In February 2013, on a whim, I built a program for 10 close friends on how to learn the splits without any stretching. Sounds impossible, right? I promise it is not. Building flexibility without stretching is a part of what I do in my personal training and together I and my group of friends turned my in-person instruction into a digital study-course.
The idea that stretching is outdated isn’t new but has generated more momentum recently in mainstream media. Skim this article in the New York Times on the potential damage caused by static stretching before working out.
The course lasted for 30 days and included more than 45 custom-recorded lessons in which I taught my participants how to train in such a way that they discovered dramatically increased flexibility, without the potential damaging effects of too much stretching!
I’m building a program that trains the splits without stretching. The concept has come out of my own rehabilitation and return to peak performance with the Anat Baniel Method, and my practical philosophy training from the Option Institute. The idea is simple, no impact, and I want your help!
I’ve always been very movement-oriented and since I started studying with Anat Baniel my previously conceived notions about movement have changed dramatically. They continue to change all the time.
I recently spoke to a community of runners in San Francisco about the brain and mobility. I combined a mini-lecture on the pedagogy of motor learning with a short demonstration of a different way to gain mobility. In 5 minutes the participants gained significant flexibility in a simple “bend down, touch your toes” exercise. Over the hour that followed a lot of runners came to me and asked about the “magic trick” or about how they had changed so rapidly! It was great fun!
I was taught by my running coaches in high school to stretch before and after exercise. My coaches, well intentioned and compassionate as they were, taught us a lot of what they themselves had been taught over the course of their running careers. I took those lessons to heart and always warmed up and cooled down with stretching. When my physical career took a turn toward circus and dance I learned even more the importance of stretching to increase mobility and protect against injury.
Over the last few years my physical training has been somewhat spontaneous and very eclectic. I don’t regularly go for 6-10 mile runs anymore; I don’t follow any discipline in a regimented way. I also haven’t been sore in years. There is a deep, bone wear and contented sore that I used to experience after a good race in high school and after a circus performance in college. I associated it with “working good.” Over the last few years I’ve condemned that feeling of sore to “damage.” It is a fact that soreness in muscles is caused by damage. (There is a wide range of research that shows that DOMS or Delayed Onset Muscle Soreness equals damage to musculature.) There is contention among the scientific communities that study such issues whether that damage is also beneficial. (The argument goes that through the course of building the muscles back up they become stronger, bigger, more mobile, more integrated, etc.)
After my talk at Sports Basement I went for 7.5 mile run. This in itself isn’t entirely unusual for me in recent years. However, when I run solo I stop and walk, I chat with passers by, I admire the view, and I always stop, even just briefly, when I feel my body aching. On the Sports Basement FunRun I pushed myself harder than I usually do, in part because I was enjoying the community and conversation of the other runners. (The other part, of course, was my own competitive streak!) As a result, I was sore at the end of the run. Very sore! For two days after I felt a lot of tension in my calves everywhere I went – running and walking. What surprised me in this was how much I enjoyed being sore. The endorphin release the day of and the day after the run were really really pleasant, but I already know how much I like my endorphins! What I didn’t expect was that same feeling of ease and quiet and comfort through the course of my own soreness. Wherever I walked – for days after the FunRun – I ached and I enjoyed it! How could it be that I’ve damaged my muscles, they are day-after-a-race kind of sore, and I loved it?
I don’t have a satisfactory explanation to this question. I enjoy not aching more than I enjoy being sore. I don’t believe that an aching muscle is well organized and I am dedicated to increasing efficient organization (my own and others). And I enjoyed the ache! I’ve entering a new layer of the conversation and really quite excited to see where it leads!
I went skiing in February 2011 for the first time in many years. I’ve made several trips to the mountains since and expect to continue playing in the snow even as the weather in San Francisco shifts rapidly towards Summer. Quite apart from my tendency to fixate on whatever novel movements I happen across (over the last year my enthusiasm has encompassed a range including foosball, the manual dexterity necessary for cadaver dissection, and rock-climbing), in skiing I have enjoyed the opportunity to explore the topics of movement with attention and enthusiasm.
I began skiing shortly after I could walk, plummeting down hills without consideration for danger or parallel turns. While my family did not live within convenient proximity to the snow, we made it a point to get out to the mountains several times each year. In high school I realized how expensive skiing could be and decided to explore more accessible means of expressing my zeal. This year I have re-discovered an activity I had thought lost to childhood memory.
I did some small amount of mental preparation prior to that first ski trip – imaging what it would be like to wear skis again, visualizing parallel turns on a downhill slope – but I had no idea whether I would be starting from scratch. From the fact that I write enthusiastically of returning to the mountains it is easy to guess that I hadn’t lost my old habits. But since then I have been pestered by the question: Why?
When I stepped off the lift at the top of the mountain (Kirkwood, for the record) I truly did not know whether I would head down a black diamond slope or back down the chairlift. What I did was take my time; not timidly but with attention and enthusiasm. I raise these last two points because they are – in my experience – essential to any learning process. If I had stepped off the lift full of judgement I wouldn’t have lasted an hour. I thought back to what skiing had felt like as a kid. I recalled the feeling of ease that accompanies memories of my early days of skiing, of fearlessness, and the capacity for fixation that is necessary for any young child’s development. I indulged in my experience, both current and historic, and took my first slope without expectation.
These “Essentials” are by no means my own invention. Anat Baniel teaches that Movement with Attention, Enthusiasm, and others are essential for learning. But I began to apply these without planning to and gained some insight on how I might recreate positive experiences in the future.
Since that first trip I’ve given some thought to how best to prepare myself for a day of skiing. I’ve created a short YouTube video to depict some of the activities that I now use to get ready for a day of skiing. I can’t remember the last time I saw someone “warming” themselves up to ski so I thought I would do something small to encourage “warming up” on the slopes. I hope you enjoy this video as much I enjoyed rolling around in the snow to create it!
What have I taken home with me besides a renewed appreciation for skiing? I found myself applying some basic precepts in unexpected ways. Instead of trying to control my first experience of skiing, I entered into the experience wondering “What is this going to be like?”. I re-created the feelings of ease that I experienced as a child. I was passionately enthusiastic. I put these thoughts forward as tools to consider going forward into any new activity and learning to move the way you want.