Let’s start with the elephant in the room. There are almost no classic mind-body training modalities (I’d include dance and gymnastics here) that do not include long-hold stretching. And while interesting studies exists on post-effort stretching for short holds, PNF stretching, and mind-muscle relaxation, any trainer worth their salt has seen certain clients hit the wall with flexibility progress and plateau, at lengths well beneath their potential.
It can be extremely puzzling, especially when you see someone attempting the front splits completely remove their hands from the ground and balance, and their body, full bodyweight weighing them down, fails to access more length.
If I were making up numbers in my head, I’d say somewhere around 50% of trainees can access respectable flexibility (front and center splits) without long-hold stretching that goes well into the minutes, let’s say 5 to 10 minutes. But that doesn’t mean they too would not progress faster, or benefit considerably, by long-hold stretching.
Monks Don’t Care About You
I vividly remember the screams of adult men resonating throughout the training hall on my first day at the Shaolin academy in the north of China. The teachers, ex Shaolin monks.
I also remember a couple students leaving the very next day because they were deeply injured, and in no way considered getting surgery for torn groin tissue in the city of Siping. But that gives you an indication of the intensity and depth of stretching that occurred there.
In front splits, there was a monk grasping each foot, pulling in opposite directions, while a third monk pushed down on your shoulders. In back bends, monks stood on your hands and feet, while a third monk yanked you up by the front of your pants. These postures / stretches were then held beyond what most minds can bare - screams, tears, profanity, prayer. Trainees just wanted out.
But there’s only one way out - perfect expression of length in that posture. Then you get left alone… if you’re not damaged. It was common to not be able to move for seconds to minutes after each stretch, as your body reset.
This is not unlike stories found in gymnastics training, ballet, or yoga.
There’s a problem of survivorship bias in all classical arts, which is one of the reasons I’m relentless in mining for dogmatic patterns, tools, and approaches that can be discarded with prejudice. When your method designs incredible human specimens, but you don’t do the tedious work of isolating and testing variables independently, you become convinced that EVERYTHING is responsible for your results, when in actuality, it’s a very small percentage of techniques that generate asymmetric payoff.
Weightlessness is a ruthlessly reductionist mind-body process, isolating and focussing primarily on the latter.
The challenge we have here, is that the Shaolin approach clearly works. It also damages some trainees for life. Where exactly does that line get drawn, and how much risk is acceptable to access seamless flexibility for life (not just for a few hours to days)?
First, let’s ask this question in the negative - what can’t we accomplish with shorter duration stretching sessions?
The Tension Problem
Tension… is a problem. And unless you’re under ten years old, it’s quite possibly THE problem. Muscles contract by moving myosin and actin fibers past one another in grid like fashion, thereby shortening the length of the muscle. That’s what strength training achieves by design. But be sure, opening a door, standing up, and any other other menial task throughout the day is coordinated through unconscious contractions throughout the body.
In the case of high intensity exercise, these contractions can be substantial, calling on most of the fibers in relevant muscles. In the case of grabbing a frying pan, marginal firing is sufficient - some of the fibers contracting fully, while others remain relaxed.
When movement patterns are frequently repeated, tensions don’t always subside. Notice the semi-shrugged shoulders of stressed-out coworkers. The furrowed brows. These tensions begin with purpose, and remain for survival. They protect you. This is where the problems of tension, stress, and trauma overlap.
But let’s stick to the mere physicality of the problem. Tension holds you together. Which is why grit personality types are often physically inflexible, and gravitate toward heavy weight training or high intensity training, while fluid personality types tend to be more flexible, and gravitate toward softer, slower practices like yin yoga and tai chi. Grit and fluidity are at opposite ends of the tension spectrum, and are manifested when the mind-body sustains certain levels of tension over years.
For those with mind-body training and the mind-muscle connection to consciously release tension with but a thought, tension is a problem of the past. For most people most of the time, this tension is 1) not a point of conscious awareness, and so is difficult to address, and 2) difficult to release, regardless, even when it’s a point of conscious attention.
30 second holds are simply not sufficient for those with a great deal of life-stress (reflected in physical tension unconsciously holding you together) or those with poor mind-body connection (cerebral or grit types who’s energy is above the neck, or forward looking).
The psychosomatic defaults of these characters must be tested and ‘burned out’, so to speak. If the system cannot release tension quickly, it must be placed into uncomfortable positions that mandate a release of that tension.
And this speaks to the molding problem.
The Molding Problem
Your body is a tensegrity structure, a complex of tension (muscles, tendons, fascia) and compression (bones) members, organized in a way that distributes strain across your frame in the least immediately uncomfortable fashion. For trained mind-body athletes, this is a conscious process engrained through structural conditioning and/or dogmatic, patterned movement.
For the untrained, this is an unconscious process where the tissues of your body reorganize themselves to account for your relationship with your environment - your exercise, your posture, the way you sit, type, eat, watch TV, converse, and the personality with which you face the world - leaning in and gritting through it, sitting back and relaxing, etc.
Your fascia - the collagen sheaths that envelope every muscle, organ, joint, and even your entire human form beneath the skin - is plastic. Which is to say it can be molded, but it also tightens in certain places of disuse or strain. The soft tissue of your body is alive, and must be fed with range and movement, otherwise it stiffens and holds you to the dominant day to day patterns of your life.
So even if you can get muscles to relax, that may not be enough for your fascia to reinvigorate, relax, and lengthen in any preferred length of time. In this case, stretching is a practice of remolding - counteracting the forms and patterns you practice 24 hours a day that have led to stiff hips, hamstrings, calves, and a sore back.
Flexibility hindered by the molding problem must be addressed through long-hold stretching that retrains your myofascia to distribute strain along new lines and patterns. As you can imagine, for a 40-something+ year old who’s sat at a desk and reclined in bed watching Netflix for ten or twenty years, that’s a lot of repatterining…
And that assumes you even want to.
The Problem of Will
And you may want to… but not really though. Most people like the idea of fitness and flexibility, but when they’re in the shit of training, and the body starts screaming out for release from the pains of stretching, the mind decides it may not be worth it.
The most foundational principle of fitness, or shall we say adaptation, is that your capacities must be proven inadequate for super-compensation (growth) to take place. And stretching is no different. Playing in comfortable ranges is a recipe for maintenance, if you’re lucky, and regression, if you’re not. Discomfort is a prerequisite for growth, and for our purposes here, for flexibility improvement.
Nobody wanted those damn monks pulling and bouncing on them. But you know what? EVERYONE there could do the splits. This was a standard of training, not an outlier feat. It didn’t matter what you wanted. You signed up for hell, and hell is what you got… until you could bend.
And just as your body rejects the stretch, sustaining tensions long held, and even generating new ones to resist new length, so too does the mind resist the pains of stretching, thereby reinforcing the physical tensions generated to protect, but which unintentionally augment the pain.
There is no safe place, and that’s the point. We must outlast discomfort. The mind-body must surrender. And that takes time.
Going to Your Safe Place | Outlasting the Stretch Reflex
There are internal, unconscious resistances we all have to discomfort that must be conscientiously attended to if mind-body control is to improve.
While I could play in the domain of flowery metaphor here, as everyone can understand, on a visceral level, the impulse to flee discomfort and embrace safety, there are mechanisms in the body that literally signal that very thing. One of which, the stretch reflex, or myotatic reflex, is an unconscious contraction of the muscle signaled by muscle spindles (stretch receptors) contiguous to each muscle. When muscle length is tested beyond recent limits, or stretched at new speeds, these spindles signal for your muscle to… you guessed it, tense up.
And these signals, this is important, do not make it to your brain before triggering the reflex. They make it to the base of the spine, and then your nervous system dictates the response.
This can be a devastating response when it occurs during sprinting or kicking, your body literally squeezing and pulling you against your active efforts, resulting in tears and sprains. That’s why advanced Weightlessness Training (Lightness Training, more accurately), includes dynamic flexibility as a core pillar. Speed matters, and one must condition the nervous system, not just the length of myofascia or the relaxation of muscle, to reinterpret safe ranges at speed.
But back to our core focus - the improvement of general flexibility, and those stubborn bodies that refuse to lengthen with scientifically validated short-duration stretching methods. The stretch reflex is almost always a culprit in these cases.
Absurdly, stretching for too short a time, which varies greatly among individuals, can elevate threat levels - having the opposite effect to intended outcome - you may leave that stretching session tighter than when you started.
With training, one generally learns to connect in a state of relaxation that reinforces the release of tension. But not always. And in such cases, one must hold the stretch long enough to trigger that stretch reflex, which can cause extreme discomfort, if not pain, to the point of unconscious muscle spasms, sweating and achy gums, before those spindles burn out and stop signaling threat.
When you don’t flee the stretch, eventually the nervous system registers that length as safe, as new baseline. But it’s a hell of a way to induce comfort. It’s like a schoolyard spat, where two kids have to fight it out to exhaustion, only to realize, ‘you’re not so bad, let’s be friends.’
Star Trek Stretching & Cold Length
Back at Uni, I had a Taekwondo instructor who’d often say things like ‘if you stretch warm, you have to be warm to have that flexibility. If you stretch cold, you can perform cold.’
It was one of those unscientific claims that proved somewhat true after decades of experimentation, study, and exploration. He was also a Star Trek geek, and would watch his favorite show sitting in the splits. The Star Trek stretch - as it came to be called.
He’d do this for entire episodes. It turns out, decades later, there’s something to that. It turns out flexibility is more than stretching - that the tissues of the body are plastic (not elastic), and mold to form out of necessity. It turns out that if you want to do a thing, you actually have to do that thing, as a lifestyle choice, not a corrective, post-workout practice.
When your environment is given precedent over your alignment, alignment eventually sticks. Star Trek makes flexible bodies, and your cold length is your performance baseline.
Tiger Breathing - A Sigh of Release
One of the techniques I teach for stretching is what I call tiger breathing. I don’t know why I call it that. But it’s basically a deep, guttural sigh that growls through the throat. It’s a focused release where the mind ought to be coordinating relaxation of targeted muscles.
This technique is the opposite of a long-hold approach. It requires a modicum of cold flexibility - myofascial length - that will not inhibit the release of muscular tension. Once that baseline is achieved, tiger breathing can be remarkably effective.
Regardless of how long and loose your soft tissues are, muscular tension is still highly volatile, influenced by exercise, sleep, stress, and emotional flux. Fascia, being much more plastic, is unlikely to shorten or tense to the same degree, after it’s been molded to greater lengths. But muscular tension creeps in every damn morning, and during every workout. So a combo of these tools is by far the optimal approach.
For the mind-body practitioner, one who is highly attuned to their psychobiology, tension ought to be releasable with but a thought, or a few deep breaths. Stretching ought to be a practice of attunement, of immediate reconnection, and then, release of unnecessary tensions. With practice, stretching can go from hour long Star Trek sessions to 3 connected tiger breaths.
Tips for long-hold stretching:
- Get masterful alignment coaching! This can make the difference between effective stretching, where the nervous system is put progressively at ease, versus torturous sessions where the body is constantly fighting against itself.
- Ease in. Get to a modest point of discomfort to start, and sit there. Give your body time to recognize what’s going on, without adding mental stress or physical tension to the equation.
- After a minute or two kick out to greater lengths, a point where range is clearly being tested. This is the point where the stretch reflex might be triggered, and spasming, tensing, or pain may surface. Adhere strictly to form, breathe, relax the muscles of your face and shoulders, and ride it out. When those spasms run their course, the pain will dissipate.
- After a couple minutes, kick that length out to greater range, and repeat the last step.
- Notice here the windows of assimilation that must take place. It’s not ten minutes of grueling effort, but rather 8 minutes of relaxed posturing, with 2 minutes of real discomfort. You must signal to your nervous system that these new ranges are of no threat, and that means accepting, with your mind, your state of being.
When the mind releases attachments, the body stops resisting.
Be Weightless Tribe,
Want that flexibility without the torture of training with unsympathetic monks?
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