Cats of all kinds are famous for it, after their notable naps. Cows do it too, after hours curled cud-chewing. I see human babies doing it, and know I can’t live without it. Even so, I was somehow surprised to realize that chicks do it too. Chicks stretch.
Our twenty-six fluff balls are now three weeks old and sprouting tufts of feathers from all sides. One by one, while otherwise peeping, pecking, and pooping, a chick pauses. A ripple of movement begins in its shoulder, fans through its feathering wing, leaps to a lengthening leg on the same side, and spills out through a perfectly pointed toe with such intensity that its wingtips tremble. Chicks stretch.
It makes me think. For these birds, each stretch spreads through a range of motion that the bird needs to fly. The stretches bubble up spontaneously, improvised yet patterned. The moves are obviously pleasurable (or perhaps I project). If birds could smile…
It makes me think. Why stretch?
Cultural conversations about stretching reflect our attitude towards bodily movement in general. As noted in the last post, discussions about movement are dominated by the language of exercise and fitness. Stretching, in this regard, is something you do to your muscles in order to have a better workout or race result. Stretching is a physical means to a physical end.
From there fierce debates ensue over how, when, whether, and why. Does stretching weaken our muscles or prevent injury? Does stretching disperse lactic acid for a speedier recovery or put undue strain on fragile tissues? Does stretching increase flexibility or merely preserve it? Should it hurt or not? Should you bounce or hold or resist? What seems to count most are the measurements—how fast, how far, how much. Can you touch your head to your knees? Your hands to the ground? Hey, how’s your split?
Haunting these debates is an assumption that a muscle is a mechanical piece prone to harden over time like a rubber band or an old shoe. Keeping “it” toned and tuned is the responsibility of some one called “I”—someone armed with science’s best results. Yet according to science, the verdict is out. No one knows. Or do we?
Leif wakes up from his nap with a big smile. It was a good one. I watch as his fists ball, his elbows bend, his knees tuck up, and his back bends in an arc of intensity that shudders through his small self. His body is yawning, opening, releasing his limbs to move. He smiles again, waving his legs, extending his joy through the tips of his toes. No span of sensation escapes the awakening. All here and now he is.
We are missing the point about stretching because we have lost a sense of our bodies as the movement that is making us. Even while neuroscientists plot body maps in the brain, most people remain convinced that movement, aside from a few involuntary processes and reflexes, is from the top down. Brain drives; Body follows.
However, our brains are bodies too, and the bodies we are are not ours. If anything, we are theirs. The muscles we move move us, and they are alive, ceaselessly recycling, replenishing, and regenerating energy that exists to empty itself along a string of similar cells. Like a plant wants the sun, our bodily muscles want to move.
Moreover, this muscle movement that we are is not simply physical. Muscles don’t just move bones. They move our senses—the eye that scans, the ear that cocks, the nose that nears, the digit that fingers. How we move determines what we perceive, what we feel, and what responses we can imagine. The movement of our muscles also orients us in space and time: time is how long a movement takes; space is where it gets us.
It is the action of our muscles, grunting or groaning, that draws into sensory awareness a lived experience of ourselves as agent “I.” Approach or withdraw? Tangle or resist? Grab or release? My “I” is the one who did and can and will again make that move.
How we move our bodily selves, then, provides the basis for everything that our brains have to do in the realm of the executive “I.” Organizing, abstracting, calculating, reasoning, conceiving, planning, and carrying through are all mental movements predicated on and predicted by the earliest contraction and release of our bodily selves.
Stretching is an impulse to move. Stretching we bring our senses to life, animating the planes and surfaces of our sensory awareness so that we have at our fingertips what we need to participate consciously in making the movements that make us who we are.
I lie down on the floor. The congestion in my brain, the tension in my shoulders, the stiffness in my limbs are all letting me know: it is time to move. I breathe down into the ground and lift one knee towards my chest. Holding it with laced fingers, I exhale down into my bent hip and out through the leg lying along the floor. I do it once and then again. Suddenly a hamstring releases, seemingly of its own accord. My lower back sinks into the ground. Ribs lengthen, and ripples reorganize the bones of my spine. The front of my forehead eases and thoughts begin to flow.
Ah yes, that is what I was forgetting while sitting at my desk. While it is true that I begin the stretch, soon enough the stretching is stretching me past patterns of thinking, feeling, and acting, and into a present place where I am free to respond anew, in the moment and for the moment.
More is being stretched than muscles here–I’m stretching my sense of self. It is my “I” that is in danger of becoming hard and rigid, unyielding in its beliefs. It is my sense of who I am that must remain elastic, flexible, and free, not identified with the past patterns of movement that I have become, but rather with the process of making those patterns that “I” am. That’s the point.
It’s all about love.
Stretching I find ground, or ground finds me. A sensing center of self emerges where I can discern what will keep me moving and loving based on how I have moved and where I am now. My bodily self knows.
It is this finding and feeling that feels so good I want to do it again. I want to be this awake, this resourceful in every moment of my life, regardless of how restricted my reach may be. If I am beating and breathing, my movement is making me, and there is an infinite range of increasingly subtle sensations to discover.