Sleep is of the first importance to our health. This is the daily time of repair and healing for the body. Therefore, you want to set yourself up for the optimal sleep experience, and you can use stretching as a tool to help you create just that.
After a day of living in the human upright posture, your spinal discs are necessarily compressed by your body’s weight. This means you have lost precious cerebrospinal fluid from between them. This fluid is like lubricating oil between your discs, making movement effortless and light. When you sleep in the horizontal position, your spinal discs decompress, and your fluid cushion returns. However, if the muscles around your spine are too tight, they may not be able to release enough to allow this vital fluid replenishment. You want to make this fluid exchange happen, because it is instrumental in how refreshed you feel in the morning.
Use the sequence below to free your spine before you sleep—and, of course, add or substitute other stretch techniques that work well for you.
1. Lower Back: Flexion
The Setup: Start by kneeling on the floor and open your knees a bit. Flatten your feet (toes are not tucked on this one).
The Stretch: Let your butt sink back toward your heels. See how far back you can take your butt. You have gained a good amount of flexibility when you feel your butt touching your heels. Choose your arm and head position: (1) reach your arms forward and place your forehead on the floor; (2) cross your elbows in front of you and rest your forehead on your forearms; or (3) position your arms at your sides and rest your forehead on the floor.
2. Full Spine: extension
The Setup: Lie on your stomach on the floor, using a mat or carpet for comfort. Begin with your arms extended in front of you, palms down. Lift your head slightly off the floor, with your neck long: you are gazing down at the floor. Your legs are long, with your feet stretching out behind you.
The Stretch: Take a breath, and as you do, let your chest lift a little from the floor, making a slight upward curve with your neck and head. As you exhale, begin to move through an upper-body wave with the top of your head leading. Your head dips forward and comes up, followed slowly by your chin, your neck, your chest, your shoulders. As you create this wave, and your chest begins to lift off the floor, draw your straight arms back along the floor, creating a pull as your forearms head for their destination directly under your shoulders. Throughout the stretch duration, this gentle pull backward of the forearms continues.
Once your forearms are in place under your shoulders, keep them there. The pull backward is isometric: your arms are not actually going to move, just exert pressure backward so your upper-back muscles will contract, creating traction and length all the way down your back. Enhance this feeling of back length by stretching your toes out behind you. Roll your shoulders down to lift your chest, and lift the back of your neck to create length. Slowly turn your head to the left. Feel how this adds extra length to your spine. Slowly return your head to the center. Repeat the head turn to the right.
3. Full spine: side, using chair
The Setup: Sit on a stool or in a chair with your knees bent and feet on a stool rung or on the floor. Keep your shoulders facing forward; be sure you don’t turn them to the side. Lift your left arm up at your side, palm facing inward. Grasp a stool or chair leg with your right hand. Look straight ahead. It may be helpful to check your position in a mirror.
The Stretch: Begin to reach your long left arm slowly to the right. Counter the weight shift created by pressing your left sitting bone down onto the stool or chair. You will feel the stretch in your left side. As you lean farther to the right, you will be able to move your right hand farther down the stool or chair leg and feel more stretch. Try pulling upward with your right hand to see if that will increase your feeling of stretch. Your neck curve matches the curve of your arm. Repeat on the other side.
Your goal here is to feel the stretch along the left side of your torso. If you feel it in your arm instead, try settling your shoulder into its socket to relax your arm. It takes a little practice to master the feeling of a long arm that is reaching but not working. Instead the back supports it—in this case the side of the back.
4. Back: Spiral
The Setup: Lie on your back on the floor, using a carpet or mat for comfort. Place your arms by your side, palms down, forming an “A” shape (fingers reaching away from you at 45 degrees to your torso).
The Stretch: Bring both your knees as far in to your chest as you can. Drop both knees over to the left side and let them rest where they fall. Keep your right shoulder down on the floor. The stretch here is produced by your knees pulling away from your shoulder, causing your spine to form its characteristic spiral shape. Repeat the stretch on the other side.
5. Neck: Back diagonal
The Setup: Sit or stand comfortably with spine straight and shoulders relaxed. Locate the little bony nodules at the base of your skull.
The Stretch: Create length in the back of your neck by pulling up under the little bony nodules at the base of your skull. The back of your neck is now stretching. Next, turn your chin slowly to the right. You will feel the stretch shift from the back of your neck to the side back—on the left side. As before, sink your left shoulder down and away from the pull, and locate the stretchy feeling. As in stretch 1, when you are ready to release the position, take the weight off your neck muscles by using your hands to return your head to its original position. Repeat the stretch on the other side.
For more stretch sequences and advice, check out Stretching with Ease by Linda Minarik.