Stretching Into Spring

According to Traditional Chinese Medicine practice, moving from the winter season (yin energy) to spring (yang energy), means we move from contraction to expansion. We can apply this methodology as a metaphor for our physical bodies.

All winter we have been on an inward journey, staying inside our homes to conserve heat and perhaps becoming reflective about what lies in our future during the New Year celebrations. As spring arrives we ask ourselves to change that behavior and begin to reach out and open up to enact any plans or intentions for the new growing season. Somewhat like a seed that has remained in hibernation during the cold months and then begins to sprout as the air temperatures begin to warm. The contrast between contraction and expansion is quite extreme and we often feel quite exhausted with the effort.

Think about when you were a child during periods of fast growth. We called the aches and pains in our limbs “growing pains”. Our bones were lengthening and expanding and our muscles, ligaments, tendons, and connective tissues had to grow and accommodate this growth. This all took energy! Like the childhood complaint of growing pains, when we move from the contraction of winter into the expansion of spring, we are also using energy. Hence our fatigue.

One of the ways that we can regain vitality and strength is to stretch. There are many ways to stretch our bodies but what they all have in common is the ability to unblock held pockets of energies. By releasing blocks and opening up tight areas we allow the flow of the primo vascular circulatory system to move more smoothly. The primo vascular circulatory system has more commonly been known for centuries as the Meridian system. When the body has more flow it can more easily heal itself and help body parts to rejuvenate.

The rejuvenation of the body is particularly enhanced when we keep our spines lubricated and loose. After all, our skeletal structure is what the rest of our physical body rests upon. If there are compromised sections of the spine then the nerves that attach to those sections will echo their distress into various related areas of the body. That results in pain. When those nerves are allowed to function freely the pain is alleviated.

Bella Lewitzky
Bella Lewitzky

As a young professional dancer, I was constantly taking dance classes, rehearsing, choreographing, and performing. I certainly had sore muscles but my spine was continually being activated with curving, arching, twisting, contracting, and lengthening movements. I never imagined the day I might feel restriction in my spinal motions. Nevertheless, in my 6th decade there are days that I wake up with back pain. Usually it is because I haven’t done enough flexibility exercises the day before. On those days, I am reminded of one of my early mentors – Bella Lewitzky – who performed well into her 60’s. I thought it a bit of an overkill back in my 20’s after I first met Bella when I heard that she spent an hour each morning manipulating her spine before she began her day in the dance studio. I no longer think it was overkill!

Most of us aren’t prepared to spend an hour just working on spinal flexibility but it certainly would behoove us to spend at least 15 minutes a day. We could accomplish that by taking a dance, stretch, Pilates, or yoga class or by simply bending our bodies forward in our chairs from time to time throughout the day rolling down and back up through each of the vertebrae to improve articulation and then twisting in our chairs from side to side. If we walk, jog, play sports, we want to make sure that we stretch our spines as well as our arms and legs before and after we have exerted ourselves. This helps us as we mature and move through the various stages in life.

Our lower back is probably the most vulnerable spot in our spines. It is the area that gets the most complaints, particularly in pregnant women. As the baby grows, a pregnant woman’s center of gravity moves forward and her posture changes, causing the spine to support the additional weight exactly at this vulnerable low back area. Then after giving birth, the new mother carries the baby and often doesn’t shift her posture back to her pre-pregnancy alignment. Her muscles get used to this placement and she carries this postural habit throughout the rest of her life.

The same result occurs when we allow ourselves to gain too much belly weight. The abdominal muscles release and don’t act as the natural “girdle” that they are meant to. As the abdominals stretch out, the low back contracts into a perpetual arch and never gets a chance to lengthen out and release the arched position. When we activate the spine we can reenergize the abdominal muscles by contracting them which allows the spine to open up and stretch.

When I was a young child I never imagined the day would come when I was taller than my 6 foot father. Being 5’ 4”, that seemed like an impossible event. Yet, when he was in his 80s, that’s just what happened. It was shocking to me although I’m not sure that my father recognized the change as much as I did. So what had happened?

Some experts claim that height related shrinkage in older age is partly due to genetics. However it is widely recognized that exercising can help prevent exaggerated height loss as we get older. Weight bearing exercises help to increase bone density; learning to sit, stand, and walk with your spine in correct alignment reduces stress on the vertebral discs; and regularly stretching in all directions – up, down, sideways, diagonally, and gentle twisting actions helps to maintain flexibility.

Since the bony structures of our body are connected via muscles, ligaments, and tendons, if one part of the spine gets compressed and loses mobility, it causes other parts of the skeleton to have to bear the load or compensate for lost agility. Hence we constantly hear of the danger of hip fractures in those that have compromised spines. Rheumatologist Abby G. Abelson, MD, FACR says “People are more likely to die in the year after a hip fracture; people are more likely to die after a spine fracture as well.”

We have the power to counteract age related height shrinkage just as we have the power to release blocked areas of energy in our bodies. We can help ourselves move from a condition of contraction into expansion just as nature moves from the yin energies of winter into the yang energies of spring. By starting a bit at a time we can regain mobility and flexibility in our spines, increasing our chances to live full and healthy lives!