Outside of stretching my arms overhead after I get out of bed, the idea of intentionally pulling, pushing, and contorting my body for prolonged periods actually gives me the yawns. For years a drink or a drug was what buffered me from life’s stressors. But now, twelve years after putting down drugs and alcohol for good, I’m finding myself in need of something to help me realign and support my recovery. But is stretching the answer?
I do like certain things I’ve heard about stretching. One doesn’t have to take a class or buy special equipment, and you can do it basically anywhere. But I’ve always thought of stretching as kind of an incidental diversion, the side dish to the main course of whatever you do to break a sweat.
But since the pandemic, I’ve found myself searching for something that goes beyond the endorphin rush I get from my regular strength-training routine. Suddenly, I’m unable to follow a narrative anymore or get to that deep calm place during my morning meditation. There’s also a new constant ache in my lower back, and I keep getting headaches in the evenings from all of the Zoom calls. So I turned to the experts and agreed to expand my ideas about stretching for five whole days. Here’s what I learned about how stretching can help my recovery.
Day 1: Start off slowly.
After my regular Zoom class with Arena Fitness Training Center, I tell my trainer, Will Garcia, about my quest to expand my ideas about stretching.
“Let’s start with a piriformis stretch, okay? Lay down on your back, knees bent, feet on the floor, and then cross your right leg over your left thigh just below the knee. Now take your hand and push ever so gently, hold.”
I’m already bored but I committed myself, so I close my eyes and listen to Will as he coaches me through.
“Deep inhale, fill up your lungs. Exhale through your mouth, push your knee a little harder.”
But when Will has to jump into his next class two minutes later, I jump up too and turn off my computer. Ninety seconds isn’t bad, is it?
Day 2: Ask a sober yoga teacher.
My friend, Kate Kennedy Gold, is an RYT (Registered Yoga Teacher). I text her and tell her about my new stretching quest. “I need some realignment for real,” I say. “I can’t concentrate anymore, and I know that stretching can help. I want to be able to watch a whole movie or read an entire book again.”
Kate loves stretching and is bubbling with ideas. I ask her to narrow it down to one or two for someone like me who may be somewhat less enthusiastic. She tells me to start with a series of active, static stretching; that’s the type of stretching that is the most common. “This is typically a longer stretch,” she says. “Hold each one for 30-40 seconds each.”
I am instantly resistant to the word “series” as it implies more than one, but I remind myself that I’ve agreed to go to any lengths to support my recovery.
“Stretching,” she continues, “allows me to bring my attention back inside my body, evaluate what’s going on for me emotionally, and connect with that truth. This, in turn, helps me in all aspects of my life — family, interpersonal, physical, and professional.”
“Stretching allows me to bring my attention back inside my body, evaluate what’s going on for me emotionally, and connect with that truth.”
So I throw my boyfriend’s yoga mat on the floor and try Cat/Cow. Next, I try something called “open book,” which, I’m delighted to find, is slightly more active than just lying there in one position. I place my phone next to me and set the alarm for 40 seconds.
Open, inhale, shut, exhale. Not too horrible.
That night I tried these same two stretches again before bedtime. Instead of going right to sleep, I try reading a few pages of the book on my nightstand. To my surprise, I get through seven pages without stopping once.
Day 3: Rewire your brain.
I’ve never been very bendy, even when I was a little kid. After talking to Will and Kate, I understand that tight muscles lead to more back pain and a reduced range of motion. Back pain and reduced range of motion can lead to surgeries and pain pills. And pain pills can lead to me scamming my doctors and lying to everyone I love. See where I’m going here? So I’d like to find stretches to help me with flexibility and help support my recovery. For this, I email my sober sister, Jane Gamm MA, who also happens to be a certified yoga teacher, and ask her how often she stretches and ask her if yoga and stretching are the same things.
“As a sober woman, I practice yoga (and stretch!) every day to support my recovery. I recommend stretching daily or as often as possible to realign your recovery and rewire your brain.”
“Yoga and stretching are not the same,” she emails back. “Yoga is a mind-body practice and can be a full-body workout, whereas stretching is a fundamental part of an exercise program and often focuses on specific muscle groups. As a sober woman, I practice yoga (and stretch!) every day to support my recovery. I recommend stretching daily or as often as possible to realign your recovery and rewire your brain. While addiction is a type of checking out, stretching the body and breathing with awareness can be a type of checking in.”
A checking in, I actually kind of love that.
That afternoon, I sat on my balcony in the sun, crossed one leg over the other and pushed my knee gently with my hand, and counted to 30. I lose count during my second stretch and feel a familiar sense of calm stealing over me. By the time I open my eyes, the sun is starting to dip in the sky.
Day 4: Learn to be cautious.
Starting a meditation practice was agonizing for me. I couldn’t quiet my mind; I kept checking my phone or popping up every few seconds to take care of something “important” (like examining my pores). I started with 30 solid seconds and then incrementally worked my way up to twenty minutes (now, twelve years later, anything less than twenty minutes feels short). Those first months were miserable, but I pushed through the pain.
While stretching isn’t exactly painful, it’s certainly uncomfortable for me, both physically and mentally. I research whether I should keep going through the pain but the advice I find says the opposite.
“Go into your stretch cautiously,” Ellen Douglas writes for Livestrong.com . “If you feel pain from stretching right away, discontinue your flexibility session. Otherwise, reach into the stretch as far as you can before it stops feeling like a slightly uncomfortable pull on your muscles. If it feels painful, ease back slightly until it’s only mildly uncomfortable. Hold yourself in that position for about 15 to 30 seconds; then slowly go back to your original position. Repeat a few times, unless you start to cramp or feel pain.”
After my workout that morning, I spend a total of five minutes stretching. I extend and pull until I start to feel discomfort, and then I pull back slightly before trying again. Standing up afterward, I genuinely feel like I have better posture and that my muscles are stronger and longer.
Day 5: Take a breather.
I feel as though I may be ready to take my stretching to the next level, so I connect with stretching guru and occupational therapist, Rita Burlingame-Toppen, MFR & Yoga. Rita is renowned for her Quantum Body Mechanics practice, so I’m thrilled that she’s agreed to help me on my quest.
“How did you first start stretching?” I ask. “And what’s the relationship between stretching and breath?”
“While I had always struggled with anxiety, I started having severe panic attacks in my junior year of undergrad,” she says. “I remember being up way too late working on a paper, likely having drunk at least two red bulls, when I felt myself getting shaky and dizzy. Intuitively, I got up from the couch where I was working and sat on the floor. I had taken a handful of yoga classes in my life and knew a few basic asanas. However, I was able to intuitively let my body take over and just moved in ways that felt nourishing and safe. It was as though I knew that my energy and attention needed to leave my racing mind and shift into my body where it could be processed. The best way I knew how was to get onto the floor and allow my shaking limbs to release that stored energy by stretching. That was over fifteen years ago, and what I would consider being the start of my journey into wellness and my interest in the practice of yoga for healing.”
“I like to think of the act of deep breathing as a way to ‘stretch from the inside out.’ I cue to move into a position and then purposefully direct the breath into the body area that you’re trying to stretch.”
“This is a lot of what early recovery is about: Doing what is best for us, even when it isn’t what others are doing, and taking the most excellent care of our exquisite selves.”
When I ask Rita for the best stretch to help me connect with the breath, she immediately recommends a stretch called Child’s Pose.
“There is something incredibly empowering about choosing to take rest in a fast-paced yoga class, while everyone around you is pushing their body and working hard. You take rest because you need it; you don’t need permission from the instructor and you don’t need to do what everyone else is doing. I think if we can learn to practice listening to our body and taking ownership of our own needs on a yoga mat, it is a step in the direction of knowing when we need to take rest off of the yoga mat. We can choose to rest even when others are not. We can choose to abstain from substances even when others are not. This is a lot of what early recovery is about: Doing what is best for us, even when it isn’t what others are doing, and taking the most excellent care of our exquisite selves.”
Rita has a series of YouTube videos that are step by step how-to’s for poses that decrease pain and remove barriers to healthy living. I find one the one titled Try Child’s Pose and decide to watch that first.
Mimicking her movements, I find myself face down on my mat with my knees bent and my butt resting on the backs of my heels. I start off wondering how long I need to stay this way, but then I hear it. My breath. And when I concentrate on it, I feel everything in me relax. I hear my breath, I feel my breath, and for at least three and a half minutes, I am my breath. Rita’s video ends, and I stay in Child’s Pose just a little longer and then slowly get up, really feeling all of the different parts of my body.
Well, I’ll be damned.
For someone who was so quick to treat even the mildest of discomforts with pills and booze, it’s ridiculous that I would be so skeptical about something as beneficial and accessible as stretching. Healthline.com says that performing stretches regularly will improve your circulation and posture, increase your flexibility, and relieve stress. And after my week-long attempt to create a stretching practice that I can live with, I have to say I drank the proverbial Kool-Aid. As a woman in recovery, anything that I can do to support my sobriety or realign my recovery is another coin in my spiritual bank account — and I do like making those kinds of deposits.