What I’ve learned about flexibility

7 Nov

I was running around doing…something…yesterday and didn’t have time to write and today I was running around again to several different stores looking for a stand for my laptop (which I didn’t find one that I liked…going to have to order one online).  Now that the northern hemisphere is in its colder months, I like to use my computer in the warmth and comfort of my bed, and set it on top of a mini-table.  But that alone is not enough, and so I stack it on a makeshift laptop stand that is currently comprised of a large book on Personology and a 3-ring binder, to angle it upwards.  The reason why this is so important, and especially for dancers is because you need to have the monitor up by your face at eye level in order to maintain good posture.  One should try to avoid sitting for too long because creasing your hip flexors for extended periods of time is going to make them tight, but when sitting, one should sit upright, which is impossible to do when the computer is far below eye level.  Good posture is not only a part of the ballet aesthetic; through personal research I have found that good posture is the key to good flexibility.  And I’ve done a LOT of research, because nobody has tighter muscles than me (hips like rusted iron hinges as I like to say).

All dancers want to be more flexible, but sometimes there’s a lack of attention paid to the relationship between alignment and flexibility.  For example, many people have an anterior tilt to their pelvises (pelvii?), which actually pulls on the hamstrings and weakens the lower abdominals.  The end result is constantly aggravated hamstrings and weakened hip flexors, neither of which can lengthen properly (and you stick your butt out like a baboon).  Furthermore, when you’re staring downward at a computer, your shoulders are hunching forward and it tightens your chest muscles.  Like the tilted pelvis/leg relationship, the upper back is equally affected by tight chest muscles, leading to less mobility in the shoulders, thus affecting your port de bras.  If your chest muscles are really tight, you’re going to have problems taking your arms up to a nice an open fifth, and keeping your shoulders away from your ears.  Cuban Marden would always tell me to relax my shoulders, and I would try but I literally could not lower my shoulders because I had so much tension in my upper torso.

So what to do…stretch a lot?  Not quite.  A lot of people improve flexibility with what they believe to be proper stretching, but for some of us, it hasn’t worked so well.  I know for me, I’m so behind in mobility that no amount of stretching ever seemed to help.  However, what I realized is that flexibility is not muscular, but mental.  Jigga-what?!?  I completely changed my mind on what flexibility is after talking with a friend who is a med student, and told me that they can play with cadavers and manipulate their joints into contortionistic positions and full splits like it’s no big deal.  First of all, that’s kind of morbid, gross (sorry to paint a graphic picture) and slightly disturbing that these are the people we trust to take care of our health…but it’s also really interesting.  That means when our brains don’t meddle and tell our muscles via neuromuscular functions that they can’t go any further, that the muscles themselves are actually free to do whatever they want.  So stretching isn’t about physically lengthening muscles, but rather, instructing the muscles that it is okay to lengthen.  Translation…every body has the potential and the key is learning to access it.  Ta-da!  Step number one in improving your flexibility is trusting that your body CAN and WILL get there someday.

But, you still have to put in some work.  You can’t just tell your body to be more flexible, because it knows better.  So how to improve flexibility?  I would honestly encourage anyone to do a lot of research and figure out what they need for themselves.  For me, I actually did yoga for a few years and didn’t have much improvement at all.  I hated it…it was boring and didn’t really sufficiently connect the dots for my brain.  Pilates on the other hand, I got a lot out of (even if I haven’t been able to get myself back into a regular routine of doing it).  I got more out of two months of pilates than I did doing two years of yoga.  Every body and brain works differently, and because I have a lot of instability in my core, pilates was doing more to correct my body than yoga was.  However, the idea that stretching is about accessing potential is universal, in my opinion.  As is massage!  Massages are freebies to better flexibility.  The more tension you release in your body, the more flexibility you will have.  Not just muscles, but the all important fascia (which is what yoga actually stretches.  Yoga works for a lot of people…I just hate it).  That’s why I got Horatio (who is excruciating on my quads…that tells you how tight mine are) and a couple of inflatable balls as used in the “Franklin method.”  Eric Franklin’s book Conditioning for Dance has a lot of great theraband exercises for strengthening as well as myofascial release techniques using those inflatable balls for self massage.

So after a lot of research, and looking into the different ways to achieve better flexibility, not just in the realm of dance but from martial arts people to physical therapists (some of which are crazy…and very wrong), I found a flexibility program that is very much in line with my beliefs on how flexibility works.  Although I heard of the various techniques in the program here and there from my research, the program organizes it in such a way that makes it easy for me to make it a part of my daily routine.  I will in fact, embark on this new journey to better flexibility tonight!  I begin as the tightest human being on Earth, and hope to achieve a good split, because Yen Fang told me if I did, I would turn into a prince.  When that day comes, I shall post a complete review of the program…mum’s the word for now because I don’t want to necessarily endorse something I haven’t really tried and had results from yet.  Wish me luck!

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6 Responses to “What I’ve learned about flexibility”

  1. Karena November 7, 2009 at 11:53 pm #

    I can’t find where (which is driving me crazy–grad school instills a neurotic obsession with citing your sources…) but I have read that coma patients can be stretched around like gumby dolls too, and that in concert with that, focusing on thinking happy, relaxing, “it’s ok, you’re safe” type thoughts can really help increase flexibility when stretching. The brain is such a crazy thing…

    Also, in other places I’ve read that using a muscle makes it more receptive to stretching, so that being active through a wide range of motion can be more useful for increasing functional flexibility than passive stretches.

    And yes, the plural is pelvises.

    • Nichelle November 10, 2009 at 12:20 am #

      Looking forward to hearing about the process and results!

      I’ve come across a program that seems to involve the mental therapy that Karena talks about (with perhaps other techniques). I don’t think it’s based on principles that are entirely new but have been curious about this particular program. Anyway, in keeping with the post above… I have not tried it myself so won’t promote in the comments. I guess I was just… corroborating Karena’s information. 🙂

      • youdancefunny November 11, 2009 at 12:05 am #

        Are you talking about Lisa Howell’s program too?

        So far I’ve found there’s a lot that’s similar to the Franklin texts we’ve discussed before…but as I said, it’s organized in such a way that makes it easy to digest, whereas Franklin throws the book at you with all kinds of stuff. Lisa’s program mostly addresses one aspect of flexibility (my arch nemesis, the hamstrings and hip flexors) so I think for me it’s easier for my brain to focus on “one” thing at a time.

        Plus, she’s Australian…and I love Aussies!

    • youdancefunny November 11, 2009 at 12:00 am #

      Maybe that’s why yoga wasn’t working for me…the irritation factor probably wasn’t helping. It did wonders for my mom, who actually had a herniated disc and really poor mobility through her back as a result. Lo and behold, she now has good flexibility and more open hips than I do.

      But find my own way I must!

  2. Dianne November 9, 2009 at 10:36 pm #

    Hmmmm.. could you be referring to Lisa Howell’s new program? Regardless, I look forward to your reports on this!

    • youdancefunny November 11, 2009 at 12:01 am #

      Indeed!

      It’ll be a while I think…so far I like it and find it relaxing. After a few days no immediate results (what is probably to be expected!). But I’m excited to be excited!

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