Using Breath to Enhance Stretching

         "Conscious breathing is my anchor.” ― Thích Nhất Hạnh

          Breathing is a function of the autonomic nervous system and occurs naturally and efficiently without any conscious help from us. However, being aware of our breathing patterns and allowing them to work in tandem with our actions, can enhance our dancing as was discussed in the post, Reminding Dancers to Breathe. Breathing can also be used to help dancers stretch effectively.

          Dancers spend a good deal of time trying to increase muscle flexibility and joint range of motion. There are different ways to stretch, and some are more effective than other as has been discussed in the posts: Stretching - When Not to Do It, Stretching - Working With Your Body Type, and Stretching - Ballistic, Dynamic & Static - Which is Most Effective.

          While dynamic stretching should be used during the warm-up, static stretching can be used at the end of classes, rehearsals, and performances as part of a cool-down and can increase flexibility while releasing any muscular tension that may have developed. Being aware of our breathing and how it affects our muscles, can help us create effective stretching strategies.

          As we inhale, our diaphragm contracts to make room for the intake of air. As the air floods in, our lungs expand, and blood pools there for a short time. Since the blood is pooling and not circulating as quickly, the heart receives a message to pump faster to increase circulation. When we exhale, the blood quickly moves back into the heart. A large amount of blood in the heart means that each heart beat can circulate a substantial amount of blood and the heart can slow down. As the heart rate slows, the entire body relaxes and releases tension. It is for these reasons that when we stretch we should use the inhale to prepare for the stretch and move into the stretch on the exhale.

          As we inhale, we should focus on lengthening and aligning our skeletons, and we should begin to release into the stretch as we exhale. As we inhale again, we should come out of the stretch slightly and re-lengthen before we move into the stretch a bit deeper on the next exhale. This process can be repeated several times to increase the depth of the stretch. By using our breath, we also keep the stretch reflex from occurring.

          The stretch reflex is a built-in safety mechanism that the body uses to help avoid muscles damage. When a muscle is elongated too far, the brain senses it might tear and sends a message to the muscle fibers to contract to prevent the tear from happening. A muscle contraction tightens the muscle and prevents it from stretching any further. By relaxing into the stretch and then coming out of it slightly before stretching deeper, we are able to prevent this reflex from occurring.

          It is also important to be sure we are never holding our breath as we stretch. Holding our breath causes all of our muscles to tighten and contract. If you find yourself holding your breath while stretching, it may mean that you are pushing too far into the stretch for your body.

          Although dancers tend to focus on increasing flexibility and joint range of motion when stretching, they need

to remember that stretching can also relieve tension and relax the body after a class, rehearsal, or performance.

          Being aware of our breathing and using it in tandem with stretching, can help us increase flexibility while relieving muscle tension rather than fighting against ourselves and locking more tension into the body.