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Stretching Towards Bethlehem

Photo-Illustration: The Cut; Videos: Getty

For as long as I can remember, I’ve dreamed of being able to do the splits. Maybe it started with my brief sojourn as a gymnastics student when I was 10, or my seventh-grade dream of becoming a popular cheerleader (I still cringe whenever I remember my deeply embarrassing tryout). I’ve long since moved on from those childhood aspirations, and yet my longing to be one of those people who can do the splits has never waned. It’s been my New Year’s resolution more than once, and to this day I’ve never checked it off. To my dismay, my crotch has never made contact with the floor.

To me, doing the splits is a superhuman ability, something that seems unimaginable until you see someone do it. Annoyingly, there’s also the fact that most human bodies technically have the ability to do the splits; anyone who has working legs and does the proper stretches for long enough will eventually get there. Of course, the most frustrating of all is that my younger sister Stella can do the splits. She was a dancer for much of our childhoods and was, as a result, constantly doing them. I’m older and therefore should have all the skills, interests, and abilities she has, plus an additional four years’ worth. That’s how that works, right?

Finally, I decided to Actually Do Something About It. About three years ago, I picked up a book called Even the Stiffest People Can Do the Splits: A 4-Week Stretching Plan to Achieve Amazing Health, which I found in a free book pile in the Cut office. I brought it home and proceeded to never open it … until, yes, about three weeks ago. Throughout that 21-day period, I’ve taken ten minutes to practice the stretches recommended by Eiko, a “world-renowned” Japanese yoga teacher who goes by only one name and is the author of this book. I will admit, there were some gaps in my practice, mostly induced by, you know, the loss of my reproductive rights and the general turmoil that comes with such an event. So I might as well tell you now: I still can’t do the splits. There’s more though.

The three stretches Eiko recommends are as follows: First, lie on your back and straighten one leg. Use a towel or strap balanced on your foot to pull the leg toward you, as far as it will go, 20 times, then switch legs. The next stretch is a classic sumo squat, except you’re supposed to sort of bounce lower while keeping your thighs parallel to the floor for about thirty seconds. The third stretch changes each week, but it’s always an inner-thigh stretch. After doing the stretches consistently, I do feel more flexible and closer to the splits than I previously was. What I have “achieved” is a habit of taking a little bit of time to stretch every day, which feels nice and has noticeably improved my overall flexibility.

While my lack of particularly impressive progress could seem (okay, it was) disappointing, it was also exciting to feel the progress I did make with the knowledge that there’s such a long road of possibility ahead of me. Stretching is not actually a straight linear progression. Flexibility will of course progress and improve from a big picture perspective, but when you’re zoomed in to the day to day, you might notice that some days you’ll stretch further than you did yesterday — but on others, it feels like you’ve gone backwards. The stretch feels suddenly harder, or you can’t go as deep as you could on a previous day. We can’t expect our bodies to always be “better” than yesterday, but we can always expect them to be different. Our bodies are constantly reacting to a million internal and external factors, and our physical abilities will respond accordingly.

What I love more than anything about my new daily stretching habit is that it immediately puts me fully back in my body. The stretches I do may change — clearly, the ones from my book didn’t quite do the job — but the act of stretching will always force you to feel exactly where your muscles are. It will tell you what feels good and what doesn’t. Your mind can’t run in circles the way it normally might — and it can’t be on autopilot, either. As someone who spends a huge chunk of my day with a laptop in front of my face, I sometimes lose touch with my senses and stop noticing how my body feels. A mildly painful attempt toward the splits is an immediate reminder.

Maybe it’s a silly goal, but for the first time, it feels serious — genuinely achievable. Because while I wish I could spend hours a day rolling around on my yoga mat, a few minutes of stretching a day actually has made a difference — in my flexibility, but also in my relationship with my body. The closer I get to the ground, the closer I get to myself, too. And the closer I get to proving once and for all that older siblings are superior. Take that, Stella.

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Stretching Towards Bethlehem