Have you ever wondered why your stretches aren't as effective as you'd hoped?
I've chosen not to offer you specific stretches to do here as it would miss the point, you may already have some favorites you already use, and there are plenty to be found online, and for the most part they're all absolutely fine. What I want to discuss is the how of stretching, rather than what stretches to do. Stretching is generally avoided in the Alexander Technique, but people are inclined to do them anyway, and it can still help you to do them more constructively.
There's a legitimate question in sports science about the need to stretch, with little evidence to support it. As far back as 1941, Thomas Cureton, sometimes known as “the father of physical fitness”, performed research that lead to the conclusion that increased flexibility did not improve physical performance. Subsequent systematic reviews and meta-analysis continues to confirm this. In 2016 a systematic review performed by an international university research team found 119 performance measures where stretching before activity made performance significantly worse, and 145 measures where the results were ambiguous. Only 6 measures were found to have improved after stretching. A study at Simon Fraser University on 1,398 runners, where half were instructed to stretch before running, and the other half not to, showed that the injury rates for both groups was the same. Another international research team looked at whether stretching after activity aided recovery and found no affect either way, neither positive or negative.[ Research originally curated by Jonathan Jarry M.Sc. for The McGill Office for Science and Society.]
Stretching appears not to improve injury prevention, or performance, and can make performance worse if done before the activity. The general rule in sports is to warm up before playing and “stretch” after (FIFA’s warm up program specifically recommends not stretching), but a stretch’s real value is in bringing awareness to any habitual tension you are holding, and once aware you can work on releasing it. It’s best to think of stretching as an exploration rather than an imposition and a way of improving body awareness.
The overwhelming majority of people I've spoken to have a misconception of what stretching actually entails. Without intending to, it's very common to invoke the stretch reflex (or myotatic reflex as it's medically known), and in doing so prevent the muscle, or muscles, from releasing. The likelihood is that every time you stretch, your are, in fact, tightening.
The problem arises because of a common false assumption; that the purpose of a stretch is to mechanically bully muscle fibers into length. The human organism as a whole interprets this as an attack and protects itself by tightening the muscles being stretched.
A more mindful approach is required.
What makes a muscle tighten beyond a conscious, or subconscious signal to do so? There are four main reasons, two of which are mechanically related, and two related to the central nervous system. A period of sustained exercise will lead to muscle tightness and can be simply remedied with rest, there's no need to actually stretch. I've heard musicians called the athletes of small muscles, prolonged playing/practicing requires adequate rest afterwards. In a related manner, poor posture and habitual lack of mechanical advantage leads to chronic tightening as the muscles are overworked. The muscles will adapt accordingly if mechanical advantage is re-established as a habit, although the process can be helped along with gentle stretching to speed up the process depending on how chronic the situation is. It's a natural response for muscles to tighten around an injury, especially an acute one. This is desirable in the early stages of healing, but it's not uncommon for the tightening to become habituated long after the protection it provides to the injured area is required, becoming chronic and leading to secondary issues. Encouraging greater coordination and mobility in the area will often suffice, but again, stretching can bring some awareness to the area and help the process along, especially if it's quite an old injury. Finally there's the overall condition of the nervous system, your stress response. That frisson of the nervous system has an outer manifestation of tighter muscles generally, but commonly associated with tight neck and shoulders. In all cases, to get muscles to release the signal to tighten needs to be inhibited. This can be achieved as an act of will, and also as a by-product of encouraging the parasympathetic nervous system, your resting state, i.e. Inhibition (an Alexander Technique term).
The mechanical aspect of the stretch is a sign post, or an invitation, to release into the direction being being offered. Whenever I write stretch from now on, I mean release into direction.
You start gently and take your time to allow yourself to release into it. Time is an ingredient of a productive stretch. You can't bake a cake faster by putting the oven heat on full. You can be firm with the physicality of the stretch, especially with larger muscle groups, but take your time working up to it, and remember, it needs to always feel like an invitation. Don't concern yourself with the success of the stretch (end-gaining in Alexander parlance), just engage with the process.
Talking to my colleague Sirpa Tapaninen, who also has 26 years experience with Ashtanga yoga, she mentioned how she also thinks of "stretching" in this same way, as releasing into direction. Yoga can be a wonderful way to explore mobility and habitual tension (mental and physical, or psychophysically as we say in the Alexander Technique) if you can get past the competitive nature of group psychology in classes.
A stretch is most effective when the parasympathetic nervous system is engaged. In sports science it's recommended you stretch after you've cooled down from exercise, not directly after. If your nervous system is in a heightened state it won't readily release. The release will happen as an expression of the state of the nervous system. Long out breaths are a great way to encourage and deepen the parasympathetic nervous system. You can greatly increase the effectiveness of your stretching by taking long out breaths at the same time.
An interesting element to this is that you don't necessarily need a physical stretch to release into direction, just the mental intention. This will be useful to remember if you already have a practice of doing Alexander Semi-Supine/Constructive Rest. And with regards to your overall posture and head/neck relationship (Alexander's classic "head forward and up") , gravity is providing the physical “stretch” (albeit more subtly) along the neck muscles as the head naturally tilts forward over the atlanto-occiptal joint. The sign post, the invitation, is built in as an environmental and evolutionary factor when you're poised in an upright manner.
Personally, rather than stretch, I prefer to shake off any build up of tension.