Written with Sarah Campbell. Be sure to read Part One, Part Two, and Part Three first.
How flexible do you need to be for yoga?
There is lot of complicated and sometimes conflicting advice on when and how to stretch in yoga to maximise effectiveness. In our minds, the important question is not how to stretch to maximise flexibility and proficiency in yoga poses, but rather how to utilise stretch as a meditative tool to bring awareness into the body and the present moment.
It is important to ask yourself how flexible you need to be before carrying on with any rigorous stretch routine as part of your yoga practice. Beyond the ability to perform asanas that make your body and mind feel better, and beyond having the range of motion to support the activities that make up your life, what are you actually seeking? It is easy for regular practitioners to lose their way and start caring more about the ability to perform fancy poses than living a happier and more compassionate life. As our teacher Jason Crandell urges: do not use your body to perform yoga poses, use yoga poses to understand more about your body, your mind, and your deepest self.
Precise biomechanics or ‘perfect’ technique may be important, but is only part of the picture. We should never be reckless or work against our bodies’ natural workings and it is important to take on board the guidance that anatomical and physiological study gives us. But we must remember that fundamentally yoga is a holistic process of awakening and reuniting body and mind. Don’t get stuck in the flesh.
When to stretch in a yoga class?
Keeping our priorities in mind, there are many ways to sequence a yoga practice and/or class that include mindful stretching that works towards an increased range of motion. Most commonly, peak pose sequencing focuses on building up to a complicated pose by dissecting its elements of strength and flexibility and incrementally building up to its execution. Philosophical or energetic sequencing focuses on a concept or emotional state and creates an energetic and postural arc that makes a concrete experience out of that abstract concept. Through these common types of sequences or however you conceive a class, postural yoga practice requires you choose a series of postures that make some sort of coherent sense. A teacher who cares doesn’t just pull poses out of a hat. Within this logical progression we can easily work though different degrees of stretching intensity and technique to both support our sequencing goals and mindfully develop flexibility concurrent with strength.
Each class should have a well thought out sequence that warms up body and mind, builds flexibility, challenges it through strength and movement, and concludes with stretches that cool and calm down the body and mind â€“ leaving you feeling balanced. Sequences should be built on repetition as this facilitates the development of flexibility and tends to calm the mind.
In general the following is our advice for using the stretch techniques outlined in Part Two and Part Three within the context of a yoga class. This general pattern of practice provides plenty of opportunity to introduce and repeat short and effective stretches of different kinds within a well-rounded yoga practice.
It is generally advised that a warm-up before exercise (which we will count yoga as for this discussion, save your complaints for yourself) should include several minutes of light activity to elevate the body temperature. It is unlikely that we will introduce jogging or jumping jacks before our opening postures, but we should work with awareness that we need to actually warm the body as well as prepare the mind during a warm up. For exercises like yoga that require static flexibility beyond normal ranges, static stretching can also be included as part of the warm-up[i]. Additionally, dynamic stretches can be included here to both provide alternative means of developing flexibility and preparing the body for the dynamic flexibility required for flow yoga. These dynamic stretches can stand on their own, or act as simple drills to prepare the body for the more complicated postures and movements to come. For example, if you plan on practicing lots of chaturanga and upward facing dog poses in your flow, you can practice rolling up and down and coming in and out of small backbends.
If you include sun-salutations or sun-salutation like flow in your practice, it can act as an extension of the warm-up and create a further deepening into range of motion and stretch tolerance (provided you work slowly and carefully).
It is also possible that the sun-salutations, as they contain a variety of movements and stretches within, can act as the warm-up in its entirety, again as long as the practitioner doesnâ€™t push too hard and too fast from the outset and thereby stimulate the stretch reflex.
Standing Postures & Peak Postures
Within the standing postures and peak postures it is possible to work with active static stretches, PNF, and contract-relax methods (See Part Two). Variety is key here. In between postures, be sure vinyasa transitions do not stimulate the stretch reflex. Remember that bouncy and hoppy motions and sharp landings can make parts of the body contract, taking you a step backwards in increasing range of motion[ii].
To aid the recovery of muscles (especially those you repeatedly contracted) and to prevent tightness and soreness after strenuous practice, it is advised to have a gentle winding down of intensity over 5-10 minutes followed by 5-10 minutes of static stretching[iii]. In addition to the bodily cool-down, you are cooling down the mind and the nervous system in preparation for deep rest in savasana. Take your time!
How does stretching affect the nervous system?
We have discussed how these techniques will develop range of motion and how in general this is all governed by a relationship to the nervous system. But, at the end of the day, does stretching make us any happier? Is it worth dedicating our time and practice to, or are we just chasing after elusive circus careers that will never come?
Long-term gains in flexibility come from repeated practice, but also from your ability to relax mentally. Learning to relax your mind within the challenge of the stretch may be the biggest obstacle and learning opportunity on your path[iv]. As we have discussed in relationship to the stretch reflex, you must work slowly, patiently, and with the calming effect of breath.
Stretches, and the sensations they provide as meditative focal points, also give us an opportunity to turn our minds inward, a phenomenon Bo Forbes labels interoception or mindfulness of body[v]. This reconnection to embodiment can lead to a stabilising effect on the nervous system. As much as the nervous system can effect muscles and lead to their tightness, inversely it may be that learning to relax the muscles can relax the nervous system. By relaxing the body we can relax the mind[vi].
Photos by Karen Yeomans
Practise these concepts with my 90-minute online workshop, ‘Beyond Stretching’ available on-demand.
[i] Knudson, D. (1999). Stretching During Warm-Up: Do we have enough evidence. Journal of Physical Education, Recreation & Dance , 70 (7), 24-26.
[ii] Coulter, H. D. (2001). Anatomy of Hatha Yoga. Honesdale: Body and Breath.
[iii] Walker, B. (2011). The Anatomy of Stretching. Berkeley: North Atlantic Books.
[iv] Coulter, D. (2015, June 14). Stretching: What Does it Really Mean? Retrieved October 26, 2016, from Yoga International: https://yogainternational.com/article/view/stretching-what-does-it-really-mean
[v] Forbes, B. (n.d.). Interoception: Mindfulness in the Body. Retrieved November 1, 2016, from Bo Forbes Yoga: http://boforbes.com/wp-content/uploads/2015/08/MayLAYoga_Page56.pdf
[vi] Forbes, B. (2011). Yoga for Emotional Balance. Boston: Shambhala.