My best friend was staying the night and we were in my bedroom, laughing too hard for the hour, I’m sure. The time was nearing when we would reluctantly begin to heed my parents’ warnings and “Go to SLEEP!” This was all very typical sleepover procedure, but this time something was different. I had a new before-bed ritual and I didn’t want my sleepover to get in the way of it.
Even at a young age I was prone to digging into routines and formulating systems for life. This was a new one that I hadn’t even revealed to my friend.
“I have to tell you something,” I said.
That got her attention. My energy told her it was something not to be taken lightly. This was a serious thing, and our light-hearted mood dropped down into secret mode.
“You can’t tell anyone,’” I began. I made her promise.
I took a deep breath, and told her, “I stretch every night.”
She looked at me and we were quiet. I can imagine her searching my face for clues as to why this was a secret or any hint of the possibility of it being a joke. My face told her I was not kidding, and that teasing me about it was more trouble than it was worth.
I confessed to her my serious failure of flexibility, recounting the various Field Day Flops of years gone past, and divulging my latest scheme for reaching my goal of Being Flexible. So she accepted the challenge of keeping my secret, and we stretched together, dreaming of future splits and backbends.
 I don’t know if you had this torturous outdoor athletic contest extravaganza at your school, but if you did, it was probably a really fun day of the year for you, unless you were like me, who dreaded it.
That routine has continued in some shape or form since then, and even now I stretch my body at least once a day.
When someone tells me, “You’re flexible!” I know I put in the work to earn that acknowledgement. I am flexible. I own that one fully because I distinctly remember a time when I was not so limber.
THE FIRST SECRET TO FLEXIBILITY
A little stretching goes a long way when you do it every day.
Just like all things in life, the more you do it—the more energy you put into something, the bigger it will grow. So if you put in energy and time to stretch your body, your body will become more flexible than it was before.
Now, how flexible you become is completely variable and depends on the person, just like all things we practice. I’m not declaring that any person can become a contortionist simply by a daily routine of stretching. Nor am I saying that practice, practice, practice could have made me a Field Day Champion. We all have things we’re naturally good at, and other things we really don’t care to master.
What I can confidently tell you, is that stretching every once in a while with months in between won’t do squat for your flexibility.
You’ve got to do it routinely, and with dedication: Every day, or at least most days, consistently.
Consistent stretching a few minutes a day yields greater results than hour-long stretch routines every few weeks.
Start out with just a few minutes a day, and never push yourself to stretch farther than your body can painlessly go.
When you imagine stretching every day, how does that sit with you? Are you up for the challenge? Do you think, “Yeah, right,” or “I don’t have time for that”?
Maybe you envisioned forcing yourself out of bed at 4am in order to sit on a mat with a lit candle and Tibetan monks chanting sacred mantras out your speakers while you go through an intricate stretch routine that takes you right up until the time you need to start in with the real life stuff of your day.
Listen. It’s not complicated. It takes a few minutes. And this is your body—you know what feels good. Move it around so that it feels like a good stretch in all the different parts of your body.
THE SECOND SECRET TO FLEXIBILITY
Even the slightest stretch, done with intention and focus, will benefit your health.
You don’t need to be doing full forward bends, splits, or any other practiced yogi feat. Deeper does not mean better when it comes to stretching the body. Actually, keeping your movements less intense can really be more beneficial to helping your qi flow more freely through your body.
When you push too hard and stretch your body farther than it can naturally and painlessly go, it causes stress in your joints, bones, and muscles, which actually inhibits the flow of energy and has the opposite effect; you’ll end up more stiff than ever.
A simple turn of the head to stretch the neck, feeling into it; an alternating criss-cross of the arms over the chest, feeling into it; a rotation of the wrists, feeling into them—notice the trend here? Make gentle movements to find a good-feeling stretch, only go as far as feels good to you, and most importantly: feel into it.
A stretch is only as beneficial to the body as the amount of mind you put into it.
In other words, if your mind is busy thinking about the day’s tasks and in what order would be most efficient to complete them, your body is not getting the full benefit of the stretch because you’re not there to feel it.
Take three minutes, right now. Yep. Now.
- Stretch the ankles. Shift your weight to your left foot and lift the heel of the right foot off the ground. Draw your right knee in circles outward, pressing the ball of the foot into the ground. Feel into your ankle. Switch directions and draw the knee in circles inward. Feel into the ankle. Now do the same with your left side.
- Stretch the wrists. Stretch your fingers out wide and rotate the wrists, letting the fingertips guide the wrists in circles outward, then inward. Feel into the wrists.
- Stretch your torso. With weight equally distributed between both feet, feel the very top of your head lifting toward the sky, as if it’s suspended by a thread. Relax the shoulders downward. Now, gently and slowly drop your right shoulder down, letting your fingers move toward the earth a few inches while maintaining that head-suspended-by-a-thread position. Feel into your spine, your front, your back, and your right shoulder. Switch sides and do it for the left shoulder. Feel into it.
- Stretch your neck. [You may want to read this one entirely before trying it since your eyes will need to move from the screen as you move your neck.] Gently and slowly turn your head to the right until your gaze reaches halfway between the starting point (facing front) and your shoulder. Do
not overextend your gaze the full 90 degrees to your right; only go 45 degrees. Keep your head suspended by that thread from the crown. Now turn your head back to face forward. Gently and slowly turn your head to the left, gazing out with level eyes, halfway between the center and your shoulder. Do this, right-center-left-center, slowly and gently, five times. Feel into your neck.
Now set yourself up to make a daily three minute stretch routine for yourself, using the above stretches, or others you know and like. Or simply freestyle your stretches by moving your body around and feeling into it to find the stretch. You don’t need to be taught how to stretch. We know how to do it even before we come out of the womb.
Stretching increases flexibility not only in one’s body, but also in one’s life.
One way of looking at life is that every single aspect of it is made up of energy. The chair you’re sitting on? Energy. The device you’re using to read this article? Energy. The car (or bicycle) you use to get from place to place? Energy. The water your drink? Yep, energy.
Your body is energy. The thoughts you think are energy. The emotions you feel are all energy. And in the Chinese Internal and Martial Arts, that energy is called qi (pronounced chi).
The perspective that all things are made up of qi, when applied to your life, reveals the intimate connection between your thoughts and your emotions and your body.
When the body is tense, holding, and stiff, it is an outward manifestation of the stagnant qi within you. Chances are, if you look deep enough inside, you will notice feelings of emotional tightness, also. This could feel anywhere from overwhelm to depression to fear, and all those stuck-feelings in between.
You have the power to shift your life to a place that feels better, simply by moving your body.
This isn’t some woo-woo fluff here, this is Qigong.
At the age of 12, I hadn’t heard of Qigong yet; however, maybe an innate understanding of qi was a wisdom I had somehow tapped into. I knew that stretching every night would get me more flexibility, so I committed to that.
My lack of self-confidence at the time told me to keep quiet about my goal to becoming flexible, but that didn’t stop me from secretly going for my dreams.
I don’t keep it a secret anymore. It’s too good not to share.
Move your body. Notice how it feels. Pay attention to your physical feelings and your emotional feelings. Notice how they correspond to each other. Make connections. Create change. Be the best you you can be.