(An earlier version of this article was originally published in 2013 - enjoy this update for spring!)
A well-timed stretch feels delicious. It’s the body’s natural remedy and reset button when we’ve been static or tense for too long. Watch any cat or dog upon waking, and the first thing you’ll see is, forepaws out, belly to the earth, and a gentle shift extending all four limbs. It may be one of the first sensations you experience in the morning – stretching arms and legs inside warm covers. It may be something you do without thinking throughout the day.
Structure, connection & movement
Simply put, flexibility is about range of motion - specifically, the range of motion around any joint. Range of motion is determined by many factors: The construction of the joint itself (this depends on the type of joint and also varies between individuals) elasticity of the muscles, condition of the fascia or connective tissue, as well as age, injury, and illness. Flexibility is the dynamic relationship between muscles, tendons, bones and ligaments - the relationship between structure, connection and movement.
A beautiful system of give and take
The mechanics of flexibility reveal a beautifully balanced system of give and take-a delicate opposition designed to maximize range while maintaining form and function.
Flexibility requires extension and contraction, relaxation and engagement. Stretching activates specialized structures inside the muscle fibers that inhibit, to some extent, the reflex to pull back, allowing us to relax into the extension more deeply. At the same time, other structures in the muscle initiate sensory signals when we approach the limits of safe movement.
Flexibility is developed by moving the joints-- by opening, extending and closing; by engaging the muscles to spiral gently outward along the bones. Flexibility depends on a balance of stability and mobility, moving in ways that are fully supported. Flexibility increases by extending toward our limits and exploring the edge without pushing past it. This requires care and attention – in a word - mindfulness.
Muscles stretch, ligaments do not. Stretching too far endangers the stability of the joint, but without enough movement we become rigid and stiff, with a limited range of response. We need both impulses - the desire to extend as well as the wisdom to stay. With time and practice, honoring both, the body can develop an astonishingly degree of flexibility.
The language of sensation – Sensing flexibility
If sensation is the language of the body, then the voice of flexibility feels like expansion and elasticity; moving away from the core and returning again energized. Nia TechniqueTM author Debbie Rosas describes flexibility as "the sensation of energy moving outward” of “muscles extending along the bones” in a way that feels pleasurable. Flexibility is felt in the body as a balanced state of “Dynamic Ease.”
Sensing flexibility, however, is not necessarily about touching your toes – it’s about tuning-in. This is an important distinction. Sensory awareness relies on attention and perception. The point is not what the movement looks like on the outside as much as what it feels like on the inside. Fluency in the language of the body is learning to stay connected to that awareness moment to moment.
If this sounds a lot like mindfulness practice, you're right. Bringing attention to a specific quality of sensation is one way to step fully into the present moment. We cultivate the quality by placing attention on it, refining it, exploring it as fully as we can, in movement and in life.
Developing flexibility requires consistency. It won't be there when we need it, in mind or body, if we don't engage with it more days than not. Practicing in ways that feel good, increases a sense of joy, playfulness, and purpose. Consistency also helps inoculate us against the stress of those times when we will need to test our limits in the face of challenge or loss.
This month, as we explore the sensation of flexibility in all its forms, let's begin by bringing attention to this quality wherever we encounter it. In nature and in the city, in the beautiful collaboration of forces that allows trees to bend, bridges to sway, grass to spring back from under foot-- that let's our fingers reach a little higher, our hearts open a little wider. Let's stay awake to the many ways we cultivate and receive the quality of expanding and returning, extending ourselves into our own version of full-bodied flexibility in our lives, whatever that may look like...sensing flexibility from the inside out...it can bring more space, fluidity and ease than we may have imagined.
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