Last spring and summer I had the pleasure and honor of staying home all day with my 3 dogs, Oliver, Arnie and Charlie, while I recovered from a broken leg. I don’t know how I would have managed mentally and emotionally without them! They are such great companions and communicate with never-ending affection, love and protection. I became a trusted member of their pack – a high honor!
As we spent EVERY HOUR of EVERY DAY together for 4 months, I began to recognize how often they would stretch in a day. I knew that dogs and cats like to stretch a lot, I mean even a yoga asana has been named in their honor….”downward dog.” But I was surprised to see them stretching sometimes up to 5 times an hour! I would often compliment them on their form and say “oh that’s a nice stretch, Charlie,” and clap for him, give him praise and affection as if we were all in class together. I would commend them partly because I was missing human interaction and needed someone to talk to, but I also thoroughly enjoyed watching them “be dogs” all day. Their behavior is highly instinctual and linked to their ancestors (wolves); thus, almost everything they do has a meaning or purpose.
I looked up the definition of stretching and found this in Wikipedia “Stretching is a form of physical exercise in which a specific muscle or tendon (or muscle group) is deliberately flexed or stretched in order to improve the muscle’s felt elasticity and achieve comfortable muscle tone”. The result is a feeling of increased muscle control, flexibility and range of motion.
As with humans, stretching warms up muscles and gets the blood flowing; it also releases toxins. All these help out a dog when he is about to perform a strenuous physical activity, or as in the case with my dogs, almost ANY activity. Like our furry companions, humans have evolved from our ancestors (Neanderthals) who had to rely on their physical strength and flexibility to survive on a daily basis. They had to be ready to hunt and/or be hunted at any time and thus our bodies are designed to MOVE OFTEN.
I found it interesting that dogs stretch for many reasons. One common reason is that he wants to play. Athletes will stretch to go out and play the big game; similarly, dogs realize that stretching prepares them for physical activity. They will also stretch before hunting and mating as our ancestors probably did. These were activities in which they had to compete with others for food or a mate as well as defending their territory. Through evolution, they knew that if they didn’t stretch, they risked losing a fight over territory or not getting food, which resulted in the possible death of their pups and mates. Although today most domesticated dogs do not have to rely on hunting and fighting for survival, they still have the deep, embedded, natural instinct to stretch.
You would think that humans would still have the same natural instinct, yet as we have evolved, we move less and less. We don’t need to be active to eat or find a mate or secure shelter. We have become more sedentary which equates to less need to engage our muscles on a daily basis as we were designed to. This lack of movement creates tight, stiff, shortened and weak muscles which leads to a host of problems with our mental, physical and physiologic health. Remember, our heart is a giant muscle and needs exercise and “stretching” just as the muscles of our arms, legs and back do! Our brain does not have muscles, but it controls our muscles via the cerebrum which is the largest part of our brain. Stretching actually facilitates increased blood flow to our brain and all our body’s organs.
Most of us do not have to hunt for our food in the United States, we can even buy most of it fully prepared. We don’t even have to take the time to stand and prepare the food like our grandparents and great-grandparents did. We sit while we work, we sit while we drive, we sit when we get home from work and then lie down to sleep. This is where we need to take note of lessons from dogs!
Some vital benefits of stretching include:
- Improves mental clarity
- Increased range of motion and mobility
- Increased blood flow to muscles
- Improved posture
- Prepares body for physical activity and performance
- Reduces risk of injury
- Decreases and prevents back pain
- Reduces stress and calms the mind
- Reduces incidence of tension headaches
- Releases and prevents build up of lactic acid
- Releases endorphins which improve mood and reduce pain
One of my favorite forms of movement or stretching is Hatha Yoga. I recommend this to all my clients as well. Yoga is not simply exercise; yoga is a vital body/mind connection and a form of meditation. Yoga has developed over thousands of years and dates back to 2000 BC. The word asana (or pose) means “perfect firmness of the body, steadiness of intelligence and benevolence of spirit.” The article, A History of Stretching – A Literature Review, states “perfection of an asana is achieved when the effort to perform becomes effortless and infinite being within is reached.” This is described as “undisturbed dualities” as body and spirit are united in perfect posture. Dogs generally stay in this state. They are not driven by ego and naturally listen to their body’s needs and instincts.
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Another reason dogs stretch is a common greeting. They do this with other dogs and humans to show respect for your space and to communicate respect. The greeting stretch involves squinted eyes and relaxed ears, and this stretch which looks like a bow, is a common way that dogs try to make new friends. This is a friendly gesture that expresses peace and a willingness to play together. Much like humans express in a yoga session with others when we say Namaste, which is a sanskrit greeting expressing honor and respect to you and all you believe in. Stretching can also be a sign of respect, and this is integral to a dog and his owner. I noticed that all three of my dogs will stretch as they approach me and this always makes me laugh and smile. I give them a special little pet or back scratch as it feels like they are inviting me to do yoga together. Little did I know that when a dog bows down to you, he is expressing his loyalty to you! And you should provide him with positive reinforcement for this as I did instinctually!
Dogs also stretch to relax much like humans stretch after a long drive or at the end of a long day. After all, stretching feels good and calms our nervous system, Instinctually, dogs stretch after sleeping as their bodies have been inactive for a long period. This SHOULD be instinctual for humans, yet we have egos and extraneous activities of life which force us out of bed and into action often without giving our body the time and respect it needs to work optimally and take us through our busy, stressful days with ease.
Here are some recommendations I share with my clients to keep their body/mind in sync. It so happens that my dogs do these things naturally!
- Upon waking in the morning, lie in bed for 3-5 minutes and stretch. This is a gentle act of kindness to your body that has been inactive for 7-8 hours and will encourage blood flow to your brain, muscles and organs.
- Practice gentle stretching for 10-20 minutes a day either in the morning before you start your day or in the evening when you begin to wind down. This time is essential for our mental and emotional well-being as it creates clarity and reduces stress.
- If you sit at a desk or in front of a computer every day, use the timer on your phone to set a reminder for you to get up, walk around and stretch your upper body. If possible, set the timer for every 1- 1 1/2 hours. Doing this helps prevent “patterns” of tension and reminds your muscles to move out of those positions while preventing stiffness and tightening of muscle groups.
- Commit to these “stretch breaks” whether your job requires sitting or not. Re-energize yourself like my dogs do throughout the day…this wakes you up and you will feel less sluggish and more alert.
- Find a gentle Hatha Yoga class or video you can practice with at home. Not only will this add years to your life, it will also improve digestion, decrease back and neck pain, increase energy and improve mood and mental clarity, improve sleep patterns, increase mobility and balance. I recommend https://www.gaia.com as a resource. They offer quality, experienced instructors and a wide choice of classes to fit your personal needs from entry or beginner level to high level experienced yoga practitioners.
We could all be more dog-like…listen to our body’s needs, follow our instincts to pause, show respect and STRETCH for our lives! Evolution favors the prepared, and they know this. We think we are the brighter ones, yet often choose ego over instinct, and our bodies and lives suffer the consequences. Enjoy some yoga and stretching with your dog….his favorite asana is downward dog OR Shavasana!
Lisa Adams is nurse, Health and Wellness Coach and Certified Flowtrition Practitioner. She has combined over 25 years of experience as a registered nurse with training in Flowtrition and health education to provide her clients with the most comprehensive and holistic approach to preventive healthcare and wellness. Lisa believes that wellness starts from within and that if we trust in our body’s ability to heal as it is designed, amazing things happen. She also believes that optimal health is achieved in a multi-system approach that includes not only physical wellbeing, but also mental and emotional wellbeing. Lisa’s passion and objective in coaching is to increase awareness in individuals about the way their body functions and especially how it responds to stress.
“The body cannot begin to heal
while in a constant state of tension.”
~ Lisa Adams ~