Absolute Beginners: Productive Pain

A few weeks ago, I got my hands on a copy of a stretch workout DVD called Lastics (yeah, I still use DVDs, I’m a rube). I’m not super-inflexible – I’ve done my fair share of yoga, I can touch the floor with straight legs, and I’ve always wanted to be more human-pretzel-y. But oh my god, guys. Oh my god. The first time I went through this Lastics DVD, I experienced pain like I haven’t felt since, well, maybe ever. And it was good.

The premise of Lastics is to teach you how to stretch like a dancer, which was what piqued my interest in the first place; the motto is, “Bent is not stretched.” It’s hosted by the Lastics program creator, Donna Flagg, who, I found out, has been a trained dancer, worked in the beauty industry, did business writing for Goldman Sachs, and then created stretch workout classes for Joffrey before releasing the DVD.

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I talked with her about the program yesterday, and she told me that the whole concept began when she started helping her business partner to stretch when she was pregnant and saw huge improvement from Day One to Day Two, then started helping NBA player Randy Foye to stretch and saw the same immediate results – and it went on from there. As she started doing the classes, she started to have students telling her, “You took away my pain.” And, she told me, “What an incredible gift is it, to be given something that means you could take people’s pain away? Juxtaposed against that was: Business. I was coming out of Wall Street. I wanted to do something that made people feel better, and when I realized that I was doing that.”

As an idea of what Lastics entails, during the workout – which, yes, is entirely just stretching – she instructs you to do awful[/great] things like keeping your kneepits on the floor while flexing your foot back from the ankle as far as it’ll go, straightening your back, and leaning forward. To visualize what this does to your hamstrings, imagine if you took a resistance band and put it under a board, then brought both ends up and toward each other. It would stretch not just that flat portion under the board – your hamstrings, in this scenario – in a really intense way, but also the two ends – your feet and your back.

When I did Lastics the first time – and really, it’s not just “When I did Lastics the first time,” it’s also “When I really, really truly stretched for the first time in my life” – it was kind of awe-inspiring. I could feel every single injury I’ve accumulated over the last several years of my life. Stretching my shoulders, I could feel where I dislocated my right shoulder last year after falling backward down a flight of stairs. Flexing and pointing my feet with my legs in the air, I felt my shins burning in a way I didn’t think was possible – probably because I ran a marathon last year with almost no prior running experience. Straightening my back, I felt the muscles that support my spine fighting me, where I’d injured them in a work accident years ago. She has you tilt your head to the side and then tilt your chin up, which activated a stretch in the muscles in my neck that are stiff from the same accident, plus years of contorting my shoulders, back, and neck frosting cakes.

And more than anything, toward the middle of the program she has you do a back twist on the floor, and then has you stretch out your arm, letting gravity pull your arm backward toward the floor. I almost cried, it hurt so much – but not only from the pain. The injuries I took to my forearms as a cake decorator have plagued me

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since I left that job in early 2013. My forearms have been so stiff and contracted for so long that I’ve just gotten used to having soreness in my arms, wrists, and elbows all day, every day. Stretching them like that made me immediately aware of just how badly I need to take care of the problem – but still, not just that; it also made me immediately aware of how much emotion I’ve been attaching to that pain. I feel resentful of my supervisors for telling me, when I started, to expect to walk away from the job years later with tendonitis, with no advice as to how to prevent it, as if it was a foregone conclusion. I feel resentful of one of my managers for working me like a dog when we had emergencies, and having me make 200+ cakes in one shift, regardless of the fact that I’d go home with my hands curled in on themselves. I feel resentful of the shitty insurance I had, and the inadequate physical therapy I was finally provided after two years of repetitive stress. All of that lives in my arms. I’m reminded of it all the time. I can’t make cakes anymore because it hurts too much to pipe frosting, and that’s devastating, because it’s something I loved doing.

But knowing that there’s a solution, that I don’t have to live with this constant pulling feeling in my forearms and this constant aching in my wrists and elbows, was alone enough for me to let some of that resentment go. It was like an ascetic religious experience: Enlightenment through pain. And I mean “enlightenment” earnestly, because I think I did not fully know my body until I knew where my pain was coming from, and what that pain has meant to me. I left the workout empty – in a good way, like I’ve purged some of the darkness from myself (Get behind me, Satan!).

“It’s moving from the inside out – emotionally, physically – you need to give your body what it needs to process from within. You have to find space within your body to make it move,” Donna told me. She was talking about the Lastics method when she said it, but this, to me, is a deeper, really intuitive statement about the mind-body connection. And Donna is full of these intuitive, meaningful sentiments: She told me, “Dancers don’t rely on anything external to stretch themselves. If you create a crutch, the body never realizes its own intelligence.” It’s spot-on for our hearts and minds, too.

But even just on a physical level, learning to really, truly stretch has been amazing. I’d been having pain in my left hip for weeks that I could only feel when I was at the bottom of a squat (which is a really bad time to be in acute, stabbing pain); now that I’ve started stretching the right way, I don’t have that pain anymore. And

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because I don’t have that pain, I can lift heavier – which meant, this morning, that I was able to squat my own weight for the very first time. Every time I do the program, I see marked improvement. It’s really pretty amazing.

I asked Donna how stretching should fit into fitness, and she explained to me that she thinks that specializing in one or another type of sport makes you go to extremes. “If you’re dancing or doing acrobatics, you’re going to push it. You’re going to be out of balance. You’re going to be doing things for performance.” The same holds for strength training – I’m sure we’ve all seen bodybuilders who have gigantic muscles that they can’t even use because they’re not flexible enough to move them. “You have to be as strong as you are flexible. I’m really flexible – I have to work on my strength. I wiggle. I’m strong, but I’m way stretchy. It’s a constant effort for me to be balanced. I have to put in a lot of effort to be 50/50 down the middle.”

Meaning, of course, that she believes that half of the work you do to be fit should be stretching. It’s an idea that would cause a lot of lifters and other strength-minded people some anxiety, because strength training can be time-consuming as it is. Plus, there’s stigma against stretching in the building community, because if you want to get massive muscles, they kind of have to stay contracted. But what’s the point if you can’t move your muscles to use them? And what if pain from those contracted muscles is holding back your progress?

But stretching isn’t just good for builders, of course, it’s good for anyone. We all walk around with stress, we all use certain muscles too much and others not enough, we all kink our bodies out of alignment, and it causes a lot of pain and problems even for non-fitnessy people. And Lastics, Donna emphasized, is “for the average person who experiences discomfort or can’t do the things they want to do.”

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She ended our conversation on this note: “I believe in having a relationship with your body, and [Lastics] kind of evolved in a really wonderful way. And I thought, that is how I want to live my life.” I think that when we find something in fitness that we really love, whatever it is, we love it because it reveals a part of ourselves that we like, it enables us to feel not just stronger or more able physically but stronger and more able in the best of our personal qualities. It improves our lives beyond improving our bodies. Stretching like this showed me that it is possible for me not just to stretch my contracted muscles and be physically flexible, but also to stretch my emotional capacity and be flexible in my heart. And that’s how I want to live my life, too.

 

You can buy the Lastics DVD and book through the Lastics web site or on Amazon. Photo of Donna Flagg via Lastics.com.


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