Intuitive stretching is really fun!
A few months ago I started experimenting with stretching intuitively, and I've found it really enjoyable. In this post I want to give curious readers a taste of that.
Even if you've done stretching for sports, my style of stretching may be new to you because I’ve developed this on my own over the past five months. When I started, I didn’t want to do boring fixed stretch routines; instead I’ve learned to stretch by following intuition— and it turns out to be really fun!
I’ve taught this practice to about 20 people so far with good reviews.
Here are a few examples of how I stretch:
I notice that, as I'm sitting here now writing this post, the sides of my torso feel a little tense and perhaps a little strained. I want to see if I can stretch out this part.
In order to stretch my right side, I bend my torso over to my left.
Eh, I notice that nothing feels like it's stretching all that much. I think of how I can get a stronger stretch.
I raise my right arm up, along the curve I've already created with my body. As I hoped, I start to feel a more significant stretching sensation in the right side of my torso.
But I still feel like I could get a deeper stretch somehow. I think about other things I can do with my body to enhance the stretch.
I decide to breathe air into my chest to see if that does anything. I breathe in as much as I can. Ah, yes that's a deeper stretch.
I notice myself wiggling my torso a little bit in various directions to see if there are other movements I can make to enhance the stretch
Ultimately I arch my back forward a bit and that seems to isolate whatever is being stretched. (Maybe it's my right lat that's being stretched? I have no clue. Not that it matters.)
I have the thought that if I were able to extend my right arm (which is still raised) further, then that might make the stretch deeper.
I grab my right wrist with my left hand and extend my arm further. This creates a deeper stretch.
At this point I feel like I've brought the stretching sensation to a maximum. I stay in this position. I intend to hold this stretch until at some point it feels complete/satisfied/boring.
After a few seconds it does.
I hope what I'm doing here is clear: I'm looking for tension and inflexibility in my body, thinking of ways to stretch it, and then gradient ascending on the nice, positive sensation of my body being stretched.
I never stretch into pain. I only stretch into pleasing discomfort.
Hm, sitting here I notice that the movement of my neck feels constrained somehow.
I try leaning my head forward downward and notice that I start to stretch something.
I want the stretch to be more intense though. I use my hands to press the top of my head down, and this does indeed make the stretching feeling in my neck stronger. I can feel somewhere in the back of my neck that some tendon-thingys are being stretched.
I hold that stretch until it feels complete. (Several seconds, in my case.)
It feels like the rest of my neck could use a stretch too though.
With my head still down, I now tilt it a bit to the left (~11 o'clock). I notice that this stretch emphasizes a different ~tendon-thingy. I feel how this one runs up along the back-right of my neck (~5 o'clock).
I notice that something around my shoulder seems tense and might be preventing me from stretching deeper. I try to relax whatever that thing is.
I notice that I do in fact get a deeper stretch now.
I notice also that my right shoulder is up and might also be impeding the stretch. I try lowering it. Ah, I'm rewarded with a deeper stretching feeling.
More parts of my neck feel like they're being stretched now.
(I don't stretch anything so hard that it hurts. I only stretch into "pleasing discomfort".)
Once this second tendon-thingy feels fully stretched, I turn my head further left again (~10 o'clock) and repeat the process for that angle. Now it's a tendon-thingy that runs along the right of my neck (~4 o'clock).
(I continue for the rest of my neck angles until the whole clockwork feels satisfyingly stretched.)
I'm looking for what feels nice (even if perhaps partially uncomfortable), and doing more of that. I'm watching for what feels only bad, and doing less of that (or retreating to just before the point of pain).
Hmmm something about my wrist feels somehow inflexible right now.
I play around with the rotation of my hand. I notice that when I rotate my hand (separately from my arm), that it can only go so far. Something feels inflexible about that movement, so I want to stretch it.
I want to pay attention to my right hand's ability to rotate clockwise and counter-clockwise, so I fully outstretch my right arm in front of me.
I rotate my right hand clockwise to the end of its range of motion as far as it goes comfortably, and then I try to go a little further.
I notice how that feels. It feels inflexible somehow, like it could go further but it's not.
With my right hand still outstretched, I use my left hand to rotate it further clockwise and hold it there. I stop before it gets painful.
I pay attention to how that feels. I hold it there until the stretch feels done.
(I repeat this with the other rotation direction, and also with my other hand.)
This stretch hurts for some people: If it’s not fun no matter how you try to do it, great, maybe don’t do it.
I notice that I have the desire to stretch something in my hips/legs. Or, at least, the last time I stretched this part it felt nice and I’m kind of craving it. For this I’ll use a table— using props for stretching is great.
I find a table of suitable height and rest my lower leg horizontally on top.
I make sure that the relevant muscles are relaxed and ready to be stretched.
I wiggle around and experiment with stretching and see what feels nice.
How does it feel if I move my leg and foot left or right?
How does it feel if I lean my whole body towards the table?
How does it feel if I press down against the table with my right leg?
How does it feel if I…?
I hope you're able to glean my process from these examples. If you want to learn intuitive stretching, I hope that you try copying my process instead of the specific movements I've described in the examples.
My stretching is driven entirely intuitively. I'm paying attention to how my body feels right now, and then stretching according to that. I'm looking for what feels nice (even if perhaps partially uncomfortable), and doing more of that. I'm watching for what feels only bad, and doing less of that (or retreating to just before the point of pain).
Benefits of stretching:
Mainly, I just find stretching really fun!
I've also found stretching to be a nice way to become more acquainted with/mindful of/connected to my body
Since I started experimenting with this five months ago I've also gained a ton of flexibility. Movement is also… easier now. And I didn’t notice how much my inflexibility constrained my movement and resting positions. But I consider all of this only a side effect of how fun stretching is
Stretching is quite relaxing to do, I often do it before sleeping
A few notes:
I often use tables, chairs, stairs, walls, the ground, etc.
There’s lots to experiment with stretching legs, arms, quads, ankles, toes, fingers, shoulders, shoulders, and the rest of the body.
I'm not following a predetermined stretch routine: instead, I'm making new stretches in order to fit my needs right now.
I'm not stretching into pain (though I'm definitely stretching into pleasing discomfort).
I know almost nothing about anatomy, and I haven’t found it necessary for my practice. Cats get by just fine without this!
There’s more I’d like to share about stretching, but I’ll leave that for a future post.
I’d be very happy to teach you intuitive stretching if we ever meet in person.
The core concept, repeated one last time: I'm looking for what feels nice and doing more of that; watching for what feels bad and doing less of that!
In the future I will publish a post on more advanced stretching techniques. Subscribe to get notified
A few testimonials from the 20 or so people I’ve let intuitive stretching sessions with so far:
a great introduction to how to pay close attention to your inner body experience in order to know what to work on (for example, noting what parts of a muscle are tight and focusing your contraction on that). This is how all physical practices should be taught! ~Eowyn D.
As a ballet dancer, I unfortunately deferred to heuristics and was skeptical of Chris’ proposal of an intuitive stretching class. However, his rationale behind the minimized focus on anatomy was coherent and led to an insightful session. ~Riya S.
I’m so relaxed that I want to sleep now. ~Şefika O.
Thanks to Tomáš Gavenčiak for the “gradient descent” analogy. Thanks to many individuals for helping me test this curriculum.