No one knows about stretching more than a former professional ballet dancer. Oh, the things I used to do to stretch myself to unnatural degrees. For instance, I used to stick my pre-teen feet underneath the edge of the piano and then try to straighten my legs. Oh my lawd. I did that. I also used to watch TV upside down, with my legs on a wall in a V position, hanging open with hopes they would one day go touch the ground.
Those are just two of the weird things I used to do to my body before it knew better than to bark back. Ha. But, the reason I bring them up is because for as much as we think we know about stretching, we actually know very little. We basically all think: Stretching equals flexibility. The truth? Stretching won’t do anything for flexibility unless you have strength first. So, strength actually equals flexibility.
Let’s take my pre-teen foot stretching theory. What I was actually doing was placing an extraordinary amount of stress on my metatarsal bones, along with potential inflammation in my Achilles tendon. No surprise that what eventually took me out in my career was a stress fracture to a bone in my ankle (navicular bone). If I could have gone back to that sweet, determined young fool, I would tell her that in order to get more stretch in her instep, I needed to strengthen my glutes and my posterior chain (think of the muscles that go from the back of your head to the bottom of your foot).
You see, muscles and connective tissue can’t become flexible if there is not the strength to support that flexibility. This is why, as you age, your hamstrings seemingly get tighter and tighter and your ass cheeks flatter and flatter. The reduced strength in your glutes causes your dear hamstrings to become less elastic and more taut. Our reaction to this is to go to more yoga classes and to try to touch our toes before we exercise, right? Welp, that’s not gonna do more for us than make us feel better for about 30 minutes. In fact, that sort of reaction will actually cause you MORE pain and inflammation in your joints. Ever wonder why a yoga class makes you feel amazing the day of, but the next day you wake up with low back pain and shoulder pain? This is because you have stretched yourself like Gumby, without the interior structure to support it.
The long term solution is that we need to get super duper strong in our posterior chain (glutes, midback, pelvic floor) in order to loosen our hamstrings and other commonly tight areas. And then, stretching those areas is not only more effective, but those muscles end up returning to an elastic state of being as well. This means that the assumption that aging equals inflexibility is a total myth. The true statement is that weakness in your posterior chain causes inflexibility.
Now, as a parting observation, I find the body always has something to teach us about our role in the world. And, as for motherhood, nothing demands more flexibility than that role. I’ll speak for myself, but my experience as a mother is one in which every time I seek an autonomous moment, that moment is thwarted by needs of other little people. And when my inner peace and self-care is off, that thwarting ends up feeling like 100% torture. It sort of feels like a tight hamstring in fact. No room for give. It might just snap. And it makes me feel nothing but irritation and frustration at those little people, which only sends me into a shame spiral later on as I fall asleep and do an inventory of my day. I end up replaying those moments where I could have chosen play rather than impatience. It feels awful. It causes me to climb out of bed and sneak into the rooms of my sleeping little people, whose tender eyelashes lay resting on their cheeks and whose soft breaths beg for the return to my elastic self in every moment possible.
I feel like being a mother is a constant fork in the road. At about one million small moments each day, I can choose the harsh, irritated way or I can choose the responsive, elastic way. And when I am strong, when I am caring for myself, when I am connected to something bigger, when my stabilizing resources are active, I am much more likely to choose the responsive, elastic way. And the reason this matters is not just so I can fall asleep easily at night and certainly not because I have any interest in being a perfect mom (bleh), but because it means that I can connect with my children. I can be present. And, woah, do they feel that. And, woah, don’t we as women deserve that?
So, this month, as so many of us watch our little people start or return to school, here at MommaStrong, we are going to work on educating our bodies about flexibility so that we can be prepared for holidays and we can be trained like elite athletes for next summer. Obviously, this means we’ll be talking about how that affects our behavior as well. There’s much to learn and we’ll be digging in with tons of nifty tidbits. Being a member here means more than just doing the “fit” thing each day. It means that you’re tending to the deeper layers of what helps you stay true to you as you meander the messy privilege of motherhood.
If you’re not a member, this is a great time to sign up. If you are a member, this is a great time to dig in. I’ll see you soon, you Gumby you.