Therapeutic Muscle Stretching

Stretching is useful in re-aligning the body. As an image, think of a garment made of fabric with some elastic elements. If someone has been wearing it, it may have wrinkles. Pushing on wrinkles may move them slightly but it does not eliminate them. However grabbing the edge of the garment and stretching it then letting go is an instinctive move to straighten it. Stretching is also essential for relaxing the person, and restoring the capacity for vibration.

Stretching has two operational goals, increasing the dynamic range of the overlap of contractile fibers, and lengthening the 'resting' muscle length. This latter goal has two parts itself, one lengthening the elastic elements, and two reducing the 'resting' overlap of the contractile fibers. Briefly, all muscles have a baseline tone, or slow continuous contraction, managed by the sympathetic nervous system through the muscle spindles, which are sensory elements that monitor tension and length in muscle fibers. Muscle spindles also initiate the stretch reflex, which is a strong contraction if the muscles are stretched more than a little.

Not only is muscle tone generally too much due to sympathetic shift, but high tone slowly induces shortening, which retriggers the tone mechanism and a vicious circle ensues. The shuffling gait associated with the elderly is the result of a very small range of motion at the joints caused by progressive muscle shortening which is the result of chronic high muscle tension. Muscle shortening is also ruinous to balance.

Reversing the shortening process requires retraining the nervous system. Passive stretching, if done diligently has some durable effect, but does not seem to provide this retraining, and so the cumulative results are often disappointing. However, it has been found that when isometric contraction is sequenced in with stretching, much greater and much more durable lengthening occurs. This was first developed in physical therapy under the name of proprioceptive neuromuscular facilitation (PNF). In physical fitness training, it is usually just called contraction release (CR) stretching. CR stretching seems to 'reset' the muscle length/muscle tension set points and allow the nervous system to tolerate longer muscles.

Because it involves isometric resistance, CR stretching also addresses weakness, especially in the core muscles, which is the culprit behind a weak sense of self. Chronically overlengthened and hypotonic muscles are brought into balance.

Though it is tempting to describe in further detail here, the reader is directed to a good book on stretching, which will cover CR techniques in general, as well as show individual stretches for the whole body. A particular good, Reich and Lowen friendly one is by Kit Laughlin, Stretching & Flexibility. Laughlin actually provides many 'beginner' stretches tailored for the very inflexible person--in this it is truly a remedial approach suitable for very tight western bodies.

Stretching probably represents some of the lowest hanging fruit in bodywork. Because muscles are isolated one at a time, constant supervision by a highly trained person is not necessary. A conscientious person can do this him- or herself from directions for the price of the book. Also, the strong (but not painful) sensation brings helps unite body and mind,