“Alchemical Stretching is when you have both a focus on increasing range of motion and also increasing the quality of sensory impressions from the new area – but with a hierarchy towards the sensory.” [D]
Recently I put up two videos (on Vimeo) that go some way towards explaining what I call Alchemical Stretching. This is part of my divergent phylogeny from Kit’s wonderful Stretch Therapy system and it is how I use stretching in Physical Alchemy. The first part of the series is a video entitled ‘Physical Alchemy 3-Phase Stretch Cycle Diagram‘ which is a diagram explaining in phases the process of utilizing Contract-Relax neuromuscular methods during a stretch*. This article is designed to go with these first two videos as a companion piece. The three phases are as follows:
1. Acclimatisation Phase
Acclimatisation Phase is a feeling out of the tension-patterning of the day and discharging the residual (if it is not too extensive). Some days we suffer from post-viral effects in the soft tissues, emotional-mental tensions manifest in the flesh and of course physical over-use and postural tension. So, Acclimatisation Phase is, as my mentor Kit says: ‘Interrogating the body’ to see how it is on the day.
Once you have built up your body awareness and sensory lexicon (KQ) you will be able to very easily tell how you are in terms of tension-patterning for a given day (once you are experienced enough you can simply feel this at any time you wish, stretching or not).
In the end of acclimatisation phase we sink into a stretch: that is we move into a range of motion that elicits the stretch reflex from the muscle spindles and soft tissue receptors around the joints the stretch encompasses.
(The blue ‘bell-curve’ line shows the force application of the contraction in a standard Contract-Relax as done in both Stretch Therapy and Physical Alchemy. The red wiggly line is a Physical Alchemy technique called an ‘Oscillatory Contraction’)
The Contract-Relax Protocol*: The event that bridges the end of Acclimatisation Phase and the beginning of Re-patterning Phase is a contraction of the muscles and soft tissue structures that you have on stretch.
The muscles and soft-tissues structures that are on stretch have the stretch reflex overridden by the utilization of the more powerful Golgi-Tendon Organ Reflex, thus allowing for the exploration of deeper ranges of motion and sensation.
The contraction time and intensity parameters are both dialed based on a number of factors including: training age, body awareness and sensory lexicon (KQ), muscle cross-sectional area, illness and injury, charge of the area and a whole host of other minor factors.
After the contraction of the stretch muscle is finished we exhale, relax and move into a deeper range of motion and a deeper sensation richness.
The two are sometimes not equal: we can move a number of inches and have a moderate sensation increase, or we can move a couple of millimeters and have a huge jump in sensation, it all depends on the person and their body’s perception of the area and how close they are to the end position at the time of contraction. Smaller muscles are usually contracted with less force and time than proportionally larger muscles.
Once the body is in a new, deeper range of motion we are in the Re-patterning Phase.
Within this phase you can utilize a number of other Contract-Relax protocols to re-boot yourself deeper into new territory. This can be done in a number of ways and there is no ‘right way’, it is a stretching fingerprint you forge by continued practice by yourself and via communicating kinesthetically with other high level stretchers of different constitutional types.
2. Re-patterning Phase
The Re-patterning Phase begins as soon as you are in a new range of movement and sensation post the Contract-Relax protocol. In this phase we are trying to keep:
• As clear a mind as possible
• A quiet, listening body
• Slow, diaphragmatic ‘Natural Breathing’ (nasal only if possible, deep down into the dan tien of Daoism).
One way of explaining this process I use is that of someone having a map that has totally blacked out and grey, unclear bits all over it (indeed, this is accurate imagery for the description of most peoples’ sensori-motor amnesia afflicted homunculi).
Post the Contract-Relax event we are sending explorers into this uncharted, or poorly charted, terrain. Keeping the above constraints (clear mind, slow breathing, listening body) brings about the best conditions for the explorers to gather new sensory impressions from the new range of motion (territory).
Practicing with these parameters as guides, with time, practice and awareness, allows us access into the Simmering state. As I talk about in Alchemical Stretching, it is this state I am trying to stay in as long as possible and with as high a quality of new impressions as possible being collected for digestion.
(The blue ‘bell-curve’ line shows the standard Stretch Therapy protocol of an advanced student who can actually get into the Simmering state, the second blue line with the large area underneath the line represents someone doing Alchemical Stretching, and the green line is someone who has overcooked the stretch)
As I mention, sometimes (if you possess sufficient focus and relaxation) emotional colours and flavours bleed through into the stretch and provide for an even richer sensory landscape and higher quality impressions. Like water seeping into the dry earth these emotional flavours saturate the flesh and are heated under the flame of mental clarity and physical quiet, producing an alchemical effect in which the ‘raw material’ is refined into a new coherent substance. This is one aspect of the Re-Enchantment of the Bodymind [a Physical Alchemy Principle].
The Re-Patterning Effect
IF you get to this level of quality you will likely experience what I call The Re-patterning Effect (Possibly it should be called the Re-patterning after-effect, as you usually feel it slightly after finishing the session). There are actually a number of flavours of this effect, but in general you will start to experience this after you have put in a solid session of stretching in this manner (or, as I mention in the clip, sometimes after a sheer immensity of volume of re-patterning work ala a workshop).
For me this often involves a pleasant warmth in the bodymind and greatly enhanced sensory awareness of certain internal structures. There is often (for me) many more twitchings, pulsings, vibrations and subtle shifts of various soft tissues (similar to what I have seen called ‘Dong Chu‘ in some Daoist texts). It is a most excellent effect-affect.
3. ‘No Ripples!’ Phase [a.k.a ‘The Art of the Slow-removal’]
The final phase of the ‘holy triad’ is returning from the new range of movement with all the high quality new impressions you gathered whilst you were in the Re-patterning Phase.
Now, you can come out reasonably quickly and unconsciously and still become more flexible – so if you’re goal is purely on the new range of motion side, this is not of critical importance.
However, if you’ve ever done this for, say, a strong posture like a deep hip flexor stretch you’ll know the proprioceptors of the hip (and beyond) freak out a fair bit as they are trying to calibrate where in space-time the femur actually is. Net result is you wander around the stretching hall like a cowboy(girl) with a wicked case of saddle-soreness, to the amusement of the other participants present in the class.
I used to do this. It is reasonably funny and when the proprioception kicks back in you feel great and can move normally again but a chance conversation with my mentor Kit many years ago led me to re-think my prior haste at exiting the final position.
He said he believed the most important part of the stretch was the exiting phase, as the brain needed to know that the range of motion was safe, and that haste and high noxious sensations in the exit-strategy produced an inauspicious combination of stimuli for trying to convince the brain of this fact.
To go back to my description of the partially filled in map: if half your explorers are lost (eaten by tigers, one presumes) on the way out for the jungle, even if they collected immaculately fine new information – it is lost with them, and further, it is not very convincing that the new terrain is non-hostile. We want all our explorers to return home and with them as many fine, detailed new maps as possible – hence the slow removal. The ‘Art’ part of this is the quality of movement smoothness and the Awareness that one comes out with. If you’re going to come out of a stretch, you may as well do it with full awareness.
A good principle to use here is that of reverseability – a term originating with Moshe Feldenkrais (and baring more than passing resemblance to Gurdjieff’s ‘Stop!‘ exercise, which is not surprising if you’ve done your research).
It means that you move (with awareness) at the speed that if someone said ‘Stop!‘, you could stop without momentum carrying you visibly beyond where you tried to arrest your motion and reverse the direction of the movement. Most people move many times faster than this, even when trying to slow down. A great re-patterning of movement quality occurs when one learns to slow (the fuck) down.
This lends itself very well to ‘no ripples’ as in you can come out with very little static on the antenna (very little noxious sensory stimuli). This gives full quality new sensory impressions from the area – giving you both the new range of movement and the highest possible new sensory impressions from the new area.
It is the forming a continuous circuit of communication with not ‘skipping tracks’.
Flexibility & Suppleness
What I define as flexibility is an increase in an observable range of movement. In a stretch it is perceived as the person increasing the depth in whatever posture or exercise they have chosen. Suppleness (for my mind) is the palpable quality of the soft tissues (juicy instead of stringy, taut, flaccid, fluidy, etc,.).
It is possible to be very flexible and still tight (the deeper structures seize up because of insufficient structural strength and awareness). It is possible and desirable to have both flexibility and suppleness occurring at once in the same body (preferably your body). [See the ST forums for an ongoing discussion of this: HERE ]
Dissolving Character Armour
On a slight tangent, increase in physical flexibility does not always correlate with flexibility of belief system or emotional flexibility. One can be a contortionist-level stretcher and have the emotional flexibility of a railway sleeper**.
However, just as discussing transferability in the realms of physical culture and martial arts is fascinating and stimulating discourse, sometimes, interestingly, a person does open up on a number of levels from ‘just stretching’ and in these cases it is likely that the stretches facilitated dissolving of blocks of character armour in the process. This is highly beneficial if it occurs. Any dissolving of habitual tendencies and patterning leads to a more natural and spontaneous functioning of the person.
And so, how to facilitate this process? As I say in the Alchemical Stretching video, in my approach to this you can set up the conditions for this process but it is most times a spontaneous event that will not be forced (and I personally do not try to force it).
View the ‘Alchemical Stretching’ video here (it’s 18 minutes long): ‘Alchemical Stretching’
Alchemical Stretching is when you have both a focus on increasing range of motion and also increasing the quality of sensory impressions from the new area, but with a hierarchy towards the sensory.
Certainly other more and less forceful methods work (and work very well, too). Alchemical Stretching is a middle path. Why stretch like this? Many who have had great success with Stretch Therapy, yoga and other methods of stretching have only ever glimpsed this state in passing, or have used other methods, and still had many wonderful benefits.
Well, I am an alchemist so I deal in unquantifiable anomalies. Personally my eye is not on the commonly studied benefits (or dis-benefits) to increased sports performance or pain-removal in and of themselves. I am interested in transmutation and Re-enchantment.
Having the dual focus on increasing flexibility and increased sensory awareness creates the conditions for you to utilize the stretching postures alchemically to create the process I call the Re-Enchantment of the Bodymind. This requires Mind, Emotions and Body all working as one with a sufficient witnessing Awareness.
“In those moments when awareness succeeds in being at one with feeling, senses, movement, and thought, the carriage will speed along on the right road. Then man can make discoveries, invent, create, innovate, and “know”. He grasps that his small world and the great world around are but one and that in this unity he is no longer alone” Moshe Feldenkrais, Awareness Through Movement.
So, it would seem the ‘arcane formula’ for Alchemical Stretching is accomplished as follows <Sepharic trumpets sound>:
A sufficient clear mind, a quiet and listening body , emotional colours and highlights bleeding through onto the ‘canvass’ of the bodymind – with all this being observed via a strong witnessing Awareness.
Do this and ’emergent’ properties will start to appear that will not if you miss one of the ingredients or are missing the flame that is sufficient awareness. Heat the alembic too hot and you fused the substances, quench the fire and have to wait until next lifetime. .. <8-|
Going along with all this is Embodied Presence. It is possible to be flexible and supple but lack this quality. It’s absence can be seen in the dancer or athlete who moves beautifully but nobody’s home. And it’s actuality can be tasted in the old Zen Master who is stiff and immobile but whose presence is very much felt (note: do not actually eat the Zen Master, this would be karmically inauspicious). Again, this is not a binary and/or equation. The most captivating dancers have flexibility, suppleness AND embodied presence. And they are the ones you cannot take you eyes off. You should investigate these things.
*Actually, what is called a ‘Contract-Relax’ is normally a ‘Hold-relax’ in the original terminology, with some exceptions later on.
**This is paraphrased from my Teacher L.