The Flexibility Wisdom of Dogs and Cats
Have you ever seen a dog or cat (or any other animal) stretch a particular muscle like we humans do? Occasionally they might stretch one limb, but generally they do full-body stretches. What can we learn from this?
We’ve been told stretching is the way to increase flexibility, prevent injury and muscle soreness, and enhance performance. If you’re stretching to achieve these purposes, I have bad news. As this well-researched article outlines, numerous studies have shown “this extremely popular form of exercise has almost no measurable benefits.”1
This isn’t to say stretching is a bad thing or shouldn’t be done. Stretching can help us feel refreshed, provide different sensations when muscles are sore, or just plain feel good to do. It may also be a time when you pay some loving attention to your body.
Is There an Alternative to Stretching?
So if stretching isn’t so effective at relieving tight muscles, what can you do? The most powerful way I’ve found is to change muscle tone at a neurological level.
Muscles always have some small amount of tone. However, we habitually hold additional, unnecessary tone. It’s like the light switch in our brain that tells muscles to contract was turned on then forgotten. If we remember the light switch is on, we can turn it off.
This process can be conscious—such as when you take a deep in-breath and intentionally let go of tension as you exhale. Or it can be unconscious—doing things that calm your nervous system and/or shake up your postural or movement habits.
The first step is to pause and feel excess muscular tension: Where and how do you hold yourself? How are you breathing? Just taking time to stop and sense yourself can be enough for muscles to start letting go.
You can then use various techniques to elicit further change in muscle tone. For example, relaxation and breathing exercises, or Feldenkrais Awareness Through Movement are potent tools for turning off forgotten light switches.
Quick Way to Release Your Tight Neck Muscles
Here’s a short experiment you can do to relieve tension in your neck. Try it right now as you sit in your chair.
1. Tilt Your Head
Slowly tilt your head right and left several times (ear toward shoulder, nose points forward the whole time). Stay in a small, easy range (i.e., do not stretch). Notice the quality of the movement and how far you go to each side, then rest a moment.
2. Pick the direction you want to improve. Slowly and gently tilt your head in the opposite direction. [If you want to improve bending to the right, tilt your head to the left.] At the same time, lift that shoulder toward your ear—only a small amount. Slowly and gently continue moving your ear and shoulder toward each other and away. Each time, find how to use less effort, so the movement becomes lighter and simpler. Then rest a moment.
3. Again, move the shoulder and ear toward each other and stay like that. Now keep your ear and shoulder this same distance from each other, as you lower your shoulder and head (bending a little more to the side) and raising them (so your head is more upright, the shoulder following as if connected by a rubber band). Then let it all go and rest.
4. Return to the original movement of tilting your head right and left. Has it become easier to bend your head to one (or both) sides?
5. (Optional) Repeat all to the other side.
When you allow your muscles to lengthen in this way, your nervous system has the opportunity to ‘reset’ the resting level of muscle tone. In other words, the lights can stay off until you need them!
Want to Release Your Tight Muscles?
Sign up for my Top Tips for Turning Farther and More Easily series—or any of my movement classes!