and transformation that creates the self-healing activities of life “healing energy.”

The concept of healing energy describes the capacity of living organisms to continuously transform and organize non-living things into forms and structures that sustain their life. Our cells die, but our remaining living cells replicate just as quickly. Our tissues are damaged and deteriorate, but our living cells make new tissues.  Our organs filter and transform nutrients and eliminate toxins, to make life energy available for our cells. To accomplish their healing work, our cells consume life-force-sunlight-food, mix it with air and water, and turn it into new cells and tissues.  This self-healing is called cellular catabolism and anabolism – the processes of breaking down food and then recombining its components to form new tissues, sugars, and fats.  Self-healing is also clearly seen in the processes of inflammation – the process of building new tissue when old tissue is damaged or deteriorated.

When you cut your finger, your finger self-heals.  When you get a flu virus that disrupts the functionality of your cells and organs, your body destroys the virus and repairs its damaged cells and organs.  If you don’t eat enough protein, your body metabolizes its own protein to use as energy for continued cellular life and function.  Your body does all kinds of things to keep itself alive and functioning well. Science has a name for this: it’s called homeostasis.  Homeostasis means, “stays the same.”  Living organisms have many ways that they move and transform the elements in order maintain the balanced state conducive to life, and we call those movements and transformations “healing.”

Human beings are unique among living organisms in that we need a great deal of physical contact with other humans in order to maintain homeostasis.  Newborn babies left untouched quickly perish, even if they are given proper nourishment.  The bones, muscles, and nervous systems of newborn human beings are not fully formed, and require the stimulation of touch and movement in order to develop properly.  We are born without the ability to walk or talk, and require direct contact with other people in order to properly form the physical structures that will ultimately allow us to walk and talk.  We form our bodies and our minds in response to the world around us – and specifically in response to our contact with other people.

Once we are viable on our own, our need for physical contact diminishes, but never disappears.  A perfect example of our continued need for touch is found in the delightful sigh of relief that washes through us when another person touches us in a comforting way.  There is just something about being touched in a comforting way that makes it easier to relax.  I believe that this phenomenon harkens back to our primate ancestry.  Monkeys only groom each other when they feel safe.  So, when humans engage in similar kinds of touch, it indicates to the primate-like aspect of our central nervous system that we are safe.  This sense of safety de-activates our fight-or-flight response and activates our rest-and-recover state.  This shift from fight-or-flight, or sympathetic dominance, to rest-and-recover, or parasympathetic dominance, is the primary reason that all healing modalities work.

Whether a therapist calls their service Healing Chi Kung, or Polarity Therapy, or Reiki, or God’s love, or whatever, in most cases the room is warm and quiet, the client is comfortable, the tone of the therapist’s voice is soothing, their movements are measured and predictable, their touch is skilled and changes in response changes in the client’s state, and it isn’t likely that fast-moving, loud and unpredictable people are going to come bursting into the room.  In other words, it is a safe time to engage in some primate grooming.  Ahh…

The beneficial effects of this shift into parasympathetic dominance are widespread, and at times, awe-inspiring.  An hour or two of skilled touch by a sensitive energy worker can relax muscles, change hormone production, move stagnant fluid, change thought patterns, change movement patterns, change our very sense of self, and transform our habitual responses to stimulation from the outside world.  In the state of parasympathetic dominance, the efficiency of cellular metabolism increases, tissue repair happens more quickly and produces less scar tissue, and organ function improves body-wide.  In other words, skilled touch directly supports and enhances life’s capacity to self-heal, and that is certainly energy work.

In a larger sense, a therapist who is “doing energy work” is fulfilling their natural role as a social organism, and allowing himself or herself to become part of the naturally perfect and life-creating movement of the entire universe.  We are nature being nature, life being life, form being form.  The universe is always moving in ways that support life and healing, and we are part of that universe.  This is why so many energy work modalities guide people into understanding that there is really nothing to do.  Life heals.  That’s it.  And for some reason, human life heals better in the company of other human life – especially under the effects of caring touch in a safe space.

There is one more aspect of energy work that needs mentioning.  It has to do with the fact that we are no longer monkeys.  We have become storytellers. The human mind, with its capacity to form mental concepts and images, has developed the ability to create worlds of ideas that seem very real to our primate bodies. With our storytelling minds, we create conceptualized mental imagery that we label as “VERY IMPORTANT!” With these thoughts and images, we constantly trick our bodies into thinking that something actually important is happening – even when most of the time, nothing of much significance is happening at all.  Keeping this job is very important.  Staying in this relationship is very important.  Looking this way is very important. Likewise, we create stories about things that are “VERY BAD.”  Losing this job is very bad.  Losing this relationship is very bad. Looking this way is very bad.  In all cases, our bodies believe our minds.

Movies are amazing examples of how strongly our bodies believe stories and images.  We sit in the theater and flood our senses with lights, sounds, and stories, and our bodies respond as if what is happening on the screen is really happening. We get happy, sad, scared, and even fall in love. Whenever we tell our bodies that something wonderful and exciting is happening, or that something terrible and frightening is happening, our bodies obediently respond with joy or fear, or whatever we tell them to feel.  We don’t need movies to do this.  We do it all the time in the silent solitude of our own imaginations.

I’ll tell you a story from my own life that nicely illustrates the point. For some reason, although I am of average build, I have always thought of myself as being short.  Once, while standing inside a bus in India, I had to stoop down so that my head wouldn’t hit the ceiling.  Looking around, I noticed that I was the only person on the bus who was having this problem.  Everyone else could stand up straight without hitting their heads. I immediately felt very tall! In fact, I felt tall and happy for the rest of the day. It was a wonderful feeling. I felt relieved of the low-grade stress about the mental self-image of shortness that I had created and then carried with me for many years!  All of it, from feeling short to feeling tall, was completely made up in my mind.  While nothing at all had changed in the world, my body got very excited about the new story I created in my mind.

The human body believes our mentally fabricated stories about what is good and bad – like self image and the importance of owning objects – and responds to those stories in exactly the same way that it responds to real good and bad things – like healthy food and physical pain.  The body responds to our so-called “good” stories with reward responses. Yes! I got the job!   And it activates the fight-or-flight response when presented with so-called “bad” stories. Damn! I lost the job!  In most cases, our good stories are about getting pleasant stimulation and positive social recognition, and our bad stories are about losing pleasant stimulation and getting negative social recognition. Feeding off of the neurochemistry of reward and loss, human societies have organized themselves primarily around stories about objects and ideas, and secondarily around actual physical reality and relationships.

When it comes down to it, we need only adequate nutrition, water, exercise and shelter to stay physically healthy, and we need only caring touch and positive social engagement to stay mentally and emotionally happy, but due to our incredible storytelling abilities, and the phenomena that our bodies believe the stories we tell ourselves, we have built up massive societies and economies that deal more in stories about the imaginary value of ideas and objects than in real healthy food, healthy families, and healthy work.  Most of the stress that is widespread in human societies today is stress about our ideas and concepts.  From a purely physical perspective, modern humans in developed countries like ours should be experiencing very little stress.  Most of us have plenty of food, good shelter, and tons of social interaction.  And yet stress is the hallmark of our modern civilizations, and most of it is in response to stories made up in our minds.

Stories about keeping what we have, not liking what we get, and wanting what we don’t have all produce stress.  It is unfortunate that human beings have become so fixated on telling ourselves these kinds of stories, since it is obvious that in a universe of constant motion and change, we will never keep what we have, and we can only get what our actions and our circumstances provide.  In contrast, stories about accepting loss and serendipity as unavoidable and even valuable aspects of existence reduce stress, since they counteract our stories about keeping and wanting things.

We use positive kinds of stories as part of our energy healing work.  When both therapist and client think that healing energy is flowing in from a benevolent universal source, our bodies believe this story, and respond accordingly.  For millennia, human storytellers have seen the powerful healing effects of caring touch, and have made up many wonderful stories about how it works.  This essay is one such story – one of many.  We need not argue amongst ourselves about what is real or not real.  From the perspective our bodies, what we think and what we sense are exactly the same.  So listen reverently to our stories about healing – be they about healing energy, life force, Chi, Qi, Mana, Prana, Polarity, Reiki, angels, cellular metabolism, or spirit guides.  Let your mind give these stories to your body as precious gifts, and feel your body respond by healing itself.

 

 

Caring Touch: A Fundamental Of Therapeutic Massage

Very often, when new students start practicing massage for the first time, they assume that massage involves rubbing, squeezing, and pressing on tight spots on client’s bodies to make them relax.  Also, both givers and receivers tend to assume that if you find a tight spot that is also tender – so that when you press on it, it hurts a little bit (or even more than a little bit) – then that’s a good place to press harder.  Since most of the time that “technique” is fairly ineffective and people don’t seem to relax from it, then it is assumed that to make it more effective, you have to press even harder.  A lot of friendly shoulder rubs turn out this way, with the receiver breathing through the mild to moderate pain as the giver’s thumbs dig into the tightest, most tender places on their shoulders.

Many people really do enjoy this approach to massage, and there are reasons for that.  One reason is that the pain produces endorphins, which are the body’s natural opiate pain modulators.  An endorphin-high does feel nice, but the body only releases endorphins when it is in a stress state.  In that case, the mild to moderately painful sensations produced by the massage trigger a stress state, and the body releases endorphins to modulate the pain.  In other words, the body says, “Uh oh, that hurts, and hurting isn’t good, so I’m going to release some pain modulators.”  It is not a state of relaxation – it is a stress response.

Another reason why many people enjoy painful massage is because the strong sensation helps you to pay attention to your body.  Because muscles are under our voluntary control, the principle way to get them to relax is to pay attention to them.  Muscles don’t really relax – they just contract or don’t contract, and the signal to contract comes from the nervous system. A tight muscle is a muscle that is getting a sustained unconscious signal from the nervous system to contract, and the sustained contraction makes it sore.  In order for the muscle to relax, it needs the signal from the nervous system to become conscious, and then it can consciously deactivated. When someone presses on the sore, tight muscle and produces pain in the tired, inflamed tissue, a side effect is that the receiver’s attention goes to that place.  Since the muscles we massage are voluntary muscles, once a person pays attention to them, they can begin the voluntary process of relaxing them.

Perhaps you’ve had this experience: While you are receiving a vigorous shoulder rub from a friend or massage therapist, it hurts (not too bad, kind of good, or just on the edge of tolerable), and you find yourself concentrating all of your attention on that area, maybe enjoying yourself (maybe not so much), and also kind of looking forward to when it’s over.  One way to get it over-with more quickly is to relax the muscles that are hurting, and since you are concentrating your attention on those muscles, you may be able to relax them a little bit.  Then, when the shoulder rub is over, you feel pleasantly refreshed from the endorphins, and more relaxed because you voluntarily relaxed your muscles.  In that situation, the person giving you a shoulder rub has stimulated your fight-or-flight response, caused and endorphin rush, and focused your awareness on a particular area.  That is the style of many massages given in the world today.

On the other hand, you may have also received a massage or shoulder rub that was too light, too weak, and not as effective as the deeper, painful kind.  In that case, there wasn’t enough pain to cause your body to release endorphins, and there wasn’t enough sensation to help you focus your awareness.  Thus, many people who have had both of those experiences (deep, painful massage, and light, boring massage) naturally tend to prefer the deep, painful approach, because at least it gets something done.

But something about this doesn’t seem right. It’s the part about the fight-or-flight response.  Stress-related diseases are the leading causes of preventable death in the United States – and by stress we mean the fight-or-flight response.  Massage that stimulates the fight-or-flight response is counterproductive.  We’re supposed to reduce stress, not add to it. So, the question is, do you want to be part of that problem or part of the solution?  Of course, that’s a rhetorical question.  To be part of the solution, you’ve got to carefully and attentively study touch and its relationship to the fight-or-flight response, and learn ways of touching that stimulate the rest-and-recover response instead.

We call the kind of touch that stimulates the body’s natural rest-and-recover response “caring touch,” because when we come from a place of caring, we are naturally sensitive enough to notice the effects that our touch is having.  If we touch a person in such a way that they breathe a sigh of relief, relax and smile, then we must be using caring touch.

Caring touch can have the same effect as painful touch in that it can help a person focus their attention on a particular area, so that they can voluntarily relax that area.  But instead of pain, the sensation that we use to help a person focus their attention is pleasure.  The benefit of pleasurable sensations is that they don’t necessarily stimulate the fight-or-flight response.  To be accurate, it should be said that all touch initially stimulates a small fight-or-flight response, simply because the fight-or-flight response is the body’s natural reaction to all new stimulation from an outside source.  But just after that initial response, a person can relax into pleasurable sensations in a way that is completely different than what happens with pain sensations.  So, to help a person focus their awareness and relax, caring touch relies on pleasurable sensations, rather than painful sensations.  This is especially true in the beginning of a massage when the client is settling down into the rest-and-recover state.  During some treatments, an experienced therapist may use stronger, pain-like sensations for various purposes, but only after they are familiar with the whole relaxation process and the anatomy of the area.

There are important qualities of listening and responding that go into creating caring touch.  These qualities are most easily described by using the example of a conversation between friends.  If you notice that your friend is very stressed out and upset, and you walk up to her and abruptly say, “You should relax.  You should let go of your worries,” she’s not very likely to say, “Yeah, you’re right,” breathe a sigh of relief, instantly relax, and stop worrying. If you’re good enough friends that she’s willing to tolerate your rude behavior (let’s pretend she is), then she might say, “It’s not that easy.  I have real problems, and big decisions to make!  I can’t just let go of my problems.  I have to deal with them.”  At that point, if you step forward, raise your voice a little bit, and say, “No!  You should just relax!  Don’t hold on to your problems!” then, even though she was willing to tolerate your rude advice once, this time, she just shakes her head, says, “Whatever, man,” and walks away.  Raising your voice certainly won’t help your friend relax and feel better.

Now let’s consider that situation in terms of the conversation that a massage therapist has with their clients on a physical level.  If the woman in the story is not your friend, but instead your client, and otherwise everything else is the same, then let’s look at what that conversation looks like when you put it into the context of the therapist’s quality of touch.  The therapist notices that the client is very stressed out and upset.  The therapist finds evidence of this from the way she talks, the way she moves, and the way her muscles feel.  The therapist quickly finds the tightest place on the woman’s shoulders, and begins to press hard on that place.  It is moderately painful, and the client is immediately aware that she is very tight in that area.

With their abrupt and direct quality of touch, therapist is effectively saying, “You should relax.  Let go of this tension.”  But for the client, it’s too soon in the massage, and the pressure just hurts and reminds her that she’s really tight.  She says, “Wow, that’s really tight and sore right there,” which is a form of body awareness, and can in that way lead to relaxation.  But have you ever just had a place that no matter how hard you try, you can’t get it to relax?  Well, given her stress level at the time, let’s say this is one of those places.  By not relaxing into the pressure, and stating that it feels tight and sore, the client is saying something similar to, “It’s not that easy.  I have real problems.  I can’t just let go.” Since she is unable to relax, the therapist pushes harder into the tight, sore area, ignoring the fact that the technique really isn’t working, and instead just “raising their voice,” so to speak, by making a strong physical demand.  At that point the client is experiencing real pain, noticing how tight she is, and getting frustrated with herself for not being able to relax.  Since the therapist is in the power position in the relationship (unlike in a friendship), often clients in this situation give up their power, and resign themselves to whatever the therapist wants to do.  In the best case, the pain produces some endorphins and the body awareness helps with some voluntary relaxation, but that’s not an ideal outcome by any means.

Reading this story, it may seem like I am pointing out the obvious, and describing a bad scenario that anyone with a shred of common sense would avoid, but the fact of the matter is that I have just described the communication between therapist and client in a surprising majority of professional massage interactions.  The reason that this kind of interaction is so widespread is that standardized, institutionalized Swedish and Deep Tissue Massage training programs place too much of an emphasis on technique, and not enough emphasis on sensitivity training and the fundamentals of relaxation.  Add to that the basic cultural preconception that harder is better, which is an expression of the even broader cultural attitude that you have to push (and stress out) in order to get things done as quickly as possible, and you have the perfect recipe for fairly ineffective massage technique that is bad for therapists’ hands.  Just because McDonald’s is the most popular restaurant in the world doesn’t mean that the food is good, or good for you.  Just because painful massage is popular doesn’t mean that it is the best way to help people relax.

Let’s look at this scenario again, but this time, change the attitude.  You notice that your friend is stressed out, and very upset.  You walk up to her with true caring in your heart, place your hand gently and supportively on her shoulder, and ask, “How are you feeling?”  She sees your caring, and slumps into you with an exhausted sigh, and says, “I am so stressed, and so tired.  I have so much going on right now, and I just feel like I don’t get a moment’s rest.”  You let her lean into you, and you use the hand that is on her shoulder to gently massage her in a way that feels simple, caring and pleasant.  She sighs again, not from exhaustion this time, but from relief and a feeling of being supported by a good friend.

In the context of a massage, the interaction between therapist and client is surprisingly similar.  You greet your client with care, ask her how she’s feeling, and listen to what she says.  She touches her shoulder when she talks about how stressed and tired she is, so you decide to start the massage there, but instead of pushing straight into it, you place your hands there in a supportive, soft, caring way and give enough pressure for her to feel some genuine pleasure. After a moment of settling and focusing, she breathes a sigh of relief.  As her muscles relax, you massage them in a way that feels great – not so hard it hurts, and not so gentle that it isn’t interesting.  Her muscles relax even more, and soon she begins to drift in that wonderful not-quite-asleep state (the rest-and-recover state) that will leave her feeling serene and refreshed when the session is over.

We use caring touch to give our clients the sensations of support, pleasure, and peace.  We use caring touch to communicate that we are listening to our client’s feelings and needs.  Rather than pushing hard into sore, tight areas in ways that produces pain, rather than reminding clients of their tension and forcefully requiring them to relax (if they can), we push respectfully into responsive, good-feeling places in ways that produce pleasure, and our clients are reminded that relaxation is possible and enjoyable.

Sometimes, since such a strong emphasis is placed on caring, respect, and sensitivity, and abrupt painful techniques are shown to be less effective, students swing to the other extreme, and become too gentle, afraid to really get in and get the job done.  But the technique is called caring touch, not wimpy touch.  If you care, then you’re going to want to get the job done.  People make an appointment for a massage because they want something to change, and oftentimes, change requires some kind of force.  But the force we use is appropriate, pleasurable, and responsive to the immediate and unpredictable needs of our clients’ bodies in each and every moment.

Sometimes, we will discover that our clients’ bodies are saying, “I am so sick of holding on to this tension.  Will you just break it all up and wash it away?  I’m ready!” But a person will only trust a therapist to break up their tension and wash it away if first they have established that they care, and that they are paying attention, and not just rubbing around doing some pre-conceived routine.  When we start with caring touch, it makes the deeper changes possible in a way that is easier on the therapist and more pleasant for the client.

Stretching Is Not Stretching (and The Way it Really Works)

This article is an introduction to the methods that are taught in the Syntropy International Advanced Training Program.

When we bend forward to touch our toes, we feel what we call a “stretch” in the backs of our legs.  The sensation of that stretch is familiar to us all.  We may notice that after a few minutes of stretching this way we can reach further down toward our toes.  The idea is that at first, our short, tight hamstrings prevent us from bending forward, and then, by pulling on them, we stretch them out. Because the muscles are stretched out, it is easier to bend forward.  This is the commonly held idea about stretching.

An extension of this idea is to think that by repeatedly stretching our muscles, we can become more flexible in a more permanent sense, having physically changed the muscles.  Not only does one session of stretching seem to make it easier to touch our toes, but also if we practice repeatedly, our muscles seem to stretch out more permanently, and we can more easily touch our toes on the first try. Thus, it seems that muscles are a bit like fabric: by pulling on them enough, you can stretch them out, and then they stay stretched out.

The reality is completely different than the idea.  Muscles do not stretch like fabric at all.  While it is obvious in our experience that the act of so-called stretching does make us more flexible, it is not the result of stretching the muscles or the related connective tissue.  Most of the increased flexibility is due to relaxation of the muscles.  The muscles are not  getting longer because you are stretching them – they are simply relaxing.  In their more relaxed state, they do not provide as much resistance to the movement, and we can bend farther forward.  In some cases, a small amount of additional flexibility is gained by warming and hydrating the connective tissue that is part of the muscle.  But muscle tissues and connective tissues do not get longer in an elastic or fabric-like way when you pull on them.  Those tissues simply do not work that way, and never will.

Almost everyone who practices stretching exercises does so with false ideas about how the exercises are working.  Those false ideas lead to ineffective use of the exercises, and often to self-harm.  To understand how stretching exercises like Yoga really work to increase flexibility, one must understand how muscle tissue and connective tissue can change in length and consistency. This kind of understanding isn’t merely academic: when we know how the process works, then we can work with the process.

When we correctly understand the natural process of tissue lengthening, we can work much more safely and effectively with ourselves and others.  It is possible, for example, to simply relax the hamstrings on purpose – no stretch at all – and instantly increase forward-bending range of motion.  The alternative – pulling forcefully on the resisting, contracted hamstrings under the false pretense that the force will stretch them out – seems foolish when viewed from the perspective of what’s really going on.

The commonly held false ideas about stretching are so deeply ingrained in our minds that even experienced, successful Yoga practitioners and instructors may have a difficult time reorienting their perspective on this subject.  However, in every case, precise awareness and understanding of the real process yields immediate and lasting benefits.  For this reason, I recommend that readers choose to set aside their preconceptions about stretching, and read this article with open curiosity.  The information presented here is not a theory or an opinion.  It is just simple, anatomical facts about your muscles, connective tissue, and nervous system.

 

How Muscles Shorten and Lengthen

Contracted muscles are the primary cause of limited range of motion in the joints. When a muscle is contracted it keeps the joint that it crosses from being able to move freely.  In other words, short, contracted muscles reduce flexibility.  For example, the hamstrings cross the hip joint in the back.  When the hamstrings are contracted, they prevent the hip joint from flexing.  When we bend over to touch our toes, we are flexing our hip joints, and attempting to lengthen our contracted hamstrings.  Because they are contracted, and contraction is shortening, our hamstrings do not want to lengthen.

The sensation that we call a “stretch” is the feeling generated by the nerve-endings in the muscle and connective tissue of the hamstrings when those tissues are under potentially harmful strain.  The mild to moderate pain you experience while stretching is a message from your muscles to your mind.  It says, “These muscles are contracted, and you are trying to lengthen them.  That doesn’t make sense.  You shouldn’t do that.”  Pain, even mild pain, is the body’s way of saying no.

The contraction of muscles that limits range of motion during stretching is primarily caused by the muscle tone signals generated in the brain and spinal cord.  Similarly, the cause of relaxation is a change in the tone signals from the brain and spinal cord.  In no case does a muscle actually stretch into greater length.  Instead, the act of lengthening a contracted muscle against its own resistance causes the stretch receptors in the connective tissue to send a “danger” signal to the spinal cord.  If the stretch is strong enough, then the spinal cord responds by causing the affected muscles to contract more. In other words, when you stretch a contracted muscle to the point of pain – even just moderate pain – the body responds by making it more difficult for you to lengthen that muscle.  This makes sense, since the body is attempting to keep you from tearing the tissue.  Despite this fact, most people who stretch do so in direct opposition to their body’s natural protective mechanisms.  The sensation that most people associate with stretching is in fact the sensation that makes lengthening muscles more difficult.

The reality is that contracted muscles only relax when the tone signal from the brain changes, and that is most likely to happen when the muscle is not under strain.  In other words, the desired effects of stretching are most easily and efficiently achieved while we are not stretching.  To inspire the brain and spinal cord to soften the tone signal to a muscle, it works best to deactivate the stretch receptors by shortening the contracted muscle – the opposite of stretching.  This in turn deactivates the protective tone response that comes from the spinal cord, and tells the brain that the muscle is already softening.  Once the brain and spinal cord are aware of and participating in the softening of the muscle, then it becomes possible to draw the muscle slowly into length, without activating the stretch receptors or the protective tone response.  Shorten the muscle first, and then when it begins to soften, lengthen it slowly and gently.

To really understand this process, you must experience it yourself.  This is best accomplished under the guidance of a qualified instructor.  However, in the interest of making this article as useful to readers as possible, I will describe two exercises that demonstrates the muscle relaxation process in the context of effective stretching.  I learned the first exercise from one of my yoga teachers, Richard Freeman. The second exercise is my own modification of the technique for more flexible people.  Try both.

 

Stretching Exercise for Relatively Inflexible People

  1. Lay on your back with your legs resting against the wall, knees bent, the bottoms of your relaxed feet pointing toward the ceiling.  Scoot your butt as close to the wall as you can. Relax your neck, shoulders, and stomach.  With your knees bent and your feet relaxed, you should not feel a stretch in your hamstrings.  If you do feel a stretch, bend your knees even more.
  2. Flex your ankles, spread your toes, pull them back toward the floor, and push your heels toward the ceiling until the bottoms of your feet are parallel to the ceiling, and begin to slowly straighten your knees.  This should produce a feeling of stretch in your hamstrings.  If it doesn’t, and you can easily straighten your legs, then this exercise will not work for you. It is too easy.  But for many people, the feeling of stretch will be strong enough that it may be impossible to fully straighten out your knees.  Experiment with your pain tolerance.  Give yourself the sensation of ineffective stretching by lengthening your contracted hamstrings against their own resistance.
  3. Rest by allowing your knees to bend and your feet to relax.  Reach up and massage and karate chop your hamstrings, quadriceps and glutes in an enjoyable way.  While you are massaging yourself, gently point your toes, and relax them, point and relax.  Just wiggling your feet a little bit.  You can also gently bend and extend your knees – not to the point of stretch, but rather to enjoy un-resisted movement.  This is shortening and softening the muscles before lengthening them.
  4. Now begin to slowly straighten your knees, while still massaging your legs and gently wiggling your feet.  Use the massage and movement to continue to encourage your hamstrings to relax.  Don’t push into the painful part of the stretch, just massage and move your way into the gentle extension, emphasizing the softness of your hamstrings rather than the sensation of the stretch.
  5. If you have successfully relaxed your hamstrings, then your knees should begin to straighten softly without producing very much stretch sensation.  With a little bit of practice, it should become fairly easy to straighten your legs and flex your feet without much resistance at all.  When that happens, rest with your legs straight, and reflect on what stretching isn’t, while you happily wiggle your feet.
  6. When done properly, this exercise demonstrates that muscles lengthen more easily when not under strain, and that relaxation by shortening first, then lengthening, is more effective than sustained, semi-painful stretching against resistance.  Since most people have habitually stretched against resistance for their entire lives, it can be quite a challenge to conjure up the patience and curiosity needed to explore this more gentle, conscious way of relaxing into length.  However, once you directly experience the process, and understand the natural mechanisms at work, it becomes apparent, and even obvious, that fighting against oneself in a sustained, semi-painful stretch just doesn’t make sense.  Once you are able to engage in the process, then it becomes clear that if you have the ambition to increase your flexibility, the best thing you can do is leave your ambition at the door.  Real lengthening happens more quickly when approached slowly and gently.

 

Stretching Exercise for More Flexible People

Less flexible people can do the first five steps of this exercise, and experiment gently with the rest as long as it remains comfortable.  Remember, these stretching exercises barely involve any stretching.  If you are pushing into mild discomfort and you need to breath deeply to overcome the intensity of the sensation, then you are not following these directions.  For some people, it takes quite a committed effort not to push.

  1. Sit on the floor with your feet in a relaxed c-shape in front of you, like a baby playing with toys in her lap.  Allow your knees to be bent enough that you feel no stretch in your hamstrings or thighs.  Wiggle your feet, wiggle your legs, and move your pelvis to encourage them to relax.  Flex and extend your spine gently to encourage it to relax.  Breathe, sigh, and soften yourself all over.
  2. Now move one leg so that it is turned out to the side, bent at the knee, and relaxed.  Now both knees are bent in the same direction and your weight is more on one hip than the other.  Again, wiggle your feet, flex and extend your spine, and gently twist at your waist and hips to loosen everything up.
  3. Bend forward over your forward knee and place your forearms on the floor to either side of the knee.  This should not produce a stretch in your hips, thighs, hamstrings, or low back.  If it does, then come up onto your hands and continue the exercise from there.  Also, to reduce the stress, bring your forward foot in toward your midline, increasing the bend in your knee.
  4. From the forward-bent position, again flex, extend, twist and rotate your spine and hips.  Walk your forearms over to one side of the knee, then to the other.  Remember, if there is any stretch at all during this exercise, it is very, very mild.  Anything more, and you need to back off.  You are not stretching yourself, you are relaxing yourself.
  5. Come up off your elbows and place your hands on the floor. Extend your back leg out behind you and square your hips over your front leg.  This will bring your butt up off of the floor, and may create a stretch in your hip, thigh, and hamstrings.  If it does create a stretch, come up higher on to your hands, supporting yourself more with your arms.  As the exercise progresses, you will have the opportunity to lower down again as your muscles relax.  Again, move your body in a relaxing way.  In this position, it feels nice to wiggle your whole body a little bit.  Try moving your back leg in a relaxing way.
  6. Walk your hands out, one step at a time, to slowly begin to explore a very gentle stretch in your hip and hamstrings.  Walk your hands out, and move and relax your whole body as you lower yourself down.  Eventually, you will be able to lower yourself slowly back down on to your forearms, one on either side of your forward knee.
  7. Once you are resting comfortably on your forearms, with very little stretch in your hip and hamstrings, rest, breathe and relax.  Rock your whole body from side to side, leading with your hips.  At this point, you are working directly on relaxing the muscles of the outside of your hip, your inner thigh, your low back, and the backs of your legs.  Move in relaxing, enjoyable ways.
  8. Begin gradually lowering yourself down, moving and relaxing, until you can rest your chest on your forward knee, forehead on the floor, arms relaxed.  From here, move your body in relaxing ways.  Come up out of the forward bend, and melt back into it.  Melt your legs, hips, and low back.  If you find yourself going into a strong stretch, back off, breathe, soften your attitude, drop your hurry, and focus on the feeling of relaxation rather than the feeling of the stretch.
  9. Come back up onto your hands and extend your forward knee a little bit, so that it is farther from your midline.  Flexible people may approach a right angle at the knee.  Flex and relax your ankle, and move your hips and spine.  Repeat steps 6 through 8 with your knee in this more extended position, until you can rest your chest on your knee.  Very flexible people may be able to rest their forehead on the instep of the forward foot.  All the while, instead of stretching, you are relaxing into the movement and softness of the position.
  10.  Change legs and repeat from the beginning.

 

How Connective Tissue Shortens and Lengthens

So far, I have described how muscle tissue shortens and lengthens.  But muscles are comprised of two tissues: muscle tissue and connective tissue.   Muscles are infused throughout with a web of connective tissue.  The tendons at the ends of muscles are comprised entirely of connective tissue.  Ligaments and joint capsules are also comprised entirely of connective tissue.  While some connective tissue in the body can stretch a little bit, the stuff within muscles, tendons,  ligaments and joint capsules cannot stretch at all.  It is made of a protein fiber called collagen, and collagen does not have any elastic properties.  When you pull on collagen fibers, they do not stretch.  If you pull hard enough, they break.

Pulling on collagen fibers by stretching the into length is even less effective than pulling on muscles, since unlike muscles, collagen fibers don’t have the option of relaxing.  Since they don’t stretch, and they don’t relax, collagen fibers just resist until they break.  Tendons and ligaments are really tough, but the fiber network that weaves through every muscle of the body isn’t as strong.  Painful stretching can tear those collagen fibers and lead to inflammation.  If you’ve ever stretched so much that you were sore the next day, you tore collagen fibers.  Even though they are strong, people frequently damage their tendons and ligaments with repetitive, painful stretching exercises.

Collagen fibers may be tough and inelastic, but they also have the remarkable property that allows them change consistency when massaged.  The property is called thixotropy.  Thixotropic compounds are firm when standing still, and become more liquid when shaken or moved.  Synovial fluid in joints and the ground substance between cells are both thixotropic.  Because all of the collagen fibers of the body are bathed in and infused with synovial fluid and ground substance, tendons, ligaments and joint capsules have thixotropic qualities.  This means that when you massage them, they get softer.  Tendons, ligaments and joint capsules don’t stretch when you pull on them, but if you gently agitate the fluid that surrounds and infuses them, the bonds between the fibers weaken, and places where the fibers are bound and scrunched up unbind and un-scrunch.

The thixotropic quality of synovial fluid and ground substance decreases when inflammatory mediators are activated.  This means that if you tear collagen fibers, then the inflammatory mediators are activated, and the surrounding fluid gets thick.  Likewise, the collagen fibers themselves become sticky.  Stretching to the point of pain causes micro-tearing of collagen fibers, releases inflammatory mediators, and makes everything get thick and sticky.  In contrast, if the inflammatory mediators in the ground substance and synovial fluid are not activated, then the fluid can become much more viscous and the collagen fibers much more slippery.  The only time collagen fibers can change length at all is when they are in this soft state.  Painful stretching makes this state impossible.

In the right chemical environment, collagen fibers can become surprisingly viscous – something like unbreakable snot.  This extreme thixotropic state is rare, since inflammatory mediators are active so much of the time in people’s stressed out tissues.  The attitude of always pushing forward, hurrying, and pushing into painful stretches rules out the possibility of super-viscosity of connective tissue.  But when we slow down, gently massage the tissue, and breath easily, it can transform entirely.

There is no other way to cause this remarkable state-shift other than to stop pushing and start relaxing.  Thus, combining muscle relaxation with restful breathing and gentle massage is the most effective stretching method – and it involves no stretching whatsoever.

 

General Principles for Effective Stretching

Think of stretching as soft releasing.  Don’t push into anything, ever.  Shorten and move until you relax, then slowly and gently lengthen, allowing your muscles to soften before you feel anything more than a very gentle stretch.  Move into and out of each stretch again and again, changing it into a slow, repetitive movement rather than a long hard push.  Rest often in neutral positions. If you ever do anything that causes you to have strained breathing, you are pushing way too hard.  Stop, shorten, soften, breathe easily, then slowly lengthen into the easy, natural space.

If you practice Yoga and you apply this lesson in your practice, then your Yoga experience will be radically affected.  You will no longer be able to go as deeply into any of the poses. You will look even more like a stiff person.  You won’t impress anyone.  On top of that, you will progress very slowly and mindfully through everything, falling way behind in yoga class.  You will move into and out of the poses again and again, shortening, softening, lengthening, resting.  It won’t look like yoga anymore.  It will look like moving and relaxing.  You won’t experience very much intensity.  It will be easy to breathe.

 

Why Stretching Ineffectively Still Works (Sort Of)

When you lengthen a contracted muscle to the point of pain, your breathing intensifies, and you continue to push, you can overpower your body’s own protective response.  This is kind of like winning a fight with your spouse by yelling so loud that they acquiesce to end the conflict, or like winning an arm wrestling match when your opponent finally gives up.  Your opponent in this case is your own body, and the loser of the argument is also your own body.  It is quite possible to train your body in this way, so that gradually, it gives up its tension and submits willingly to your forced posturing.  Even if it seems effective and doesn’t tear your muscles and tendons in the process, it is still never actually stretching.  In many cases, forceful stretching is the cause of muscle strain, joint sprain and joint instability.  Practicing stretching harmfully while a person is young may seem fine, but often people suffer the consequences later in life.  Ineffective stretching during yoga is the cause of an unfortunate amount of low-back, hip and shoulder pain.

Even if it doesn’t hurt you, painful stretching is a slow way to increase flexibility.  Do an experiment:  Try a painful stretch and notice how much progress you make.  Then, re-do the exercise, working much more slowly, with relaxation, movement, and almost no stretching.  If you have understood this lesson, you will naturally move much more deeply, much less painfully into every non-stretch position.  Your Yoga teacher will notice the difference too!

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