When I walk into an SM Stretching class at Energi in NYC, I expect to spend the full hour on a mat folding my body into various restorative positions, like I'm used to doing in yoga. Instead, I'm immediately moving between jumping jacks, squats, crunches, and other moves—all accentuated with a resistance band—to get my blood pumping. "We start with a 15-minute workout before stretching so that you get your muscles warm," says founder Samira Mustafaeva. "Otherwise you can hurt yourself." She's right: Stretching cold muscles is not the right move, y'all.
Once I'm nice and warm, it's time to get loose. Mustafaeva takes the class through pretty classic stretches—think frog pose, straight-leg hamstring stretch, and half-splits—some of which you do with a partner or with her assistance (she pushed me almost into a full split). But what's very, very different about this stretching class and the stretching I do on my own time is the length that we hold the poses.
"Each stretch is held for one minute at least, but a lot are held for two or three minutes," says Mustafaeva, noting that this length of time allows your body to relax and go deeper into the stretch. "The uncomfortable part is where you get to improve your flexibility, which is the whole purpose of a stretching class."
"The uncomfortable part is where you get to improve your flexibility, which is the whole purpose of a stretching class." —Samira Mustafaeva
Mustafaeva, who's an former gymnast from Russia, is passionate about stretching and what it does for your body. "Flexibility is the base for everything, all of your workouts," she says. "If you're not flexible, it's difficult to do certain moves." According to her, this is a common theme in Russian fitness classes. "We have stretching classes in Russia like you have barre classes here in the United States," she says. However, that is starting to shift as the importance of recovery continues to rise.
When I walk out of my SM Stretching sesh, I'm shocked by how lengthened and limber my muscles feel. For once, my legs feel loose (and as a runner, that's an anomaly). "When you're stretching, you're not only working on your muscles, but you're calming your mind, and you get a release of endorphins which makes you feel better when you leave class," she says. "Flexibility makes everyday movement much easier." As I felt the newfound sensation of Gumby-like muscles, I believe her (and vow to stretch much more often).
Try this full-body stretch routine from Charlee Atkins, below:
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