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Stretching for the Mind

Almost all Tae Kwon Do classes open with warm-ups and stretching, but RVTKD’s stretching probably lasts longer than most martial arts schools. At thirty minutes, working our way methodically through most muscle groups in both isometric and dynamic variations, it’s almost like taking a short yoga flow class before starting our workout. Many newcomers comment on how much they enjoy this, since flexibility is the often-neglected third pillar of overall fitness (along with strength and endurance) and they often feel their bodies changing rapidly over their first weeks of training.

It’s amazing how these positive feelings persist long after class is over and I’ve returned to the world outside the dojang.

The obvious function of stretching is: stretching! Getting our muscles loose, connective tissues warm, and joints lubricated helps with many aspects of training. Routine Tae Kwon Do practices like deep stances and high kicks would be dangerous or impossible without some kind of warm-up. This post is about some of the less obvious, but equally important, benefits of a long and comprehensive stretching program:

  • take an “inventory” of your body’s capabilities for that class. what hurts, what’s okay but a little tight, what feels strong and relaxed? students in their first year of training almost always enjoy significant improvement with each passing week or month, and even experienced practitioners may be surprised to notice that certain muscle groups are feeling especially limber on a given night. getting in tune with your body may give you ideas about what to practice during periods of unstructured individual training.
  • focus on developing mindful breathing. inhale through your nose, exhale through your mouth. let your belly expand as you inhale, then your chest, so your lungs are entirely filled with air; exhale slowly but fully, firming your diaphragm muscle as you entirely empty your lungs. let each breath be long, even, and relaxed.
  • make the transition from normal life to training. as you focus on your breath, let your mind release all thoughts that belong to the world outside the dojang, and let your awareness narrow to include only Tae Kwon Do. don’t think of the past or the future, just the immediate action and your perceptions in that moment. try to clear your mind by the end of the group warm-up, and be in a state of relaxed, aware, receptive readiness.

All of these functions are important to me, but the last one is what I didn’t anticipate as a new student—and which I’m most grateful for as a longtime practitioner. Whatever my state of mind when I enter the dojang (and as I approach twenty years of teaching, there have been LOTS of distractions along the way) I am virtually always centered, relaxed, and sharp by the time we start class. Over all the years I’ve been training and teaching, I can’t remember more than 2-3 times when I’ve had things on my mind so powerful that this period of stretching can’t put them in a new perspective. It’s amazing how much stress and other negative emotions and preoccupations fall away during thirty short minutes, leaving clarity and energy in their place. If you’re thinking “this sounds like meditation,” I would say: you are exactly right!

Even more remarkably, it’s amazing how these positive feelings persist long after class is over and I’ve returned to the world outside the dojang. My to-do list might be just as long, the stressors are all still there, but my relationship to them has changed due to a combination of preparing myself for training, then doing the work.

I hope most River Valley Tae Kwon Do students know what I’m talking about and that you’ve enjoyed similar effects. As you stretch, and train, and follow the other traditions of our school, think about how the structure of class prepares you for both the training we do inside the dojang and the world beyond.

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