Develop Flexibility for Good!
Dancers are some of my favorite subjects. I have been a fine art painter for most of my life, & have always been drawn to the human figure as a subject. Many artists have depicted dancers; but not many actually paint the figure in the air or in motion– my favorite!
My daughter began dancing at the tender age of 4. So passionate about her chosen pursuit, she eventually enamored the entire family. Even my 2 sons dance. I had my first ballet class at age 40, although I had enjoyed other forms previously. Have you ever noticed how flexible dancers have to be? At 40, I had maintained some degree of flexibility; but I began to work toward being flexible enough to do some of the things I saw my daughter doing. You know, like splits. And then there’s the spine, neck, shoulders, feet. I certainly was wishing I had done more about it when it would have been a lot easier– when I was young!
Well, I am still inspired to develop flexibility, even though I may never do a center split! There are good reasons not to give up, besides wanting to show off in yoga class. (Showing off in yoga class misses the whole point, by the way!) Flexibility is linked with balance, and together with strength, they comprise a very protective package as we age. Also, the flexibility of our bodies has lately been tied to cardiac health, especially in older adults. Here’s an article I found on the subject: http://www.medicalnewstoday.com/releases/166574.php.
So, what if you’re already grown, & have never done any real stretching? Whatever age you are, you can benefit from a stretching program. Just be careful. Overstretching can be very painful, & the pain can last for days & days. Here are some tips to get you started.
First, it’s a good idea to be warm when you stretch. Warm up with some movement that is normal for you. If you usually do a step class, fine. If you walk, that works. Put on enough clothing that you are truly warm throughout your body. Or, you can stretch just out of the bath or shower. Warmth is protective for your muscles. If you’re hot, however, cool down a bit first. My yoga teacher says she’s seen injuries from “hot yoga” classes, because people feel more flexible than they actually ought to, & overstretch. (I’m just passing that along. I’m no expert on hot yoga!)
Stretching before a workout should be done very carefully! If you are cold & then stretch out, you could be doing more harm than good. Warm up a bit first, then stretch gently. Save the main session of stretching for after your workout.
Avoid putting a lot of stress on your joints. Placing your body weight over a joint & then asking said joint to stretch may be setting yourself up for injury. Do stretches that feel supported & comfortable, going far enough to challenge yourself, but not until it hurts a lot. Ideally, especially as you begin to move more freely, you should consult a trainer or yoga teacher, or someone knowledgeable in fitness or dance, or find a good book or online source to be sure you are doing stretches properly.
Some instructors advocate holding a stretch for at least 15 seconds. I would say even more than that, like 30 seconds, would be better. Hold it until the muscle releases, without bouncing. If it feels more comfortable then, stretch a tiny bit further, hold for a bit longer, then come out of the stretch. Make sure to breathe!
Stretch daily! Even 3 minutes before bed will help. If you get sore, back off; but don’t stop.
Finally, please don’t give up! When you’re young, flexibility can come a lot more easily, but it takes time to really improve. I once saw a beautiful book with photos of a 91 year old woman who had started yoga in her 40’s. She was the most flexible person! (It was not my book, so I don’t know the details. Sorry) She inspired me, & I always think of her when I am discouraged that even after so many years, I still can’t quite manage the splits.