Flexibility Training: Pilates, Yoga, PNF and a man named Kit

By Rebecca Leone

I’ve been thinking a lot lately about flexibility and how brilliant Joe was to install right into the historic Pilates method the very same type of flexibility training that has come to be a staple in athletic training: stretch through strength.

Knowing Joe as most of us do—through his books, films, photographs, marketing materials (his, not ours) and through newspaper, magazine and periodical articles in which he was interviewed and quoted extensively —it’s hard to imagine him sitting still through a long dinner with friends, let alone a yoga class. Fortunately for us, historic Pilates is chock full of exercises that will stretch the heck out of you—if you’re strong enough to do it to yourself.I’m reminded of Aretha Franklin’s riff at the end of one of her more spirited recordings of “Respect,” where she says, “No thank you, I’ll get it myself!”

In Pilates, the Up Stretch on push-through bar is identical to Downward Dog in yoga, only in Pilates, if your back and hamstrings are going to stretch, they’re going to stretch because you are so awesomely strong that you can pull yourself up, up, up in spite of our needy friend, Mr. Gravity, pulling down, down, down on us. Other than a few extras like Fluffy Stretches, Ballet Stretches on the Ladder Barrel, Hip Stretch on Cadillac and the like, there’s really not much in historic Pilates that puts you in a position and leaves you there for time, gravity and your body weight to do the work.

Unlike yoga, Joe’s method is all about stretch through strength. Back in January 2005, when I attended the Sports Medicine Congress at the U.S. Figure Skating National Championships and heard the keynote speaker, Dr. Sands, MD, Ph.D, answer questions about flexibility, he said the athletic training programs he’s in charge of (at that time, 27 of them at the U.S. Olympic Training Center in Colorado Springs) used the stretch through strength method of training. At the same time, I was eyeball-deep in my University of Washington Sports Medicine and Human Performance program, and I was learning the same thing about flexibility there, too.

Dr. Sands’ speech helped me understand, in a “oh God, he’s talking directly to me” kind of way that if we’re going to release our own bodies and have pathways for our strength instead of being bound by it, we have to be able to do it ourselves. We can’t rely on trainers, massage therapists, yoga or Pilates teachers to give us what we need every single day for ourselves. Ideally, we have to do it ourselves, on our own, without contraptions, equipment, props, etc.

So what do most folks do when they’re tight? They go to yoga class in the same seeking way that when people have a bad back, they go to Pilates class. Yoga, like Pilates, is an unregulated field so the unsuspecting public, whether in search of a good stretch or a strong back, has no way of knowing if their yoga or Pilates teachers have completed appropriate education. That’s a bit scary, and both industries have the lawsuits to prove it.

My own lack of flexibility had red-lined toward the end of last year, so at my first opportunity, I carved out some time to try to do something about flexibility code red . I was actually thinking about going to yoga school when I discovered a better solution, for me anyway. I discovered Kit Laughlin.

Kit Laughlin is a stretching guru, the master of the contract-release stretching discipline, and not only is his method easy to do on your own, he’s come up with ways to get at every single set of muscles in the body. It’s perfectly consistent with safe spinal mechanics, and it’s a gorgeous complement to well-taught Pilates. And I want to make sure you realize one more thing about Kit’s work that clearly separates it from the type of flexibility built by a yoga practice: Because of the muscle contraction, you’re building strength in your Brand-new ranges of motion. How great is that? Strong built into flexible, just like in Joe’s work.

More about my man Kit.

Kit unloads the spine to stretch it; he doesn’t work a muscle in the contracted position in order to stretch the opposing muscles (the Pilates corollary there is Pull Straps stretching the chest), and after a five-day workshop with him, plus a half-day class added in on top, I’m hooked.

And as a surprising and delightful bonus for me personally as an educator in working with Kit, he not only uses many of the same educational slides that I do, he explains safe spinal mechanics the same way I do, and he also shares my opinions on chiropractic and yoga. And talk about uptake! I was able to use every single bit of what he taught me right away and ever since. Simpatico!

I love Kit Laughlin and I think you will, too.

But wait, there’s more!

Check out the photos on his website, and you’ll see that this is way more results-oriented than any other mainstream form of flexibility training. Those nine-week results are positively thrilling!

But before I go any more Kit-crazy, let’s learn a bit about the contract-release method of flexibility training upon which he built his method. Proprioceptive Neuromuscular Facilitation (PNF) stretching came out of the PT world in the middle of the 20th century, and it’s a form of flexibility training that involves a contraction held for some number of seconds, then a full release of the muscle being stretched, then the gentle migration to a greater range of motion. It’s well documented that PNF interrupts the stretch reflex, the nasty grip that makes our muscles even shorter when we stretch too aggressively or with improper technique. The great thing about PNF stretching is that the results are dramatic and rapid.

If you’re a hoops fan, this is the type of stretching you’ll see many trainers performing on the players before the game during warm-ups. It’s commonly used in virtually all athletic training, and because so many of us are doing more strength training without adding the requisite flexibility training to offset the binding results, it’s made its way into the mainstream fitness world.

Note to teachers: PNF stretching is not in the professional scope of practice for Pilates teachers unless you have separate training that puts it there. I happen to, but if you don’t, it’s easy to put it in. Look around the web for stretch teacher-training workshops in your area, and you’ll be able to do a 2–7 day course to get stretch legally in your scope.

If you haven’t taken some stretch training and don’t want to, you’ll be delighted to know that OPTP makes a Stretch Out Strap ™ (SOS™) that puts PNF stretching safely in the hands of your own clients—you don’t have to touch them, and, thus, you’ll stay technically within your professional scope—and there are books and videos that help clients understand how to do PNF stretching for themselves. The only problem I was having with PNF stretching as a solution to my own tightness dilemma is that the SOS™ didn’t get at enough of my muscle groups. (And then there’s my seemingly petty complaint that when you’re doing PNF on yourself using the SOS™, you’re really ending in a net zero—you use the strength of your upper body to stretch your lower body when, really, I just want to be stretchy all over, all at the same time.)

As much as I love the good folks at OPTP and the SOS™, it wasn’t the fix for me. Kit was the fix for me, and here’s why.

In Kit’s 5-day workshop back in May, not only did I shatter the buildup of tightness I’ll been amassing for decades of hard use of my strong muscles, but I’ve maintained the ranges of motion I established in those 5 days with him in May, as he promised I would by repeating his protocol only twice a week.

And get this. While Kit was taking my tight hip flexors very personally and helping me release them with his strong and authoritative touch, he kept asking, “What do you feel, what do you feel?” and I surprised myself by actually being able to speak. While he was “assisting” me, I was sweating 40 weight, I was working harder in stillness than I ever have in movement and I was completely unaware of my brain formulating a response. I said that I felt like glass was shattering inside me; big panes of glass, shattering and falling; inside me. That’s what it felt like.

Kit said it was not uncommon for strong, tight people to feel that exact way, as if glass is shattering. He said the sensation is caused by (have you guessed?) the fascial plane breaking up and that as long as I’m maintaining my new expansive ranges of motion, it will never build up again.

To give you a specific, before going to Kit’s workshop I could sit Cross-legged for less than 10 seconds, and even then, my knees were practically under my arms and my hips were so tight they were barking at me just trying to grab my legs and fold them under me to get into the position in the first place. I used that position and time as a “before” to help me measure the results of Kit’s work in my body. Guess what? When I left his course, I could sit cross-legged for 7 minutes. Comfortably. Get a load of me!

I’ll be with Kit again in November down on Grand Cayman, where he’s teaching a workshop on how to teach his contract-release method of stretching to groups in a class setting . . . why don’t you meet me there? For more info, visit www.kitlaughlin.com.

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13 Responses to Flexibility Training: Pilates, Yoga, PNF and a man named Kit

  1. Kathi says:

    I am a Yoga and Pilates instructor but I am not very flexible at all. Any suggestions to help me out?

  2. Hi Kathi,

    I feel you, girl!

    Go to Kit’s website http://www.KitLaughlin.com and check out his documented results. The street name for PNF is contract/release stretching, and it’s the best way to achieve safe, impressive results in very little time.

    Flexibility training is just like strength training, you have to carve out time and work on it. If you learned some of Kit’s stretches and followed his recommendations, I promise you that you’d enjoy impressive results from your first c/r session.

    He has a couple of books out and I suggest starting with the one that’s titled Overcome Neck & Back Pain because it contains a more conservative approach than his other book which is titled Stretching & Flexibility.

    If there’s any way you can get to one of his workshops, you’d be all set to not only exploit his work for your own gains but to also bring his work back to your clients.

    Does this help? Let me know and thanks so much for commenting!

    Rebecca

  3. Lisa Long says:

    Hello!

    I have always loved your very opinionated POV. As a Yoga & Pilates teacher – I would just like to clarify or help you connect with Yoga in a new way — rather than make very general statements. As you know, there are many systems/styles of Yoga. I would encourage you to explore Anusara Yoga — where we follow the principle of engaging before lengthening. While Anusara’s Universal Principles of Alignment are a short & sweet list — as your studies deepen — you realize the depth of what John Friend synthesized & articulated so clearly. Here’s Anusara’s 5 Universal Principles, in case this is new information…

    1. Open to Grace & Set the Foundation
    2. Muscular Energy
    3. Expanding Spiral
    4. Contracting Spiral
    5. Organic Extension

    It’s a fabulous system that has taught me a tremendous amount over the past decade.

    Keep sharing your POV. It helps keep the conversation going & is quite refreshing!

    My best,
    Lisa

  4. Hi Lisa,

    Thanks for sharing such great info about Anusara Yoga; I love the concept of engaging before lengthening and I’ll check with my Yoga contacts here in Seattle to find out if there’s a good Anusara teacher in town.

    Help me out here: Does “engaging” mean that Anusara Yoga intentionally builds strength as part of every stretch? And if so, how would you characterize the level of “engagement?” Maximal? Sub-maximal? Light?

    PNF aka contract/release certainly has its place within the flexibility training spectrum especially for folks who don’t have the spiritual inclination and/or the time to attend Yoga classes. But I think what’s most important, above all else, is that people are actively, safely and appropriately addressing their flexibility issues along with their strength training, cardio and pursuit of happiness. Thankfully, we all have a ton of choices so we can find what works best for us.

    Getting PNF stretching into my scope has been for me what I imagine Yoga has been for you – a great compliment to our work as Pilates teachers and a gateway to deeper understanding of our work as it exists within ourselves and across the spectrum of our relationships with clients. Lisa, you’ve got an ideal combination of skills – the whole package!

    Thanks again for commenting and from one Florida girl to another, slather on that SPF and I hope you have a fantastic weekend!

    Rebecca

  5. Lisa Long says:

    Rebecca –

    I greatly appreciate your POV. I’ll try to answer your question – but as always, it’s best to experience it.

    The short answer is yes… we always engage (or create strength) before extending. Take a look at Anusara’s founder John Friend’s legs – the muscular development in his lower body is from Yoga.

    In Anusara, poses have “Focal Points.” There are 3. Pelvis. Bottom of the Heart. And, soft upper palate of the mouth. The active Focal Point is the one nearest the most weight-bearing part of the pose.

    In a majority of the poses, the “Focal Point” of the pose is the pelvis (specifically deep in the core of the pelvis). All energy (from all directions) first draws into the “Focal Point” (Principle 2) and then radiates out from the Focal Point (Principle 5). In addition to drawing into the focal point, we also draw into our mid-line (not just in the central line of the torso, but the appendages as well). We “hug in” and then we “extend out.”

    For beginning students, we often cue heavy alignment of the feet & an energetic lift up the core lines of legs, etc. As an example, through Anusara Yoga, I began to connect with how I simultaneously draw my femurs into the sockets (by initiating the action through the arches of my feet) while simultaneously balancing that action by “pushing the earth away” — or better yet, understanding that there is always an equal push/pull. So, to answer your question about “how much engagement” — what we’re after in Anusara is balanced action (In my practice, I tend to over effort the pull in– and have been working on the extending out). Hope this makes sense.

    I would one day love to train with you in person. It would be a treat! I have a ton more to learn!!!!

    My best,
    Lisa

  6. Lisa, I’ve just FaceBooked my very best connected Yoga contact in Seattle and I’m hot on the trail of Anusara, if it’s here, I’ll be going the week of the 10th which is my earliest opportunity – workshopping all next week.

    I’m so intrigued!

    And now onto a more global issue; why aren’t you writing for the mainstream press? You’re FABULOUS at getting across complex concepts in very few words . . . you’re the Matisse of writing! My editors would LOVE you!

    Lastly, I totally hear you about having so much to learn. I bolt out of bed every morning energized at the thought of being able to spend another day trying to learn more, learn better, learn deeper, learn wider and learn faster. Your coast or mine, or perhaps in the middle, we’ll hook up one of these days and that, Lisa, will be a great day in the life of me.

    And if there’s someone teaching Anusara in the Emerald City, I’ll let you know how I do.

    G’night!

    Rebecca

  7. kit laughlin says:

    My reply is to Kathi:

    Having worked with many teachers of different kinds of Yoga, of Pilates and of dance around the world, I have found that imbalances of both strength and flexibility between the hip flexors and the posterior chain (erector spinae, glutes, and hamstrings) are common. And when people sit in Hanumanasana (or front splits), most folk show a strong anterior pelvic tilt and/or the hips are well away from square, as the reaction, or accommodation, to the demands of this position.

    If this is you, then it could be that unlocking the hip flexors will markedly decrease the tension in the rest of the body (required to draw the shoulders and head back over the centre of gravity when standing, walking or teaching). This can have the corollary effect of improving the range of movement of the rest of the body, simply because the resting muscle tonus decreases; the body feels more at ease and more relaxed generally.

    The interesting thing is that the looser you are in the hamstrings, the harder it is to effectively stretch the hip flexors—just because the hamstrings will be loose enough to permit front splits. I will be making a YouTube clip over the next few weeks that shows our approach to loosening this key muscle group.

    One last comment: I find that rectus femoris is the main limiter of extension at the hip, rather than psoas or iliacus and that loosening this is a prerequisite to stretching the deeper muscles.

    One other recommendation is to loosen all the muscles that move the spine itself; if this can be done, you will notice that shoulder and neck tension is reduced, and a greater freedom of movement will be the result.

    hth, kl

  8. jessica says:

    Dear Rebecca,
    Thank you for sharing your enthusiasm over Kit’s workshop. I hope to attend one soon. I was curious to know if you had tried Yamuna body rolling, and if so what your opinion was?

  9. I absolutely love Rebecca´s comments here, written with such enthusiasm.

    In response to Rebecca. I am first and foremost a Kit Laughlin fan and my husband and I are hosting him in September 2012 for a stretch workshop if you are interested. But in response to the Yamuna body rolling … HUGE fan of it. I worked with Kate Dunne in the Caribbean for a while using Yamuna´s system and I love it and still use it today. Her work on feet is amazing and if you get chance try the face rolling … it is an instant face lift and feeels simply delicious. For me Kit + Yamuna = yumpty delicioso

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