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The "How To" of Stretching: Tips for Stretching Effectively and Enjoyably
by Mary Maddux for

Stretching is one of the simplest yet most powerful ways to improve health and well-being and eliminate pain. Yet despite its simplicity, people don't always stretch in a way that is safe and effective, much less enjoyable. As you have undoubtedly noticed, if you don't enjoy something, you tend to stop doing it.

I am writing this article in the hopes of helping you to start to experience the benefits of stretching. Having recently spent time with stretching expert Jacques Gauthier, I know that his approach to stretching works, and so I'll share his keys to effective stretching with you.

"The best healing approaches empower us in our own self-healing and are often the most natural and enjoyable to do."

If you have read my previous article about Jacques, or Jacques Gauthier's own article here on , you will know that he was healed from several crippling conditions through stretching and has taught stretching to thousands of people in Canada and Europe.

Just this year, at age 66, he completed a walk around the United States to spread the word about the benefits of stretching. This is an amazing accomplishment for someone who just 15 years earlier was bedridden and crippled with pain!

When Jacques arrived in my northern California town near the end of his walk, he was persuaded to stay long enough to teach some classes and collaborate with local health care providers.

Having been involved with holistic healing modalities for many years, I've come to realize that the most simple, direct techniques are the most powerful. Therefore, I was eager to learn from Jacques about stretching and spent as much time with him as I could.

That Which You Enjoy Can Also be the Most Self-Healing

It has become apparent to me that the best healing approaches empower us in our own self-healing and are often the most natural and enjoyable to do. They always include the element of relaxation, which I like to call the "elixir" of healing.

We found Jacques' classes to be easy, fun, relaxing and highly effective! His work incorporates all of the elements that I feel are necessary for a successful self-healing program, and I'd like to share the basics of his approach with you.

As with everything in life, it's not just what you do but how you do it that matters, and this certainly applies to stretching.

You can find all sorts of books with descriptions of stretches, but how you stretch is even more important than the actual stretches you do. I am summarizing Jacques' stretching advice below. If you follow Jacques' guidelines, stretching should be easy, enjoyable, safe and effective. Here are his keys to effective stretching:

  • Safety first! If you have had injuries, surgeries or have health concerns, consult with your health care provider about how to modify the stretches.

  • Move slowly in and out of the stretches - this helps prevent injury and allows to body to relax.

  • Pay attention to your body - it will tell you how far to go. You should stretch to a point of gentle tension, but not pain.

  • Relax into the stretches. Muscles elongate naturally as they relax. If you notice some tension or "holding" in the muscles during a stretch, let it go. You may find that as you relax into the stretch, you find yourself stretching even further.

  • Breathe slowly and deeply and pay attention to your breathing. This helps keep you to relax, stay aware of your body and helps keep you from being caught up in thoughts.

  • Hold each stretch for about 30 seconds. It has been found that holding a stretch for 25-35 seconds gives optimal results. Rather than count the seconds, you can time your breathing to find out how many slow, deep breaths you take in 30 seconds. Then you can time your stretches by counting your breath.

  • What is important is for the muscle to experience movement and be stretched - not how far you go! If you are following stretches outlined in a book, for example, simply move in the direction of the stretch - you don't have to move into any certain position to get the benefit of the stretch.

  • Jacques' advice in our classes was to modify the stretches to suit our own needs. If you are using specific stretches described in a book or program, you can modify the stretches to suit your body and for comfort.

  • Don't bounce! You can injure yourself this way.

  • Stretching should be pleasurable! If you are not enjoying the stretching, you may be trying too hard or straining to achieve a certain result. Stretching is not a competition, is simply an activity which benefits the body no matter what position you get into or how far you go.

The First Few Days are Always the Most Difficult - Don't Let That Stop You!

When you first start stretching there may be some discomfort as you begin to stretch muscles that haven't been used for awhile, but it should not be painful. Starting any new routine is usually awkward and uncomfortable at first. It can seem discouraging when we start to move and realize just how stiff or limited our bodies have become. But don't let that stop you - if you start to stretch regularly, it will get better!

Jacques stated that the first few days are the hardest and then it gets easier. That was certainly true for the people in our classes. It was amazing how quickly everyone became more flexible with this relaxed approach!

As we age, our muscles tighten and we have less range of motion in our joints. Simple activities that we once took for granted, like cutting our toenails, picking things up from the floor or zipping a dress, can all become difficult. A regular stretching program can help lengthen your muscles and make these daily activities easier and more enjoyable.

Stretching has so many benefits, including increased flexibility, improved circulation, decreased pain, more energy, and a greater sense of well-being.

Jacques has taught thousands in Canada and Europe over the years, and many have reported these kinds of benefits as well as recovery from conditions such as arthritis, headaches, fatigue, depression, back/neck/shoulder pain and even fibromyalgia.

What Jacques found from his experience with himself as well as people he taught was that stretching, done properly, is anti-inflammatory. He discussed this with many health care professionals in Canada. They agreed that this made sense and confirmed it in their work with their own patients.

There has even been research showing that stretching can relieve heel pain in those suffering from plantar fasciitis (an inflammation in the tissues in the sole of the foot).

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Inflammation is the body's response to injury, so if stretching is done improperly it could actually cause inflammation. And of course, inflammation causes pain. If the result of stretching is pain, chances are you've stressed the tissues and caused inflammation. According to Jacques, the key is the slow, deep breathing and holding the stretches for about 30 seconds.

If you aren't stretching already, I hope this will inspire you to start. Even stopping from time to time during the day to "stretch out the kinks" is beneficial. Following the stretching guidelines above should help you to develop an enjoyable and effective stretching routine.

If you want some extra support, I highly recommend the Stretching Toward a Healthier Life DVD produced by Jacques and his partner of 40 years, Dorothée Lavoie. Most of us need some ideas about how to stretch, and it can be easier to be guided by a video than to read and follow instructions.

Jacques widely recommended DVD contains 15 easy stretches which stretch 95% of the muscles in your body. It's easy to follow and Jacques and Dorothée's relaxed style makes it enjoyable to get started. The video incorporates all of the same principles that Jacques teaches in person, and is the next best thing to actually learning from Jacques himself. columnist Mary Maddux has worked in the healing arts in both conventional and alternative settings. With an MS in clinical social work, she has worked as a counselor, helping people cope with the stresses of life. While working as a hospice counselor, she was introduced to various alternative healing arts. She eventually developed a healing arts practice and has taught many workshops.

She and husband Richard are producers of two renowned CDs, Sleep Easy: Guided Meditation for Deep Rest , and Pure Relaxation: Guided Meditations for Body, Mind & Spirit . Mary is the "voice" of these CDs while Richard, an accomplished composer of music for meditation with 20 years experience, created the music.
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