Adaptable mind, flexible body

Traditional Chinese medicine maintains that dis-ease occurs when the body and mind can no longer adapt to change, challenge or threat. When the body is unable to adapt to changes, to traumas for example or to bacterial attack, dis-ease arises. When we cannot adapt to change (crises, threats, insecurity and fear around us), the internal environment of the body and mind also becomes disrupted. This places a huge strain on all body functions and leads to the formation of serious malfunctions (e.g. stomach ulcers, high blood pressure, allergic reactions, asthmatic or anxiety attacks, sleeplessness, headaches, migraine, constipation, eczema and many other symptoms).

The body has a tendency to become more fragile and less flexible, as we grow older. My own experience of regular stretching however, is that my body has become both stronger and more flexible as I grow older! With age, the mind can also become less flexible, clinging onto habits and trusted ways of thinking, avoiding anything that may seem different. This is a process I have witnessed firsthand in the people around me.

It seems to me to be so important to keep the mind open and flexible, in spite of the thousands of memories of past experiences, of pain or hurt that can dictate how we react to a person or situation today. It is crucial, if difficult, to try to greet situations and encounters with a fresh, open mind, rather than with all the memories of the past. In this way we keep the mind young and open to new thoughts and experiences.

If you look at the world around you, you will see hundreds of examples of struggles between people, which are caused by fanatically clinging on to old wounds; where both sides are blinded by traditional ways thinking and doing.

So stretching is not just about being able to adapt to new physical positions. It is not just about learning to let go of physical tension and resistance, but perhaps more importantly, it is about being able to let go of ‘mental stiffness', about embracing change and challenge rather than seeking ways to run away from them.

The mind - friend or foe?

Buddha is quoted as saying that the body is a reflection and an expression of the mind. The mind is a collection of memories, impressions and patterns of behaviour. Each time you experience something the mind reacts according to whether it has had a similar experience previously, if it has not, then it stores up information for future reference. The body, along with its many physiological functions, is affected by what the mind experiences. For example, when you are angry the body becomes hot, the heart beats faster, the veins open up allowing more blood to circulate and the breathing changes. This can only be considered 'pathological' when you hold on to anger, or sadness, for a long period.

During the years that I have been stretching, I have observed that it is not only my body that has learned how to let go of old traumas, but that my mind also can more easily adapt to changes, to disturbances and to disappointments. I have become more emotionally balanced and fall ill a lot less than I used to. Stretching has made me more supple both mentally and physically. I have seen the same process occur in many of the people who attend the stretch classes, in the same way that I have watched the increasing physical and mental inflexibility of those around me who do not stretch regularly.

In a world in which we are encouraged to be what we are not, to exceed our limits in our endeavours, at work or at home, I see how essential stretching is for a greater degree of harmony, both within and without. More importantly, stretching gives you the choice of how you want to feel about yourself and about your life. The world around takes on another perspective when you are feeling balanced, strong and flexible.

But very often the level of conflict within ourselves, and in the world around us, takes on such proportions that the slightest change can lead to panic and more confusion. The balanced feeling you experience after a stretch class will not stay with you if you do not make stretching a regular occurrence, in the same way that you sleep and eat regularly. Also, the resistance or pain that you may experience in some of the positions will not disappear just by deciding not to practice those positions. It will merely return to the background and become unconscious once again. My own experience, as well as those who have been stretching regularly, is that pain and resistance go way when you are not afraid to look at them and understand how they are being maintained, and find out why you have given them a place in your body and mind in the first place. The electrical impulse for pain is exactly the same as that for pleasure. It is the mind that translates the impulse into one or the other.

Many people in the world feel very insecure; uncertain about the direction their life will lead them, and are afraid. One thing we can all influence or change is the way we feel, think and act. We are the captains of our own ship and, in the words of Nelson Mandela, "It is our light, not our darkness that most frightens us".