Stretching. I find it’s kind of like the fitness equivalent to a dentist telling you to floss. I get the same excuses from clients as to why they don’t. “I don’t have time.” “It’s uncomfortable.” “I mean to, it just sometimes escapes me.” Sound familiar? You’re not alone.
There are days that I’ll start with 22 sweating bodies in my 6:30am class, and then, as the last few minutes of class dedicated to stretching begins, I see tiptoeing, shadowy figures creep out the door. The lights come up, and there are seven survivors left applauding their hard work for the hour. I completely understand the need to get in the shower and off to work. It’s something that has to be done. But like your teeth and gums suffer when you skip flossing, so does your body when you skip stretching. It’s vital to keep not only your muscles happy, but also your joints. It alleviates back pain, hip tightness, knee discomfort, the list goes on and on. And especially at this time of year, it can release stress from your body and mind. The good news is that there is an easy way to turn stretching into a daily habit, and it only takes five minutes out of your day. You can put that five minutes at the start or the end of the day, whichever one works best with your schedule. Some like to set up their day feeling released while others like to rid their bodies of tension before bed. Of course both is best, but, like the fantastic Bill Murray movie What About Bob?, “Baby steps here, baby steps.” Here are three stretches that hit all major points of tightness in the body:
1) Neck and Shoulder Tension:
We hold large amounts of tension in our neck, shoulders, and upper back. The moment you miss your train, or extra work is loaded onto your desk, or you picked the wrong check out line in a hurry, those shoulders rise up and up and up. And I know for me, there are some days where I am carrying my clothes to teach class in, audition song book, tap shoes, character shoes, jazz shoes, ballet shoes, two audition outfits, makeup, phone, keys, wallet, and water all on one poor little shoulder. All day long through New York City. Your bag might contain a laptop and files instead of tap shoes, but it’s just as heavy. Think of how your muscle is screaming for release! Here’s your one minute solution: Extend one arm to your side at a 45 degree angle with your wrist flexed. Drop the opposite ear towards the opposite shoulder. You can play with the placement of your flexed wrist to find the maximum stretch. If you’d like to increase the stretch further, rest your free hand on your head. Be careful to not pull and just use the weight of the hand so you don’t overstretch the muscle. Hold for 30 seconds. Repeat on the other side.
2) Lower Back Tension:
You might have to stand for long portions of your day and it begins to sink and creep into your lower back. Or you might sit all day in a chair that involuntarily turns into a slump by the end of the day. Either way, our lower backs take a lot of heat. My physical therapist while I was on tour with Cats swears that everyone, not just those dancing around in lycra and tails for three hours a night, needs this stretch daily. And again, all it takes is just one minute: You might know this stretch by the name of cobra or prone. Start out lying on your front side. Keeping your shoulders down, rest on your forearms. You can stay here or, to deepen the stretch, press your hands into the floor and begin to straighten your arms to your point of control. Careful not to engage the muscles in your lower back to assist the stretch. Use your arms instead and try to relax your muscles in your back. This stretches and releases the front of your spine. Hold pose for 45 seconds and then pull your hips to your heels and rest in child’s pose for the remaining 15 seconds, releasing the back of the spine.
3) Hip Tension:
Especially for women, hips are a major place tension likes to live. This tension can then transfer to back pain as well as knee discomfort. It’s all connected, and you can bet where there is one tight joint, another is not far behind. But not only is it good for our bodies, it’s also good for our minds. It’s not uncommon to feel an emotional release when performing this stretch as well as a physical one. I do this stretch before and after any physical activity I do, whether it’s a Physique 57 class, ballet class, or theater audition. It releases my hips so I know all muscles will be performing properly. You probably know this stretch as pigeon stretch. Start with sitting on the floor and bending your right leg in front of you. A 90 degree angle will give you the most stretch, but you may find that you’ll need to pull the heel in closer to you at first. Extend your left leg long behind you, turning the knee to look directly down towards the floor, not to the side. You want to think of squaring both hips down towards the floor. You may find that your right hip lifts off the floor when you do this. It’s very common. If that happens, find a pillow, and place it underneath your right hip. That will keep your hips square and not put any pressure on the knee joint. Once you set this up, start with your hands on the floor and shoulders upright. This will give you a little bonus hip flexor stretch on the left leg. Then slowly try to come down to your forearms. If you can do that, then try to lay down with your forehead resting on your hands. This stretch can be uncomfortable. To ease that discomfort imagine every exhale releasing more and more tension, and remember all the good this stretch is doing for you. Every exhale out, try to turn your left hip more and more towards the floor. Stay in this stretch for 90 seconds and then repeat on the other side. Make sure you move slowly through this transition.
There you have it. Only five minutes, and you have successfully hit every major point of tension in your body. It’s time to turn it into a habit. Once it’s a habit, you won’t even need to think about it. Like washing your face at night or making coffee in the morning, or, dare I say it, flossing, it becomes part of your routine. It will be hard the first few weeks, but if you can keep disciplined, you will see an astounding release of tension and will find that your body will perform better during the day, whether it’s in your fitness endeavors or just getting through the workday. Once you get used to that five minutes, it may even turn into more. You can, of course, hold any of these postures for longer if you like. Just be sure to give equal time on each side. You’ll find that one side will be more flexible than the other. Try not to short change the less flexible side because it’s more uncomfortable. Breathe deeply. Love your body. Treat it right. Happy stretching!
AUTHOR: Sarah Marchetti