Back-to-School is a good time to practice flexibility, adjusting to learning, new knowledge and schedules. Also the late-summer heat in the northern hemisphere is that much more conducive to a good stretch out. But tests to our personal resilience and ability to respond with agility to change come all year long.
Maybe you already love stretching and appreciate the experience and benefits. In that case, we’ve got the choir and the preacher, let’s sing!
But it could be that your emotions around stretching and flexibility work could be more mixed, or even downright negative. The words you use to describe stretching practice could be mild, such as uncomfortable, boring… or strong, such as awful, excruciating, torture.
In that case, it could be time for a shift of mindset and actual stretching setup, toward comfort, relaxation, and the positive influence, both physical and mental, of greater elasticity in our lives. It means more possibilities for movement, physical and metaphorical!
Momentary discomfort can, through mindfulness, curiosity, and resourcefulness, transform into something savory, delicious, even indulgent. With the right timing, intentions, music, positions and approaches, props, and breathwork you may just fall in love with the spaciousness of flexibility.
Come feast your senses with me 🙂
1. Set Goals & Intentions
Build a consistent practice of, for example, gentle morning stretches (such as Yoga for Energy), a general post-exercise routine, and/or activity-specific stretches to meet certain goals. Establish what your goals for stretching are, and why.
For example, my goals are ease of movement, mobility, muscle recovery (dealing with tension, soreness, and pain), and to prepare my body for sitting meditation.
For more about how to create and achieve such objectives, read my Goal Setting for Dancers blog article.
2. Good Times to Stretch
If you want to jump right into a full stretching routine and that feels good to you and fits your lifestyle, excellent! Get in there with longer guided yoga or stretching sessions or do your own thing.
Unfortunately, stretching isn’t as effective when rushed, so you need to schedule sufficient time to allow for muscular release. To set up a sustainable practice step by step, I suggest choosing 1-3 stretches to practice regularly, then schedule in short, doable sessions. Try starting with one priority stretch, for 3-5 minutes, 3 times a week, then add on when that is established and you want more.
3. Be Well Warmed Up
Related to selecting the right moments for stretching, it is important to do at least a gentle warm up first. If you’re stretching first thing in the morning, do some circles or swings first, and always ease in.
As Rory Foster writes in the book Ballet Pedagogy, “It is important for dancers to get thoroughly warmed up in order to reduce the chances of injury. It takes approximately 20-30 minutes to completely warm up muscles, so coming to class early in order to begin warming up should be encouraged. Once the muscles are warmed (in the latter part of barre work), it is then safe to do full stretches.” (p.122)
Stretching, strength and stability work, and aerobic endurance are all important for overall fitness, health, and athletic performance, such as dancing, so design a program that includes various elements of cross-training to feel and function well.
4. Always Move Mindfully
Always go slowly, carefully, with respect for your current condition and approval or supervision of appropriate medical professionals. Stretching should never be rushed or haphazard.
As Eliza Gaynor Minden says in the book The Ballet Companion, “How you arrive at and how you leave a position are as important as the position itself; this is just as true for stretching as it is in the rest of ballet. Your transitions into and out of a stretch should be slow, controlled, and graceful.” (p.109)
For more on stretching best practices, read my Go Bananas for the Splits: leap like Hanuman and a review of the basics of stretching technique blog article, and for more about hip flexibility and dance, Truths About Turnout.
5. Start with Major Muscle Groups
Get going with the basics, then fine-tune or add on. Good places to begin include the:
- Quadriceps (front of thighs)
- Anterior Hip: Hip Flexors and Psoas (front of hip, deep hip)
- Hamstrings (back of thigh)
- Adductor/Groin (inner thigh)
- External Rotators (outer hip)
- Flexor Hallucis Longus (lower leg/ankle)
- Calves (lower leg)
(The Ballet Companion p.110-117)
My Intro to Hip Stretches video includes inner and outer thighs and hips in a 15-minute practice, as does my Yoga Cool Down Video, or if you have even less time, try out the 6-Minute Hip Stretch for After Ballet Video.
6. Find Your Preferred Position
There are benefits to stretching in a variety of positions, so explore a variety to see what is possible and preferable for you personally. The following are a few possibilities.
Here is a major muscle group stretch with a ballet barre or other solid support:
Laying Down / Reclining Stretches
Here is a stretching sequence from a reclining position on the floor, bed, or couch:
We can also stretch while seated, either on the floor or in a chair:
7. Pick Your Props
Do you prefer a minimalist, low-equipment or prop-free practice? More power to you, there are lots of ways to reap the benefits of stretching without fancy props.
On the other hand, it may turn out that you enjoy the practice more with appropriate aids, such as a yoga strap or belt, blocks, a towel or blanket, pillows or a bolster, foam roller or massage ball.
These sorts of tools help me find comfortable and well-supported positions in which to stretch and relax. Possible applications are infinite, but the general principle is to bring the floor up to meet you, or make feet or legs easier to grasp, and to stabilize positions for less strain and properly focused effort.
8. Musical Motivation to Stretch
Some folks prefer to stretch in silence. Others like to catch up on podcasts, audiobooks, or chat with friends.
For those who like a fitting audio experience, a catchy melody or good beat can make a world of difference in the experience of stretching or working out. Try out this stretching-themed playlist or simply listen to favorite tracks that put you in the mood:
9. Picture Something Beautiful
Along with treats for the ears, consider lovely visuals (nature, through a window, flowers…) or a visualization while you stretch. I love a juicy image, and provide a few in this podcast:
10. Breathe into the Stretch
Or perhaps the audio track of our stretching session is the sound of the flow of our own breath. The quality of our breathing while we stretch can tell us a lot. In general, smooth and even breathing indicates relaxation and ease, and when we notice our breathing gets caught or labored, we may be over-exerting ourselves.
Going at an easy pace is always important to stretching. Along with other visualizations, imagining sending our breath to tight spots can help make our stretching more tasty and enjoyable. For more fun with Yoga Pranayama and breathwork, I offer my Beautiful Breathing playlist on YouTube.
11. Structures of Support
Create structure, accountability, rewards, or tracking in a way that supports your new habit. Consider social supports such a stretching partner, accountability buddy, coach, or group. Celebrate small wins along the way, such as practicing a small amount consistently, or reaching intermediate milestones.
I encourage starting with ease and enjoyment and small steps toward sustainable success over the long term. It will take time to determine what works best for you, but you can accelerate the process with strategy and support. Check out my Healthy Habit Building blog article for lots more on picking up the habits you desire.
I stand for the possibility that stretching specifically, and mindful movement in general, can be fun, playful, joyful, even downright yummy!
Sumptuous Stretching Playlist
I will continue to update my collection of delicious stretching practices for dance and general joy:
Flexibility in Life
How does this flexible mindset apply in our larger lives? It invites us to consider where we need to build strength, endurance, and flexibility in our choices. This way we are aware and can react dynamically, effectively, and powerful to change. We become adaptable, versatile, and resilient.
Learn more about bouncing back in Podcast 009: Resilience.
Stretchy Reflection Questions
- What is the intention of your stretching/flexibility practice?
- What are your flexibility goals?
- Why do you have these goals, or what purpose do they serve?
- What tools serve your stretching practice?
- Where would you like to learn to be more flexible in life?
Please tell me about your experience and challenges with stretching, flexibility, and mobility. Still to come, ever-expanding movement offerings and writing on the topics of Cooling Down, Elements of Dance, Riding Waves of Change, and more!
Blythe Stephens, MFA
they/them or she/they
Helping multipassionate creatives dance through their difficulties
and take leaps of faith into lives of fulfillment
DISCLAIMER: A Blythe Coach recommends that you consult your physician regarding the applicability of any recommendations and follow all safety instructions before beginning any exercise program. When participating in any exercise or exercise program, there is the possibility of physical injury. If you engage in this exercise or exercise program, you agree that you do so at your own risk, are voluntarily participating in these activities, assume all risk of injury to yourself.