Into the stretch

Last weekend I had the pleasure of attending Kit Laughlin’s ‘Into the Stretch’ workshop. After two days of stretching and limbering, not to mention some bloody painful releases, my entire body felt looser, lighter and incredibly alive!

Kit is a movement specialist, athlete, martial artist and shiatsu therapist and also the teacher of some of my favourite writers on movement and movement systems. He’s a softly-spoken, spry sixty-four year old who has built a complete system of movement and stretching designed to enliven and re-awaken the body. Kit labels the effects of this system re-patterning.

In daily life we use our bodies in very limited ways. We’re creatures of habit, mostly sedentary and with our natural ways of movement modified by aids such as chairs, shoes and other environmental features. We rarely use our muscles and fibres to their full extent and often employ them in ways that they were not designed for, which causes other muscle groups to step in to compensate, leading to bodily imbalance. A prime example is the squat. The squat is a natural resting position for human beings, yet how many Westerners can sit in a squat for lengthy periods? We spend all days sitting in chairs, probably in front of desks, which causes the hip flexors to tighten because of their constant flexion, and the gluteal muscles to atrophy and not fire when required. This often leads to some kind of injury, compounded by over compensating muscle mechanisms. Either way, the body’s ability to move in functional ways contracts even further.

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Can your granddad do this?

Because the body tends towards homeostasis, if an imbalanced pattern remains long enough then this will become the new normal, the new pattern. The effort required to return to the natural pattern is greater than the effort required to preserve an imbalanced one. The process of stretch therapy is to correct these imbalanced patterns by awakening dormant muscles, firing them in ways that they were designed for, taking the load off compensatory muscles and allowing space for the full range of movement that our bodies were designed for. Our bodies were made to move: just watch children for a little while and that becomes obvious. They wriggle, squirm, jump about and cannot stay still. As adults we somehow lose that as we disenchant ourselves.

Stretch therapy is more than just physical exercise though. Along with physical repatterning is perceptual repatterning. We have a felt awareness of ourselves as physical beings. Within is a conceptual and a perceptual map of our own bodies that includes its abilities, strength, limitations and its boundaries. The word for this internal sense is interroception. Interroception is the awareness of how we are in ourselves and this awareness forms the topography and borders of our body map. Interroception comes naturally to all of us, however in our Western society that prizes mind over body, it is a devalued awareness and becomes diminished. Throw in the effects of chronic pain, injury or trauma (for people who’ve experienced physical or sexual abuse the body can be a very unpleasant place to inhabit) and interroception may completely disappear. As a counsellor, one of the main things I do is help people reclaim an awareness of their own bodies. In fact it’s a prerequisite to, and in integral part of, any healing process. You would be surprised at how many people live their lives from the neck up. Reclaiming interroception is as much an art as it is a skill. And for some it is also an arduous process of healing.

One of the fundamental principles of stretch therapy is to approach the body like a wild beast: go slow, no sudden movements and no loud noises. Re-patterning requires slowness. Feeling requires slowness. Swing your arm out quickly to your side. Now do it again more slowly. Notice the awareness of muscles and movement in the second attempt that was absent in the first. Now extend this awareness to your entire body. Find the horizons of this awareness and then pass beyond them through slow and purposeful stretching. This is re-patterning in action.

A teacher of mine, Arion Light, calls this ‘coming home’. Coming home to yourself. All of you is already there; there’s nothing missing, no deficiency to make up, nowhere to go, nothing to attain. You are complete as you are. But we live our lives so caught up in our thoughts and in the tumble of our surface personality that we lose sight of ourselves and our ability to interrocept. Arion’s process is to bring the awareness back to the breath and just observe what’s there. When you bring your awareness back to yourself and you will grok this. It’s a different route to Kit’s but the end goal is the same. As with re-patterning, coming home extends the boundaries of our body maps. It’s all there, latent, waiting to be explored and awoken.

The mystic Gurdjieff once said that ‘we are sleepwalking our way through life.’ Being alive is easy; feeling alive is hard work and maintaining that aliveness against the forces of habit and inertia is even harder work. Yet it’s rewarding work. We expand the horizons of our physical, embodied awareness, we move with comfort and ease and we surprise ourselves with our own strength and abilities. We are designed to live with a deeply embodied sense of our own being and awareness of our self. However for the most part we choose not to. I don’t proclaim to be advanced at this: it’s an ongoing exploration as I learn more about myself and my being. Some days I am limited by chronic shoulder and neck pain and feel every one of my forty-one years; other days I am as limber and awake as a teenager. But to be awake in this world we must first feel truly alive. Humans are far more powerful than we give ourselves credit for yet we live in such disempowered ways. It’s only now that we’re starting to glean the full extent of our capabilities. And the first step is to reawaken our bodies.