A lot has been written lately about stretching, whether you should or shouldn’t do it and what kind of stretching is best. My own viewpoint is that stretching is essential if you want to improve your posture – and thereby your health. It loosens the connections of your body parts so you’re able to move each part independently, and that’s what you need for postural change.
Stretching is also necessary if you spend any length of time in one position — sitting at a desk, for example, whether with good posture or hunched over — or if you constantly use one side, or one part, of your body more than others. You will need to stretch the overworked parts to prevent an imbalance of muscular tension and to equalize your two sides. Stretching is also great for releasing tension, or stress, in your mind.
For all of these reasons, stretching is the foundation of my own self-care routine as well as the foundation of my program, Somatic Stretch®. I could bring in the reasons for building strength and stamina through weight lifting and such because these are necessary for physical wellbeing too. But my focus in this blog is about working on your body so you can use it with little discomfort or pain when you’re working with it – in jogging, sports, or any other activity, or in just plain daily living.
My experience to back this up was discovering the value of massage from my Finnish father who was one of Toronto’s first ‘masseurs’ in the 1920s. I learned from him how to use my hands to work on muscles that were sore and tight to the touch but that otherwise were totally unnoticed, buried somewhere under the surface of my skin. These places are most often the cause of injuries, the weak links that give out when required to take on more weight or pressure than they’re used to handling.
So to my mind, while stretching is the foundation of body care, massage is its counterpart. They’re like two sides of a coin, both needed for the body to work well.
And this is where my “toys,” as I often call them, come in. They help me to get at my body in a way that’s similar to massage or shiatsu but require less of my muscle power than when working just with my hands. Massaging yourself isn’t as relaxing as having someone do it for you, of course, but that said, it’s the best way for several reasons: It costs nothing but your time, you can do it whenever you want without an appointment, and most of all, you know exactly where and how much pressure to use.
So for me, despite the many tools that I use as well, my hands are still the best of the lot. They’re the most capable for working on parts of my legs or arms in a pressure point way, using slight pressure on too sensitive “owie” areas and really digging in with my thumbs on the hard knots that seem not only impervious to pressure but that actually ask for more.
One of the big advantages of working with your hands is that, when you “follow” the muscle you’re working on, you’re finding it in a very real and personal way. You see it in your mind’s eye, so you’re learning about your own anatomy, and this you can never do through a book however many drawings or illustrations it may have.
The following toys, seen in the photo above, are what I have in my toolbox at the present time and which I add to whenever I come across something new. Variety ads spice!
The turquoise two-handled massager with the knobby balls works great for tight neck muscles. By placing it on the back of my neck and squeezing the handles, I can work into the muscles on both sides of my neck, up into the base of my skull and down into the thick muscles at the top of my back: the upper trapezius and rhomboids. I expect these muscles are tight in you too, and if you’ll use this device for a short time every day, you’ll see how much easier it will be to turn your head from side to side.
Also useful for getting into those neck muscles and other tight areas are the handheld tools: the small white knobber, seen at the front the group, and the long wooden one on the far side of the blue board. Beside it, the ridged FOOT ROLLER works into the soles of the feet, stimulating all the reflex points and sending beneficial vibes to your internal organs. You can use it while sitting down or, to get more pressure on it, standing up. Only a few minutes of rolling it under each foot when your shoes are off will get your feet tingling!
The S-shaped Backknobber is amazing for working into your back. It’s literally like reaching around with your hand to press into different spots on your back with pinpoint pressure. You can put one end of the knobber on your back just over the top of your shoulder and, with one hand on the upper curve and your other hand on the bottom curve, move your hands back and forth so the knob on your back massages into those upper back muscles that in most people almost always are tight. Experimenting with it by placing it in different areas will soon show you other ways to use it.
The various sized balls – soft or hard tennis, plastic street hockey, soft baseball, hard lacrosse balls – are mainly for working into your back and derrière muscles by sitting or lying on them. You’ll likely find your butt muscles very sensitive to the pressure so you might want to just ease the ball onto your gluteus maximus area and sit on it for a while, rather than rolling it back and forth under you.
Starting with the softer type ball is also a good idea, and ditto for always moving on the balls very slowly, like, slower than slow!
Lots of deep breaths at the same time will help ease pain, but you’ll find it’s the kind that “hurts but feels so good!” as endorphins flood through your body.
I like the large, soft baseballs for lifting my upper back and opening the front of my body, which is great for those tight pectoral and chest muscles that get contracted from too much sitting at the computer.
Just in front of the long roller (which is actually a paint roller), the Mah-Jong roller is grooved to avoid pressure on your vertebrae and instead, presses on the muscles on both sides of the spine. It’s made of wood so it’s even harder than the lacrosse balls, and you may need to condition your body with tennis balls, or even plastic street hockey balls, before you can tolerate the hardness of wood.
FENIX REHAB SYSTEM
The most challenging toy is the blue board with the pegs, called the FENIX Rehab System. The booklet that comes with it shows its use on different parts of the body, and though I’ve tried it only on my back and neck when I’ve needed that extra pressure point precision, it’s been fantastic. However, what I’ve had to do to make it comfortable, is use flat cushions under my pelvis and buttocks; otherwise, lying on the board feels too hard on my bones. I think you may want to do the same, even if you’re well padded.
The long red stick with the small balls is good for stimulating blood flow and I use it mostly when I’m watching TV – at least, when I’m not doing reflexology on my feet. The balls (actually a ball and a cup) are attached by bands to the stick, so you need only a little hand movement to get them banging together when you hit them on your skin.
Missing from the picture are two small squeeze balls that I use for strengthening my hands. They’ve made my fingers much less stiff and my lower arm muscles stronger. Though quite exhausting to squeeze repeatedly, I’ve read that working your lower arm muscles improves circulation by helping blood return to the heart, so I use those balls in my routine every day. After all, older hearts deserve all the help they can get and this may just be the answer for those who aren’t into marathons and the like!
The paint roller and the short hard rubber roller (from an old ringer washing machine, cut in half by my father) are good for massaging parts of your body where a ball slips off too easily, like your calves or shoulders. Like butt muscles, calf muscles can be very sensitive to pressure, so never move your leg quickly on the roller or you could jump like jackrabbit.
STRETCHCLOTH and RUBBER TUBING
The rolled up cloth and rubber tubing are toys of my own making, the first mostly for stretching but also for strengthening, while the tubing is for muscular stamina and toning. Both are used in my classes to add variety to the regular work, tubing unfortunately not so often due to lack of time in a ninety-minute class, but I always feel the added benefit when we do a half-hour with it.
So to sum up, stretching is good AND you need a lot else besides to stay ‘fit’ in my terms. All of the above will help keep your body pliable and able to move with ease, whatever your age. How can you not want that? So I highly recommend that you get some of the toys I’ve mentioned and, as often as you can, enter the world of your inner body and get wrapped up with helping all kinds of neat places change from feeling ‘tied up and hurting’ to being ‘freed up and happy.’ Your future self will thank you!