Stretching Taught Me How To Get Through Anything
Updated: Mar 22
If you know me at all personally, you know that I spent almost my entire childhood into my early adult life as a competitive gymnast. As any athlete that trains to compete will tell you, spending years in that life builds integral parts of who you are - how you respond to challenge, how you react internally and externally to winning and losing, what kind of relationships you build with others, and a million other things. Although I have not been directly a part of that world for several years now, I still get so much pleasure and satisfaction (and basic health benefits) from keeping up my basic flexibility best I can.
While stretching recently, I had an important epiphany after my morning workout that I think has permanently changed my life. (If you've never been an athlete, don't worry, this post is for you too.)
Honestly, I think we all have these moments where we finally understand or believe in something in the most unexpected of moments because, at least for me, some of my most important "ah-ha" moments have come to me when I was in the middle of doing something completely ordinary. I hope this story resonates with you in some way but I also know that it was significant to me because it was a message I really needed to hear in a different and new way, and that's exactly what happened.
This particular day, I was going about my usual routine, which, boiled down, consists basically of journaling, exercising, and some light stretching while listening to my favorite morning talk shows or podcasts. But there I was, moving through some stretches, and I came to be sitting in a pike position, which is when you sit on the ground with your feet straight out in front of you and try to reach your toes without letting your knees bend. One can do this in a number of different ways; you can reach forward and keep your back flat, you can round it over, you can flex your feet, point your feet, relax your feet, rotate your legs in/out from the hip joint, there are so many variations you can rotate through (but all of them, no matter your flexibility, pull like heck on your hamstrings!). If you've never done anything like this before, I'd encourage you to try it out. Try it right now actually! Maybe you can follow along in my little epiphany in real time...
Now, if stretching is a completely foreign activity to you, don't worry, just pick anything you can do pseudo-comfortably that doesn't cause you pain. (Pinterest and Google are good friends here if you need some ideas.) Got one? Okay, great, let's continue.
When stretching a tight muscle, you'll notice that the body reaches a point at which you can't go any further into the stretch without applying some kind of outside force. This might be the force of gravity (propping a body part on a higher surface so gravity can work), engaging the opposing muscles, using a band, or having another person help. Once you activate this force, you'll then reach a point of great discomfort and be forced to stop! This is how one gets (or stays) flexible and/or mobile- by pushing to the point of discomfort or further. *Note:* It's important to point out, if you're trying this at home, you don't want to push to the point of pain, but to the point where you go "okay I'm gonna get out of this now because it's no longer comfy or passive to stay here." It takes effort, after all, to convince yourself and your body to stay in a place of discomfort.
If you're still doing this with me, I want you to get to that point. Has your brain (maybe even subconsciously) told you "Yup, alright, that's enough of that, I'm getting out of this"? Get to that place. Spoiler alert: it's not going to feel great! In fact, it will most likely be very unnatural and against your instinct to get and stay there.
In this place, you are probably holding your breath (and didn't realize you were doing it); you might start lightly sweating or feel your face scrunch up in contorted ways, or feel emotions (like irritation) begin to bubble up. Your muscles are in some sort of strain and your body is like, "Whoa that's past your normal state of being!", "This isn't equilibrium, I don't like that!", "What if it's dangerous?!". This is what our brain does. You might even feel a pit in your stomach. For me, it's this funny, odd tension where I get a knot and butterflies in my stomach and feel like I need to laugh or cry or hold my breath all at the same time. It's kind of a tingly, tense, funky feeling in my whole body but centralized in my stomach or my chest. Whatever it is for you, I want you to push to that point and stay there. Let it be unpleasant. What do you feel? Is your heart rate quicker? Are you holding your breath or breathing more shallow short breaths? Are you starting to sweat in random places? Is your natural instinct to let go now and get out of it? Yes, probably.
Now while you hang out in this place of awkward (and possibly frustrating) discomfort, I'm going to continue my story so you can use it as a friendly distraction from all the protesting your brain and body are currently screaming from all directions.
So there I was, stretching in pike, and I got to that place where it's kind of painful but mostly just really uncomfy. My muscles were way outside of their comfort zone, and if I were to stay there for more than literally 2 seconds I knew my heart rate would get high, my breathing would get short and shallow, and my whole body would resist and tense up even in places that weren't currently being stretched. But I decided to push to that place and now everything in my physical body was telling me to retreat, to get out of it, to go back. Then I paused. Normally, this is the point at which I will give into my muscle's requests and let myself come out of the position. But on this day, I thought, what if I didn't? What if I ignored those pleads just for a second to see what would happen? So I said to myself, "Stay. Don't move in either direction- don't push further, don't give up and move out of it; Just. Stay. Here." When I made that decision, I just wanted to see if I could do it, get to the other side of the extreme discomfort I was in, just see what would happen. But you know what happened? The expected symptoms - my heart rate spiked, my palms got sweaty, my face contorted into some ugly mess, my whole body resisted by tensing up EVERYWHERE - and then... it faded. My heart rate slowed down, my breath got more even, my body relaxed, and I just stayed there. I felt peaceful and in control. I hadn't moved objectively speaking, I was in the exact same position as when I started, but I was completely transformed on the inside.
"I didn't even do anything," I told myself. I always thought that in order to conquer adversity or "get through" a tough spot, I had to gather up as much courage as possible and fight to the death with whatever psychological war had been waged. But this had been different. I hadn't expelled any extra energy, hadn't needed to brace myself, and hadn't been any braver or stronger or more capable than any other average, boring day. So what did I do? What was different? I just breathed. That's it?? "Yup," the Universe answered. All I needed to do was breath. That's it.
How are you doing? Still there? If so, hang in there with me for just a minute more and just freeze like I did. Yes, in this very unpleasant, very uncomfortable, not so fun position, freeze. Don't move, don't come out of it, and don't push any harder. I want you to feel all the symptoms. Yes, keep feeling them. All of them. The objections your brain is firing, the increased heart rate, the annoyance, the urge to retreat, notice all of it. I know, I know, is it over yet? No, stay there, you got this. Now breath. In, out, in, out. Keep breathing. Again, no need to move in any direction, no need to try and get any further into the stretch, I just want you to breathe. Focus only on that. Breathe until your heart rate comes back down a bit. Breathe until your face relaxes and your body stops fighting you. Breathe until the spike of symptoms has come down to a lower frequency. Breathe until a sense of peace comes back and your body realizes it isn't actually under attack. You may or may not be able to go further into the stretch now, but I don't care about that, just breath until the adrenaline has subsided. Okay, has the physical freak-out passed? Have you returned to a state of less intense emotional and physical disturbance? Alright, you can relax and come out of it now.
Congratulations! You made it to the other side of discomfort and uncertainty! Shake it out and think about what you just experienced. When I did this exact same experiment with myself the other morning, I figured out that stretching has taught me all I need to know about life and discomfort. Because guess what you just proved to yourself? That discomfort sucks but it is NOT as long-lasting or as difficult to get through as you thought it was. It's also not as dangerous or threatening as our brains want us to believe. I don't blame you, brain! Evolutionarily speaking, you're doing your job! Biologically, our brains are designed to keep us and our bodies in a state of comfort known as "homeostasis"; which is important because it literally keeps us alive at the physiological level, but it is also a fancy way of saying that our brain perceives pretty much anything unknown or unfamiliar or uncomfortable as a threat. Out in the wild, this is very useful of course in, say, trying to stay alive; but as I'm sure you've noticed in everyday modern life, it can be quite a hinderance when it keeps us from living fully.
I could go on and on about fear and discomfort, but what I want to point out today is that, by doing that awkward, uncomfortable, possibly slightly painful stretch, you just faced discomfort head-on and found out that it IS possible to conquer it. You didn't avoid, you didn't deflect, you didn't retreat or give up, you pushed through the discomfort. You found out there IS a way to make it to the other side and that YOU can make it there.
We've all seen and lived through struggle. We have all had plenty of challenge where we had to fight tooth and nail to just barely keep our heads above water. I'm not saying we shouldn't fight to survive or give up and let life make us its b*tch. I am saying that we don't always need to fight when we are afraid or unsure. I'm saying that discomfort is uncertain and that makes it undesirable but getting through it can be as simple as waiting and breathing. You don't need to do anything else.
Being a human, especially right now amid COVID-19, financial hardship, global and local uncertainty, job insecurity, and any of the other life obstacles that throw mega waves of discomfort into our lives, it's no surprise or novel realization that feeling uncertain and uncomfortable are scary and undesirable feelings. Of course we hate being uncomfortable! It's riddled with uncertainty, fear, insecurity, questions, unknowns, and risk. We throw everything we've got at ways to avoid or get out of being uncomfortable. We numb and distract and come up with quick fixes or instant gratification techniques to feel anything but uncomfortable. But not only is discomfort good, it is necessary for any type of growth.
When I witnessed my body surrender to the discomfort and simply WAIT for it to pass, I was given revolutionary insight: I don't need to fight discomfort. I don't need to resist it or fear it or avoid it or even find a way out of it. The discomfort will pass all on its own. All I have to do is feel it and breathe.
What if to make it through discomfort all we have to do is breathe? All we have to do is wait. I think often waiting is the most difficult thing to do. It requires choosing to accept what is when we would rather change the circumstance.
Let's say that I had avoided the discomfort. I would have gotten up out of the stretch and gone about my day. When I go back to stretch that muscle, will I have progressed? If I only push to the point of comfort, have I grown in any way? Discomfort sucks. It straight-up blows sometimes. But it shows us our limits and that we can change and expand them. Sitting there in pike, I finally understood: Discomfort is not my enemy. It taught me I CAN make it to the other side. I CAN break free from my comfort. I CAN conquer anything because sometimes I don't need to do anything to conquer the moment except breathe. I CAN find what is waiting for me on the other side of my fears and insecurities. I can.
Discomfort is not pain. They often occur together but they are not the same thing. I deserve to reach my highest good and highest growth, and that means trusting discomfort when it comes into my life. You don't need to do anything. Choose to breathe. Choose to trust the discomfort. Choose to stay and let the disturbance in your mind and body pass; because it WILL pass. And you will come out the other side a stronger, leveled-up person who can face more and fear less.