As a Pilates instructor I view the transformation of bodies on a daily basis. This transformation is guided by caring instructors that take the time to observe, comment, and correct their clients posture and placement. A careful eye and deliberately placed hand often times can mean the difference between going through the motions, and changing the body in front of you. Guiding a client with your hands is a helpful way for clients to connect with what you are asking them to do. This is especially useful when addressing flexibility. Typically when a client is reaching forward towards their toes, whether they are on the mat or on the reformer, inflexible clients tend to lift their shoulders and contract their necks by lifting the chin. It is right to correct this unnecessary tension verbally, but it is doubly effective if you make your verbal correction while placing your hands gently on the shoulders and then on the head to demonstrate where you would like the relaxation to manifest. Breathing techniques are also an important part of releasing tension to gain flexibility. In the Lamaze technique (yes the one for delivering a baby) there are exercises that the woman is given to focus her attention on breathing, which were designed to ensure the mother doesn’t stop breathing and then start to panic, or hyperventilate. In Pilates we also use breathing techniques to ensure the body is getting the maximum blood flow to the muscles to perform the work effectively with the greatest benefit to the body. By using your breath as a guide, you can increase your strength, fluidity of movement, and develop a greater connection to your body. The Lamaze technique also has a dynamic role for the partner to play in keeping the mother calm and focused on the task at hand. During labor there are parts of the body that tense up and the partners job is to identify where this is happening and place their hands on that part of the body and say, “relax here.” If you say relax your shoulders without placing hands on the spot you’ve identified the whole of the shoulder may not relax, and the particular parts of the body you are referring to may stay tense. Combining the power of touch with the benefits of focused and controlled breathing helps the body recognize that it is working safely, allowing it to relax and move more freely.
Whether you are delivering a baby or trying to touch your toes, not fully relaxing in the areas you have tension will impede your ability to perform your task as well as you can. Forcing a stretch while holding your breath and gripping your muscles with tension will never work, and is a miserable experience. If you are working on increasing your flexibility with out hands on assistance, try identifying your own areas of tension and then practice deep breathing to relax those areas while holding the stretch. I recommend 3-5 deep breaths while holding a challenging stretch pose. Typically there is tension in the neck, shoulders, chest, and hands but tension can hide nearly anywhere in the body. You can use your own hands to identify areas of tension and release them, or try closing your eyes and visualizing these areas in your mind while sending a mental message to release and relax. Over time you will find that committing to using these techniques will give you a strategy to combat tight muscles and increase your overall flexibility.