When I was little, I was extremely flexible. I used to be able to jump up in the air and land in a split facing in any direction. People called me “the rubber band.” While I didn’t have the needed strength to turn this natural gift into a gymnastics career, I always felt that being nimble was an asset, making it easy for me to move and get comfortable. Unfortunately, as I have aged, my inherent litheness has waned, and now I must do daily stretching exercises to loosen up. The other day when I was bending over my feet, I started to consider the parallels between stretching physically and stretching behaviorally.
To get out of a stagnant state requires that we stretch beyond our comfort zone and into a new situation. This can be difficult to do for a number of reasons:
- We aren’t sure if we are moving in the right direction
- We question whether we are taking the proper approach
- We fear looking silly and suffering embarrassment
- We think we will never be as good as others (…hence, should we even try?)
- We worry about experiencing unpleasant or irreversible consequences
In the back of our minds, we know that stretching is good for us, but our anxieties may render us reluctant to give it a try.
How do you know when it is time to stretch? Ask yourself these questions:
- Have I been doing the same things over and over again for a consistently decreasing payoff?
- How well do I respond when things don’t go according to plan?
- Am I envious of others around me who take more risks?
- Do I talk myself out of trying new things by rationalizing my anxieties?
- Have I passed on good opportunities that I now regret?
- Do I dream about things being different and make plans to change, but never follow through?
Did you answer, “yes” to several of these questions? If so, you may be ready to take action. If you are ready to stretch into a new experience, here are a few helpful guidelines for successfully charting new territory.
1. Reach just a bit beyond where you are comfortable.
It isn’t necessary to force yourself to move into a radically different position. Pushing your body too quickly can cause muscles to tear or injure tendons. Likewise, diving into a situation you know nothing about could cause more harm than good. Stretching is best done in increments. Take small steps, and allow yourself to observe, learn and grow at a pace you can reasonably absorb.
2. Hold steady in the new position for a period of time.
When I was young, we used to try to deepen the stretch by bouncing up and down as we were stretching. We now know this is not a wise approach; it is better to stretch just a bit and hold yourself there while the body adjusts. Once you are comfortable, you can stretch a bit more. When trying something new, commit to sticking with a small change for a significant period of time. Give yourself and the new setup a chance to succeed. Odds are you will experience the greatest resistance in the beginning, and things will become easier over time. Just because you have a bad first day/week/month doesn’t mean that the change was a mistake.
3. Exhale into the position to go a bit further.
Breathing is an important part of effective exercise. When you stretch, the inhale breath allows you to reach up or out a bit, while the exhale breath allows you to sink further down. In unfamiliar territory, our natural inclination is to freeze up and resist the change. However, just as muscles only stretch when they are relaxed, we are more likely to succeed if we can release our need to be in control and lean into the new experience.
4. Remember that your journey won’t look like anyone else’s.
No two individual’s stories are alike. We each have unique skills, challenges and backgrounds. As a result, even if we are trying to follow the exact same path that we have seen someone else take, our experience will be different. What looks easy for another may be hard for us, and vice versa. Although I have been doing yoga for more than 15 years, I still have a hard time hold “crescent pose” (a lunge) for extended periods of time. I am stronger now than when I began, but I will probably always find it more difficult than someone with natural leg strength. Still, I know I have made progress, giving me a sense of accomplishment. Our challenges, victories, timetables and outcomes will all be exclusively our own. Knowing that this is normal, and intentionally resisting the urge to compare our progress to that of those around us, is critical to forward momentum.
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Do you seek or resist stretching? What helps you push forward when doing so feels hard?