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(This is a cross-post from my blog, but I would prefer that members here comment here.)

On the eve of releasing the new Stretch Therapy products I find myself reflecting on how this material may be used and who it best be used by. In the making of these programs I have realised that there is a great deal of misunderstanding about what ‘stretching' is and what it might be used for. Adding to my perception of the need for clarity is the recent increase in interest in something which is generally referred to as ‘movement’, as an activity of its own, and the lack of general understanding of the relationships that exist between ‘range of movement’ (ROM) and movement itself, with its additional skills of timing and precision.

Speaking most generally, many of our students want to acquire new movement patterns (like going to pole dance classes or they begin to study a martial art) but they find they simply can't put themselves into the required starting positions. For example, suppose a movement pattern begins in the full squat, and you can't actually do a full squat keeping your feet flat on the floor, what do you do? So one way of looking at our stretching work is to see it as a series of graded solutions to an infinite number of movement challenges of this type. Another good example is a movement pattern that begins in the full bridge position: if you can't do a full bridge then you can't even begin. There are hundreds of other examples.

And all of this became very clear in the filming of the new products because in each of the products (Master the full squat, Master the forward bend, and Master legs apart, for example) we needed to begin at the beginning. So let us talk about the full squat for a moment: ankle and hip ROMs (and leg muscles that are simply holding too much tension for the knee joint to fully close) are the limitations to being able to squat all the way down with your feet flat on the floor. The question then becomes, 'in order to get into the starting position, how can we loosen the ankles, hips and the lower back' so that the starting position becomes possible? This is why I referred to stretching and range of movement: just to start to learn a new movement pattern assumes that the capacity to put oneself in any starting position is there. Very often it is not.

And exactly the same constraints apply to learning any kind of gymnastics or other strength training: is there sufficient range of movement available? To put it another way, if you cannot get yourself into the starting position, how can you acquire the strength that is necessary to complete the movement? Well, what most people do is they cheat; if you get away with the cheat you're good to go but many people force themselves in the process, trying to speed up the process. Think of the overhead squat position (where one is in the full squat holding a weighted bar overhead). This position requires the range of movement for the full squat but, in addition to the flexion movement in the shoulders and the extension that required in this thoracic spine all at the same time. How are you going to get that? Unless you are already close to being able to do this practising the OHS by itself will not be the most direct route to the ROMs you need.

If I may say one of the great attributes of the Stretch Therapy system is that you can find a solution to any range of movement problem you find yourself in. The ST system explicitly spans rehabilitation for problems like neck and back pain all the way through to someone trying to refine the full side splits—and everything in between.

Movement as an activity has become extremely popular in the last five years or so. It is also the case that ST has incorporated a huge amount of additional movement into its system because we have been working with movement teachers ourselves (plus many of our teachers are also teach movement). The ST system explicitly fosters this kind of cross-fertilisation. I also want to say that we were doing many similar things a long time ago, too (consider the ‘Unnumbered Lesson in Stretching & Flexibility, and all the ‘warm-ups' in the same book), and we were hardly the first. We have excellent movement teachers here in Australia; Craig Mallett and Simon Thakur are two who I know personally and work with regularly.

If you want to start moving like these guys can, you will need the fundamental tools that allow your own body to firstly acquire the range of movement that these activities require and this will mean removing any restrictions to that range of movement. This is exactly the point at which you'll need our work. I have worked with many tens of thousands of students over the last 30 years. I cannot recall a single one that did not have a restriction in his or her body at some place. Removing the restrictions is exactly what the ST system is all about. Once a restriction is removed the body can be positioned bio-mechanically optimally and then new movement patterns and whatever strength is required to support these can be learned safely and efficiently.

Now I realise in describing things in these terms I am generalising and glossing over many, possibly great, chasms; this is the nature of discursive discussion. But we have been paying very close attention over these last few years to the problems that many people have had in trying to acquire specific kinds of strength, whether it be in the Olympic lifting world or whether it be in the men's gymnastics world. Very shortly we will be releasing the program Master the full back bend. And the last item in this program is a brilliant exposition by Olivia on our approach to how to perform a very common exercise (in gymnastics, it’s called the arch body hold and in other systems has other names, like Shalabhasana in Yoga). And the critical difference between our approach and most others is the development of the capacity to feel precisely what's happening in the body and which parts of the body are involved in whatever one is doing. Once this awareness has been developed it is then used to a particular purpose. Let me illustrate.

The arch body hold for many people is felt only in the lower back, in a cramping or spasming kind of way. This is because of two main factors: one, there is insufficient extension, or backwards-bending ROM, in the whole body (and so all the posterior chain of muscles are having to work much harder than they need to and hence the muscles involved are much closer to their failure point than an analysis of the weight of the body parts suggests), and two, the glutes (as the main extensors of the legs in relation of the spine) are simply asleep. Effective cueing is about waking up this connection and is more important for many people than any other single factor. We have cued literally hundreds of beginners in the arch body hold and none of them have experienced any lower back pain. But it is not just about cueing: it is about effective breaking down of a whole body exercise into its component parts which are themselves related to range of movement and specific activation patterns.

For example it will be simply impossible to cue the glutes in a strong extension movement if, at the same time, the hip flexors are already under stretch; this is "simple" neurophysiology. The nexus is something called the reciprocal inhibition reflex (Sherrington’s second law): that a muscle cannot be activated voluntarily if its opposite (or antagonist) has reached the end of its range of movement. The solution is to increase the range of movement of the antagonist before attempting to cue the action you want. Almost all of the ST exercises use a combination of reflexes to maximise their effectiveness. I have written about this extensively elsewhere but I will mention simply that each exercise uses the reciprocal inhibition reflex; every exercise is organised to reduce the apprehension reflex to a minimum; and we use the post-contraction inhibition reflex to momentarily increase range of movement. All are well documented and have sound scientific bases.

But it also must be said at this point in the discussion that not all is happy in science-land. The rise of the scientific method in routine discourse and the rise of evidence-based medicine in our nation's health systems has led to the presumption that scientific understanding is actually necessary for best practice. This is very rarely the case because, in my experience, best practice is usually years ahead of scientific understanding. Just because there is no scientific evidence or justification for something is no argument against its potential usefulness. Asking for this kind of evidence before embarking on a course of action, with the sub-text that this is necessary in order to begin practising something, will lead you far astray. Before scientific understanding (causal /analytic) is the empirical method; empirical is a fancy way of saying ‘suck it and see’. In other words, experience and observation usually come before causal understanding; this has been so for the entire history of science and is unlikely to change any time soon. My feeling is that the motive behind needing a scientific reason to do something—over the direct experience of trying something—is more about one’s attitude to uncertainty than anything else.

And, because of this misplaced reliance, we have a small body of unimpressive research into stretching, and which has allowed people to make all sorts of bogus claims 'like stretching will not affect one's propensity for injury' or that 'stretching will not reduce delayed onset muscle soreness (DOMS)’, for example. It is absolutely accurate to say there is no scientific evidence to support these claims but it is also accurate to say that there's no scientific evidence that supports the counter claim: the fact is that research has simply not been done and, speaking properly, science therefore has nothing useful to say on those subjects.

When I say "the research hasn't been done yet" what I really refer to is the time periods of the existing studies (usually a university semester; way too short to be able to have any meaningful conclusions) and the actual methods used in the research itself (research design; the 'stretching’ techniques used, etc.) And on that latter point, I mean that very little of this research is in any way specific about exactly what sort of stretching was used and how the stretching was varied to suit the particularities of each of the individuals in the study. I have never seen a single reference to this critical point in any paper I have read on this subject.

I mention this last point because we have found that adapting a stretch to the actual in-the-moment experience of the individual is simply the most important determinant of whether or not a stretch is going to be effective. And this is precisely the reason why a sets and reps approach to stretching is always going to be ineffective when compared to a system like ST. In this system, the quality of, and the depth of, the experience in the moment is the key focus.

So getting back to the forthcoming Stretch Therapy products. A program like Master the full backbend which will have an extreme backbend as its end pose, begins at the beginning as all systems must do. The full pose is broken down into what I call a vocabulary of flexibility which initially is based around single joints. To illustrate, loosening the hip flexors is absolutely fundamental to any decent backbend. In fact, tight hip flexors are the cause of most of the cramping and pain that people experience when they first tried to do spinal extension movements; this is because the muscles on the inside of the curve being made by the spine have a tendency to go into spasm (just like when you point your foot); we have found that the general rule is that any muscle asked to do work in the contraction end of its range of movement is liable to spasm; something that we demonstrate on every workshop we run. This is not a design fault by the way; it is simply the way the body is organised. Add to this tendency the hip flexors’ inhibition of the glutes, and you begin to understand why so many people have problems with backward bending. What follows is a brief meditation on other aspects of ‘stretching’.

To start, the acquisition of flexibility by adults is a completely different proposition than with children. Adults, by definition, have experienced their second growth spurts, usually (but not always) in their late teens. There are many reason for this critically important difference, and these can be canvassed below if anyone's interested.

The key point here is that standard methods (like "hold a stretch for 30") will not be effective in changing any present patterns that adults have. This is because to a considerable extent, these patterns have become ‘set’ in an adult; this is completely different to the conditions in a child’s body.

For adults, a different approach is required. I can say that I have tried every approach that has been written about, and many that have not. What I want to share with you here I have not written about (apart from oblique references in my past books) but personally have found to be of the deepest importance. What follows are the core conditions for an adult to change his/her body–mind in a way that observers would describe as "he/she has become more flexible". One's pattern of flexibility is actually one's "self": one's personality, self-beliefs, fears, and so on. One's emotional self is precisely this pattern. When we talk of body language, this complex patterning is what we refer to. The way a body is held, in any moment, communicates this internal state to the person with whom one is interacting (or observing).

The essential conditions for flexibility to change have two parts. One is the exploration of new ranges of movement, and the other is how this can be 'embodied' (retained in the body and incorporated in the activity in question).

There are environmental conditions that one must consider, too. When stretching, heat needs to be kept in the body: the work of remodelling fascia is best done by slowing the rate of heat loss. All one needs is tights and tracksuit pants. Ambient heat is no help here: the human body is expert at shedding heat (the result is that no matter what exercise is being done, or what the ambient temperature is, the human body core temperature hovers around 98.6 F, unless something goes wrong, like rhabdomyolysis).

Only a very narrow window of increased temperature is required to open the window to changing one's patterns (2 degrees Celsius). To put this in perspective, a lukewarm bath is 40 degrees C (a fraction above body temperature) and a scalding hot bath that you could not immerse yourself in is only 44 degrees. The point is that the reactions that we are trying to influence in the body change radically over very small temperature variations. This 'window' can be opened by slowing the body's normally very effective temperature shedding strategies by wearing the recommended gear, and worn on the bottom half of the body only. Presently, the mechanisms behind these changes remains unknown; what we can say, experientially, is that warmth in the muscles works.

A side note: when using the Contract–Relax approach to increase ROM, as long as additional contractions can be performed, and new ROM explored, we are working on the somatosensory cortex and what tension it believes is necessary or useful. We are remapping what the unconscious part of the brain believes is the appropriate length-tension relationship in the various body parts. But when no more improvement in ROM can be achieved, we are now up against restrictions in the fascial structures themselves. Maintaining as much heat as possible in the body allows gentle and slow fascial remodelling. The way this is done is to back off slightly from the maximum ROM end position, and wait—minutes, for some muscle groups (this requirement depends on relative muscle size).

The second and equally important point is that flexibility cannot be achieved by force or by intensity. I know this is counterintuitive to a degree, because we have to exert some force to provoke any change (in strength training or in any other) and in flexibility work, effort is needed. But, and this is a huge but, the force is used only to make, or re-make, the connection to that part of the body. Once the force has been applied, the body has to be brought to a state where it's willing to let this protective tension go. All humans have perfect flexibility while under anaesthetic; as they regain consciousness, though, individual patterns re-manifest. The point is that force cannot change the pattern: the trigger to change this is not consciously available to us.

In fact, in the ST system, we use the bones, muscles, and fascia only to remap the brain; this is what provokes the changes we regard as "becoming more flexible" in the short term. Further, heat allows the fascia to be remodelled once the elongation is experienced. Both are necessary. Effort is only required to the extent needed to provide the proprioceptive feedback to that part of the brain that decides how much tension to maintain in any body part, and its pattern around the body. As well, the degree of force that is required to bring this change about cannot be known ahead of time. Personally, now, I need 80–100% contraction force; other students need only 10%, and any level above 50% in these students actually has the opposite effect (the body experiences the force in the stretch as a direct threat, and literally creates additional tension to ensure the elongation does not happen). The capacity to tolerate more tension (hence stronger intensity of the stretching experience) can be learned; but it cannot be imposed: it has to be allowed, and can only be experienced, and embodied.

To achieve this goal of knowing 'how much', each individual's attention has to be turned inwards. No teacher can do this part of the process. Unless the brain and sensory being is directly involved in the experience of stretching, it will not be effective. The most important questions for the acquisition of flexibility: What does that feel like; where do you feel it; and how can you relax further into it?

Only an individual can answer that question and—critically—the time it takes to relax into the beginning of a stretch; the contraction time, and the time spent in the re-stretch is unique. It can only be experienced, then learned, by each person individually; it cannot be reduced to a formula of number of seconds, or number of reps, or percentage of maximum strength in the contraction. This does not come naturally to anyone with a ’sets and reps’ approach.

As an aside, this is the hardest point to get across: there is no formula for adults; only an approach. If it were easy, everyone would be doing it! This uniqueness of response is also the reason why the research into stretching has provided so little illumination: all modern research relies on statistical analysis of groups. Such research has nothing to say about the individuals comprising such groups. Our method begins, and stays with, each individual.

The author thanks Dave Wardman for comments and vulgarities! And he suggests further reading:

Neurobiology of Fascia - http://www.rolfingtaichilondon.com/ARTICLES/fascial%20plasticity%20schleip.pdf

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TL;DR?

I often like to summarize texts to improve my comprehension. I share...

The Demand For Stretch Therapy

Movement has become a popular activity over the past five years. (For example: pole dancing, martial arts, gymnastics, strength training etc.) Learning the movements of these activities assumes you are flexible enough to place yourself in the starting position. If you can't, you won't be able to develop the strength to master the movement.

It begs the question: To get into the starting position, how can you loosen the joints involved?

The Stretch Therapy system removes movement restrictions, which then allows you to develop the strength to master the movement.

The Shortcomings of Conventional Stretching and Reliance on Scientific Method

Contrary to popular belief, you don't need to use lots of force or intensity to stretch effectively. You only need enough force to put yourself into a position that will re-map the unconscious part of your brain that decides how much tension to maintain in the body parts involved. Too much force, and you engage your body's protective mechanisms. There is a sweet spot of force you apply - the spot where there is enough force to remap the brain, but not so much you flare-up the protective mechanisms - that increases your flexibility. Finding this sweet spot requires you to constantly explore if you can relax into the current sensation caused by your stretching. There is no hard formula to find this sweet spot; there is only the approach to turn your attention inward and feel it, in the moment.

The wisdom of feeling the sensations in your body, while stretching, is more effective than scientific evidence. An arbitrary "sets and reps" approach to stretching does not factor in your individuality, and the uniqueness of your body in this current moment. This is an example of empirical evidence often being years ahead of scientific evidence. The absence of scientific understanding is not an argument not to try something. You don't need scientific evidence to try something and experience what happens as a result.

The Approach of Stretch Therapy

Stretch Therapy increases flexibility by:

  1. First, putting yourself into a position that re-maps what the brain believes is an appropriate length-tension relationship in the joints. This requires understanding that your "self" - the personality, self-belief, fears and emotions of you - determine the patterns of movement in your body. The Contract-Relax method works with the somatosensory cortex, adjusting the amount of tension it believes is necessary/useful. This involves feeling precisely what is happening in the body, There is also "cueing" - which is waking up connections in movement patterns by breaking down a compound exercise into its' individual movement parts.
  2. Then, once the elongation is experienced and no more ROM can be achieved, the new restriction is the structure of the fascia involved. At this point, you can re-shape the fascia for more ROM by using heat to remodel it. Wearing tights and track pants while stretching will raise the body's local temperature, which changes the consistency of the fascia and allows it to remodel.

The Upcoming ST Products...

..begin with the end pose, and are then broken down into individual parts - increasing movement in single joints.

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For adults, a different approach is required. I can say that I have tried every approach that has been written about, and many that have not. What I want to share with you here has never been written down, apart from oblique references in my past books. What follows are the core conditions for an adult to change his/her body–mind in a way that observers would describe as "he/she has become more flexible". One's pattern of flexibility is actually one's "self": one's personality, self-beliefs, fears, and so on. One's emotional self is precisely this pattern. When we talk of body language, this complex patterning is what we refer to. The way a body is held, in any moment, communicates this internal state to the person with whom one is interacting (or observing).

...inspired the following blog on this subject and my attempt to understand the experience.

In exploring 'new' ranges of movement, the re-acquisition of previous ranges seems to directly unlock the feelings of earlier life.

After specific events, and response to these events, new habits, emotions, postures, patterns of flexibility and tension are formed and held onto, often for years, decades, lifetimes. A common example of this is after graduating from university, one may develop a really strong & tense sitting habit at work.

So the release of the sitting habit, can subsequently release one to a state prior to the onset of this habit.

I feel this is what happened to me recently via the mind/body work with Stretch Therapy and subsequent questioning of physical and mental habits.

I think this is nothing to be feared. Initially I thought that the effects are so powerful - what could happen?

But, now I believe that mind/body practice can open us to a state before a trauma or less comfortable situation (and subsequent habitual responses), so it can be a path to greater freedom and happiness.

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This remapping the brain idea really stands out to me as awesome, it just makes perfect sense. My PT currently has me doing some neurokenetic therapy to reprogram bad movement/compensation patterns from years of injury on my right knee.

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science therefore has nothing useful to say on those subjects.

Absence of evidence is not evidence of absence, as they say. Thanks for sharing.

So is mastering the full back bend coming out first? How about a release schedule? Don't leave us hanging Kit! :D

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Ha ha (looking at your avatar; and love those square plates)!

Master the squat and hip mobility nears completion; next will be Master legs-apart forward bend (Pancake, in other words, but the dancers and martial artists use other names, so we are going more general here), Master the legs-together forward bend (Pike), Master shoulder flexibility, and Master the full back bend will be the final program.

Vimeo is all set up; we are on top of the compression and other technical details; we are simply doing the colour correction and sound sweetening and other fine cutting on the first program now. All have been shot; now it's the stuff that takes time: getting the edit right.

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A correction: after a discussion with the Young Master, I have decided to name the programs the following way. Please add any modality's now names.

1. Master the squat and hip mobility

2. Master the Pancake (Upavista konasana, in Sanskrit, but the dancers and martial artists use other names—can people supply these please?)

3. Master the Pike (Paschimottanasana, Sk., any other names in other modalities?)

4. Master shoulder flexibility

5. Master the full back bend (Upward bow, or full wheel pose, Urdhva Dhanurasana, Sk., 'Crab' in wrestling, 'bridge' elsewhere...

This way, we should be able to appeal to the widest possible audience. All suggestions gratefully received.

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I like it Kit. You are marketing the programs as ST for GST so it make sense to me, to name them accordingly.

Thank-you also for the original post in this thread, brilliant.

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i'm happy to see you went ahead and did the shoulder flexibility program, im going to be looking forward to it!

Pfthh

.

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Bridge is the standard name for the full back bend in most circles

Yes, I have not heard the it called anything but bridging before. Back bend makes more sense in anatomy speak though. Personally I do not really care much what names is. We have a saying here, roughly: "It does not matter, as long as the dog comes when you call its name."

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Ha ha (looking at your avatar; and love those square plates)!

One of my many 'homemade' bits of equipment. My stall bars are a Frankenstein's monster, with protruding bits of metal added everywhere as my needs evolve.

It looks like your release schedule is perfectly aligned with my highest priorities. So thank you, just in case you were reading my mind or anything. ;)

2. Master the Pancake (Upavista konasana, in Sanskrit, but the dancers and martial artists use other names—can people supply these please?)

In my martial arts (kickboxing) experience, they were just considered side split variations. And I think in my daughters classical dance class it's the same. They'll usually end a show with one person demonstrating their splits flexibility, which is usually a full pancake which they just call 'la spaccata' (the splits).

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"Bridge is the standard name for the full back bend"

quote function not working today; anyhoo

Thanks for that; I have amended the list

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Fantastic, finally the list. I love the names.

I need master the pancake/pike/bridge yesterday ^_^

I suppose shoulder flexibility covers all shoulder movements but does the bridge include shoulder flexion? Thats personally all i care about, for bridge and handstand.

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does the bridge include shoulder flexion?

Definitely.

I have done the PDF for the first program too, yesterday, plus all the posters for the individual elements (some elements are in groups that people who, for example, only want to know how to stretch their ankles and calf muscles can just buy that group). Quote functioning working now; this interface is ... disappointing (think Gary Oldman:

/rant

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Kit – that is a great posting with many themes of great interest.

I’ll just follow up on a few – apologies if it is repeating in other words just what you are saying, because I think we are in agreement anyway.

One I really like is “One's pattern of flexibility is actually one's "self": one's personality, self-beliefs, fears, and so on. One's emotional self is precisely this pattern.”

(An example from yoga, is that the backbend is explored as opening out and overcoming ones emotional vulnerability – a real exercise in changing ones “self”.)

But I will add a corollary which is implicit too – that ones self is ones pattern of proprioception. If you have lack of proprioception (either due to injury or lack of range) then one’s self is also altered - and it becomes a place you don’t go – either refuse to move into, or just skip over unknowingly. Like a bad part of town that you don’t go into.

I am interested in what sort of movements are best for encouraging proprioceptive awareness. Slow, smooth deliberate movements (as in Tai-Chi) seem particularly effective - like Cherie’s “feel the air”. In my yoga-style stretch class I encourage my students to use full body awareness before they go into a position, as they are moving into the position smoothly and under full control, as well as of course when they are in the final position (otherwise people tend to view the final position as the target, and just get there, rather switching off on the way).

In dance and performance, advanced proprioceptive awareness seems one necessity for emotional communication with the audience – and awareness during the slow phase of movements seems best at generating this. I’d be interested to know if other people think this, and whether they have any particularly good exercises for it. Obviously, we need proprioception during the fast phases too so we clearly must learn then too anyway – but I for myself feel less aware of learning during those phases. Glad to know if anyone has any views on this.

It is also thought that pulled muscles (like hamstrings in running) may sometimes be due to failures in proprioception, and athletic training now consists of specific proprioception exercises to encourage and maintain awareness.

Second point concerns the role of science in stretching, as we have discussed between ourselves previously. So while in the end the ultimate test is what works for the body, I do not think we should downgrade the role of science much. One major example is the science of anatomy. I like the ST approach – here is an anatomical picture of the muscle – this is how to feel it – this is how to activate it – now go and practice. Compare that to a more intuitive non-scientific approach. What are the “eyes of the chest”? (Iyengar). If you don’t know, how do you learn? Or what is “Use” in the Alexander technique? In spite of many one-on-one sessions I never learned. Looking back, I think it is probably putting the core muscles at the heart of things, but the sessions never managed to teach me.

But as an example has understanding the muscle stretch reflex ultimately been helpful? On the one hand it has been very valuable for directing attention to body awareness, and the types of stimuli that can drive it (static and dynamic stretch receptors). On the other hand it has kept attention away from and held back our awareness of fascial proprioception. Overall, I think knowledge of the muscle stretch reflex has been a major positive. I view science as giving us the issues to codify and hang on to knowledge, as we acquire it as a result of subjective experience, and also as a method of generating ideas about what we should be looking for. But ultimately, what works in practice is the key.

As for the full backbend - there is such variability in starting points for this, and I guess its difficult to make a program that suits everyone at once. For instance, recently I looked up kapotasana (what I would call the diamond) - got a video from Kino Yoga -

- she said I shouldnt start how I normally do - and showed another starting position, which I couldnt even begin to do. OK if you are already very flexible, but no help to the rest of us. (Incidentally, what she tells us to do is kneel up, holding the thighs still vertical, arch the back, look back and down until you can SEE YOUR HEELS, and only then reach back to hold your feet.) Anyway, I very much look forward to your program, which I guess will be targeted to more normal people.

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