I'm not genetically flexible and although I did train martial arts before puberty, I didn't do enough to make me significantly more flexible than an average guy you might meet on the street. So at seventeen when I really got into dance for the first time, I started stretching a lot, everyday. And when I say everyday, I mean, everyday--I didn't miss a day of stretching for probably 5 years.
All that yoga prop junk is just for people who are short on time, if you have the time to stretch you don't need a prop. (There is one exception; sometimes a coach will advise a prop because someone is stretching unevenly, for that it is an extremely good idea.)
Stretching the same muscles day after day while doing kicks and jumps that use your maximum range of motion is painful, but it's muscle pain, it's the kind of 'hurts so good' pain that all athletes love. It's not debilitating pain, it's not nagging pain. Who am I to tell people not to do it?
I'm nobody. If you do it and you like it, keep doing it. But I have a duty of another order. I'm here to be a voice for another way of thinking and experiencing life. I'm here to represent the unique study of Chinese Internal Martial Arts and their relation to a Daoist view of what a human being is.
About 13 years ago, the idea of internal flexibility started to take root in my body. It did not come from stretching, nor did it come from standing still or meditation. It came from doing what most people these days would call qigong. Specifically I was doing Tiandifu (Heaven Earth Contract) style of qigong. Most Taijiquan classes include this type of movement; expanding the dantian in all directions while extending the arms over the head and then drawing everything back in. The thing is I did more than most people do and I was really focused on lengthening the spine.
At this time in my practice I could do what they call in gymnastics a back walkover. But in order to do it I needed to do a lot of stretching, especially bridges. From doing the internal spine lengthening, the quality of my flexibility totally changed, I was able to do a back walkover cold. Cold means without warming up, without stretching out first.
Then about ten years ago I was on a backpacking trip and I fell with a heavy backpack on. I really hurt my arm and my back. For the first time in my life I was waking up in the middle of the night in pain. It took a long time to heal and I've never gotten back to the point where I could do a back walkover cold. Bummer huh?
The plus side is that now I have a lot of expertise about spine injuries. Also I've thought about and tried a really wide range of stretching routines.
So what is the difference between internal stretching and external stretching?
External stretching is when you put pressure on a joint or a muscle or a muscle group in order to get it to relax and/or lengthen. When we do this type of stretching we cut off the connection between our dantian and our limbs. If we do this kind of stretching we have to do the same stretches everyday because the dantian will automatically try to suck our limbs back into itself while we are sleeping. (If you don't sleep for 24 hours you will likely be really flexible but also at higher risk of muscle/tendon/ligament tears.)
Internal stretching may not look like stretching. To stretch internally our arms and legs have to be a part of the dantian. Once a person has this feeling in motion, the stretches are easy to find or invent.
The dantian expands, condenses, rolls and twists. As it moves, so must the limbs move with it, as one continuous whole. You've probably heard that before, but are you doing it? Is the movement of your thigh the same movement as the movement of your belly? Is it simultaneous? Does it have the same quality?
This is one of those things which is so simple most people miss it. In order for a person who is flexible by training to develop internal stretching, he or she will have to give up what they are already good at.