Yoga Basics: What is Stretching?

Yoga is more than stretching. The definition of yoga is, in one word, is unity  (of body, mind, and spirit). Without discounting mind and spirit, understanding the physical aspect of yoga will enhance the overall experience of unity.

As you explore your body’s abilities on the yoga mat, you will undoubtedly experience the sensation of stretch. Stretching has many benefits, including improved circulation, joint mobility, and muscle elasticity. The common misunderstanding of yoga as merely “stretching” can lead to some not-so-smart or safe yoga practices. Understanding the science of stretching will improve your safety on the mat and your enjoyment.

Four Stretching Methods In Your Yoga Practice

There are several methods of stretching. These include:

  1. Static is considered to be a passive stretch (muscles not active during stretch) but pushed to end range/tolerance.
  2. Passive (or relaxed) stretching is a form of static stretching. However, with passive stretching, you relax into a pose, letting your body weight, or gravity, stretch your muscles.
  3. Active stretching is when you use antagonistic muscle groups (muscles that oppose the muscle you are stretching) or agonists (the muscle group you are stretching) to facilitate a reflexive response that neurologically relaxes the muscle you are stretching. Active stretching is accomplished by the voluntary use of one’s muscles without external aid.
  4. Ballistic is dynamic, bouncing in and out of stretches.

These methods of stretching can be combined. A stretch can start out passive but then become active as you contract muscle groups while in a yoga pose. Or, you may actively move into a position and then use your hands to assist in holding your leg in a position. No method is right or wrong, but active stretching and active assisted stretching tend to offer more control and can, therefore, be safer.

Why the Type of Stretching Matters in Yoga

When practicing yoga, it is important to move with control and to stay tuned to the sensations of the body. “No pain, no gain” is NOT a mantra of yoga. When doing static or passive stretching, it is useful to consider that we may be compressing a joint or straining a ligament, which is usually accompanied by an unpleasant sensation. This is not generally a goal unless there is a therapeutic reason for doing so and you know what you are doing and why. More often, a pleasant sensation of stretch in the center of a muscle is desired and therapeutic. This may seem obvious to some, but many people may feel that getting through the unpleasantness is part of the process. Perhaps this is true in rare cases, but for the most part, pain is a sign to back off.

How Hard Should I Push Myself in Yoga Poses?

Woman working out with a yoga belt, practicing Supta Padangusthasana Pose which is a great pose for a short yoga break.

It is generally not recommended to stretch a muscle at its tendon (its insertion point on a bone) or to stretch a ligament. This may happen if you push too hard, have weakness in a muscle, and/or lack the strength to control joint movement. Stretching a tendon doesn’t feel very good. If you find that certain poses result in discomfort despite your efforts to control the motion, you may need to work on muscle strength or modify until the sensation is less intense. Improving your body awareness and understanding your body’s limitations will help you determine when it’s safe to push, and when it’s smarter to yield.

Why am I so….Inflexible?

Limitations in flexibility are due to more than just muscle tightness and include joint structure, ligaments, tendons, neural mobility, and genetics1. In fact, stretching does not necessarily lengthen muscle fibers. Improved flexibility and range of motion in joints are due to increased stretch tolerance rather than increased muscle length.

The word “tolerance” in this context means adaptation. To tolerate also means to accept and endure. Through practice, repetition, and technique, we learn to let go (rather than accept and endure), which creates a shift in not only our physiology but perhaps also in the psyche. Flexibility is defined as the range of motion in your joints, but also as the ability to bend without breaking or willingness to compromise. To consider these polysemous words in the bigger context of yoga, we start to understand that practicing yoga embodies more than the physical.

Staying Safe in Yoga

The safest way to apply the principle of strength with flexibility is to stretch with the muscle around the joint while toned (in an active state). An example of this would be in Dhanurasana (Bow Pose). When you are on your belly grasping ankles, you press the ankles into the hands to use the quadriceps (agonist) while you are stretching them. Likewise, in Padangustasana (Hand-to-Foot Pose, mimicking a hamstring stretch), you activate the quadriceps (antagonist) to reciprocally relax the hamstrings. Actively moving into a pose and then gently contracting either the muscle(s) being stretched or the opposing muscles is the safest method of stretching. Passive stretching may be more intense, but is intensity necessary or safe?

Finding Balance

Hatha yoga should be a balance between strength, flexibility, and relaxation. An overly flexible muscle that has little strength may not function properly in everyday life. Similarly, a very stiff muscle or joint may be unable to function properly. If we gently activate muscles while in stretching positions, we protect the joints, and we learn to respect our limitations and vulnerabilities at any given moment. The balance of wanting to go further and knowing when to stop is experienced, as is the understanding of what yoga is truly about. Now, that is practicing smart, safe yoga!

Reprinted with permission from
Christine CarrChristine Carr owns Synergy Physical Therapy and Yoga, Inc. in Evergreen, Colorado.  She incorporates both physical therapy and yoga in her work, helping clients ( She has been a physical therapist for 18 years and a yoga therapist for 11 years. Christine has studied with various yoga teachers and styles, being drawn most to the Iyengar lineage and therapeutics in general.  She now assists workshops in therapeutics for both the Professional Yoga Therapy Studies and Rachel Krentzman’s Yoga for a Happy Back Program. Her passion for learning and contributing to her field led her to Dr. Matthew Taylor, PT, PhD,   E-RYT 500, for whom she is now contributing articles for his SMARTSAFE yoga blog




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