Sunday, May 12, 2019

Stretching Muscles Stretches Time

When I first started training with Sifu Amin Wu, I asked her if there was any stretching that I should work on but she advised me to concentrate on zhan zhuang and stepping first to build up my strength and balance.

After about a year, Sifu Wu said that my strength and balance had improved to the point that it was time that I start working on stretching because flexibility was becoming a limiting factor in my progress.

She said I needed to focus on three particular areas - ankles, hamstrings, and hips (kua) - because I needed to improve flexibility in those areas for lower stances and higher kicks. She showed me some basic stretches to incorporate at the end of my solo training when the muscles/tendons are the most warm:
  • Ankle Stretch: Flex the foot at an incline by putting the ball of the foot on a higher surface (e.g. a step) with the heel on the ground. 
  • Hamstring Stretch: Stand on one leg and put the foot of the other leg up on a higher surface (e.g. a chair or a stair step), keeping that leg straight and lean into the stretch (originally, I did this stretch seated on but Sifu Wu says that standing is more effective - it certainly hurts more).
  • Hip Stretch: Put the middle of the front foot on a raised surface (e.g. a chair or a stair) with the front knee bent while keeping the back foot on the floor with the leg mostly straight, like an inclined bow stance.
Sifu Wu warned me that effective stretching is uncomfortable - to improve, you have to push yourself and it's not going to be pleasant. She was too right, it was downright unpleasant. Moreover, I didn't believe that a couple of minutes of stretching would make any difference - I've always been inflexible and that's just the way it is - so I skipped stretching at any excuse and, over time, didn't see any improvement.

Eventually, I realized that I had to commit to stretching as much as the other parts of my training. I incorporated a timer to ensure that I 'd do each stretch long enough - one and a half minutes each for a total of nine minutes. That's when I learned about stretching time because those few minutes stretch on, particularly with the hamstring stretch where the last eight seconds can feel like an eternity of their own.

Stretching consistently, I slowly started to notice some improvements and I'm now the most flexible I've been in my adult life (probably my entire life). I still have a lot of room for improvement but the progress has been noticeable and encouraging.

I thought that, as my flexibility improved, my Tai Chi would improve naturally as a result - that my stances would become lower and my kicks higher - but it doesn't work that way. As my flexibility improved, my Tai Chi remained the same. To see any improvements, I've had to intentionally incorporate the improved flexibility into my movements.

For stepping, I have to take longer steps, lowering my stance and challenging my flexibility. For kicks, I have to raise my knee higher before I kick again challenging my flexibility. For weighted pivots, where I've always struggled due to limited range-of-motion in my ankles, I've had to realize that I can sink further and actually do the movement correctly. More generally, as my flexibility improves bit-by-bit, I have to continually discover what more I can do.

Sifu Wu has modified my training routine, shortening the amount of time I spend on zhan zhuang and extending the amount of time I spend on form training. She says that, as my form has improved through flexibility, it's become challenging enough to provide the muscle training that I could only get previously through zhan zhuang. But, not to worry, the zhan zhuang isn't going anywhere - it is, and always will be, a big part of my training.