A good physical fitness level involves a balance between endurance, strength and flexibility.
Sadly, unless you’re a yoga enthusiast, only a minority of us include stretching as part of our workout.
Though there is still no verdict whether stretching helps prevent injuries, we should be doing it daily to keep our joints limber and feel calmer.
But, how you stretch and how long you hold a stretch can make a world of difference to your flexibility.
Last month, I was invited to attend a workshop on Stretch Therapy or ST (yes, there is such a thing), a comprehensive exercise method developed by Australian Kit Laughlin, a former Olympic lifter and middle distance runner.
While he was physically fit, he was exceptionally tight, suffered severe backaches and incurred various injuries, leading him to explore methods to improve his flexibility.
Laughlin has authored three books including the best selling Overcome Neck & Back Pain.
Suitable for all ages and bodies, ST includes stretching, fascial remodelling, strengthening, neural re-patterning and relaxation.
ST is effective for rehabilitation (to recover from injuries and to find relieve from common postural problems such as back, neck, shoulder and knee pains) as well as for prehabilitation (a therapy programme designed either to prepare the body for surgery or as a method of injury prevention for athletic training, the work environment, or everyday functional activities).
Proponents say their chronic pains have disappeared after a few sessions while elite athletes vouch for improved sports performance.
”The exercises are layered, from easy to challenging; and we also use simple equipment (props) such as bolsters and chairs to help people with tight muscles achieve an effective stretch,” says Leong Wai Kuan, who, along with her husband, opened the Stretch Therapy Centre in Petaling Jaya last September.
The goals are grace and ease, and this is experienced as enhanced awareness and elegance in movement. Ultimately, it leads to staying agile and pain-free as you age.
Leong, who is also a yoga teacher, stumbled upon the method when she went for a meditation course in Taiping in 2015 where Laughlin was conducting the morning warm-up stretches.
She found relief after years of suffering from a pinched nerve on her neck. The pain would radiate down her shoulder and arm. At times, the problem would be so bad, she wouldn’t be able to move her fingers on the mousepad because they were numb. She also experienced back pain.
She says, “ST helped me fix the issue and I decided to get myself certified in the method. The main thing about ST is that we listen to people and work out a system. There are exercises for plantar fasciitis, even bunions! Everyone wants a quick fix but a lot depends on your body awareness. Some people can adjust themselves while others need external help, so they have to take classes.
“I’m inclined towards teaching people who need rehabilitation such as Parkinson’s disease patients, but found my knowledge of yoga wasn’t sufficient to help them. This knowledge has opened up my mind.”
Leong spent over 20 years in financial services as an auditor, financial controller and investment banker, and ran a translation business before giving it all up to become a yoga teacher, and now, a studio owner. She conducts monthly workshops to introduce ST to people.
ST is similar to other mind-body workouts such as yoga, meditation, Pilates or tai chi. Certain positions can be threatening and it’s normal for one to step back or stop.
“We do use force,” admits Leong, “but only to the extent to make or re-make the connection from the brain to that part of the body. Once force has been applied, the body is brought to a state where it is willing to let this protective tension go. Once the tension is let off in an ST stretch, bones, muscles and fascia are used to remap the brain.”
I’m pretty flexible but I did find that a little tweak here and there made a huge difference to my range of motion.
For example, I have a tight right Achilles tendon from multiple ankle ligament tears, and with a slight modification in my hip alignment, I was able to stretch it further. Inching deeper is no walk in the park but you just have to bear with it for a while to see the difference.
The crucial factor is that this cannot be imposed, it can only be experienced with the teacher as the guide.
“Deep stretching can also get deep into the mind and at times, students burst out in tears from an emotional release. Something is unleashed and they find themselves somewhat liberated. Our body is related to emotions, so to work on the emotion, we start with the body. Most of the time, the mind acts as a barrier but people don’t realise it,” explains Leong, adding that many ST students have avoided steroid injections and invasive surgical procedures.
Some students liken ST to a massage session while others say it’s physiotherapy in a fun way.
Me? I slept like a baby that night.