I have started stretching again recently. I am pleased so far with the results, but I will get to that a little later. Be sure to watch the video at the end. In the past, while doing external martial arts, I was very flexible and strong with my own body. After switching my focus to internal martial arts, I realized that my flexibility and strength were no match for the type of relaxed looseness that my teacher had. During that time period, I never did catch on to how my teacher was able to do those stretches the way that he did, and it took all I had just to try to keep up with him, a pale external imitation. In 2000, going back to school had me change priorities, and stretching took a back seat.
Though I continued to practice t’ai chi and qigong since then and did joint opening and loosening exercises the whole time, because I was not actually stretching, I lost quite a bit of range, especially in stretches that involved my hamstrings. I could no longer do the splits or bend straight down with my body flat to my legs, just to name a few.
About three years ago, I decided to start stretching again. I used the exercises / stretches that I learned from my teacher. I also added a few that I used to do back in my external martial arts days. It was rough going. I was worse off than I thought. I did try a different approach, though, based on my new understandings.
I knew I had to loosen and relax rather than to stabilize and stretch. Stabilizing part of the body and literally stretching another part of the body away from that was how I had always stretched. It seemed to fit in well with my former external martial arts paradigm. However, that method was no longer appropriate for my body, and I needed to find another way.
I had done a lot of work on loosening, relaxing, and extending my spine in my t’ai chi and qigong practice, so I made sure I was doing that while doing the stretch routine. That did help some, and I was able to increase my range, but I was still nowhere close to my former flexibility. Furthermore, my hamstrings never, ever stopped feeling tight. On top of that, the stretching left my hamstrings painful, and I mean painful every day. I was stretching every day for the first few months, then I switched it to every other day. After a while, I tried two times a week. Still, my hamstrings were not recovering between workouts. I finally gave up.
It had been over two years since then with no stretching and losing flexibility and range. For some reason, I decided to undergo the process once again, hoping for better results this time, and better results I got.
About four weeks ago, I decided to start stretching again. I basically went into it with the same mindset of needing to loosen and relax rather than stabilize and stretch. I also decided to do this two to three times maximum per week. The first week was horrible. It was just like my attempts a few years ago, except I had even less range, and my hamstrings hurt even more.
I was discouraged, but I did not give up. On week two, I decided to really slow down the process and listen to my body. I needed to figure out what was going on that was keeping me from getting into these stretches.
I realized that my hips were playing a huge role in my lack of progress. Because I felt relaxed, I assumed that my hips were relaxed when I was trying to bend at the hips. On the contrary, there was a bit of stabilizing going on in my hips that I did not notice until I really paid attention. This kind of stabilizing caused me to fight against myself which amplified the hamstring issue. My remedy was to specifically release the hips while loosening and relaxing into the stretches. This made a notable difference. I instantly gained more range with much, much less hamstring discomfort during the stretches, and I had very little to no lingering hamstring pain between stretch workouts.
I do have to be mindful that releasing the hips once is not going to do it. I have to keep releasing the entire time during a stretch. I have also noticed that even while releasing the hips, my hamstrings can still be problematic at times. When they tighten up and inhibit my movement like that, it means I am fighting myself somehow, and because I am already releasing my hips, it must be somewhere else. What I discovered is that if I place my attention on the front of my thighs while releasing the hips, I can get into the difficult stretches more easily. Very simply put, the muscles on the front of the thighs oppose the muscles on the back of the thighs. So, while releasing the hips, if I also release the front of the thighs, my tight hamstrings behave better.
This is week four now, and I can fairly comfortably get into the splits which I have not been able to do in well over ten years. I filmed myself last night and have included the video below. In watching the video, I can see that I need to do more work on loosening and releasing the low back, but at least now I look forward to stretching, and I am not in constant pain because of the stretching. In just four weeks, I have made a lot of progress stretching only two to three times per week for about 15 minutes per session. I think I am finally on the right path with this.
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