Types of Yoga Stretching
There are many ways of stretching in yoga. This is due to the fact that there are a variety of different muscle fibres that contract and stretch in different ways. Additionally, there are different mental temperaments that respond to different methods to aid relaxation and the ability to patiently work with the often hard edges of inflexibility. Variety is key as different stretch techniques can lead to different outcomes.
Passive techniques may provide a direct route to flexibility but may not develop the complementary strength that active stretches may develop. However, passive stretch techniques may help quiet the mind of some individuals more so than active techniques. Specialised bio-mechanical techniques may be highly effective but be more appropriate to therapeutic or training environments, as they may do little to lead you to, say, happiness. Yet used sparingly the fussier techniques can be effective tools to help deepen an individuals practice as well as ensure its sustainability. A skilled teacher should have many tools at her disposal to meet the variety of body and personality types she encounters in class.
Most likely, you are already using a variety of stretching techniques in your yoga practice and teaching and may even be utilising cues and actions that support some of these techniques without full knowledge of why. Greater clarity will aid both your teaching and practice. These techniques are all applied with mindfulness of the stretch and lengthening reflexes. There are many more ways to stretch than described below but we find that these are most applicable to a yoga room. Important to understand is that the techniques described below will mostly work with the stretch reflex as described in Part One. Working with deeper layers of connective tissue towards permanent elongation will be described in Part Three, along with precise information on how long to hold these stretches.
Static – Passive
In a static-passive stretch the body is placed with mindful alignment, into a position where a load, usually the weight of the body under the force of gravity, pulls on a targeted muscle and is held a minimum of twenty seconds. No deliberate contraction is initiated. This is the most simplistic form of stretching while still being safe and effective[i]. Seated forward folds are one example of this form of stretching. The stretch is created as the weight and load of the torso folding over the legs exerts a pull on the targeted muscles along the back of the body in the stretch. The timings for this type of stretch and others, as well as the research to support it, will be addressed in Part Three.
Static – Active
In a static-active stretch, a targeted muscle is placed into a position by the force of the contraction of an opposing muscle, either exclusively or as a supplementary force (often explained under the term reciprocal inhibition). They are often hard to hold for beyond fifteen seconds[ii]. For example, you can stretch the back of a leg by lifting it into the air, while simultaneously strengthening the front of the hip that is lifting it up. Additionally, and with less demand, you can contract the front of the thigh in the front leg in triangle pose to help stretch the back of the thigh. Aspects of this balance between contracting and stretching can be seen in most standing postures and can be introduced into more traditionally passive and seated shapes.
In a dynamic stretch the body moves within a shape through its full range of motion repeatedly and a range of motion is developed that is sustainable through movement [iii][iv]. This is not to be confused with old school bouncing which will only stimulate the stretch reflex and make things worse[v]. A slow flow through the body’s ranges of motion, as seen in mindful vinyasa flow or slow movement in and out of postures is an example of this. Due to their gentle and repetitive nature, dynamic stretches can help build flexibility without stimulating the stretch reflex. Furthermore, movement within a shape may aid hydration of the fascia that can lead to the development of greater and longer lasting range of motion[vi]. Research shows that dynamic stretching can increase range of motion without diminishment of strength and power, which may be a downfall of more static and especially passive stretches[vii].
Isometric Stretching/Controlled Release
In a controlled release stretch you contract both the stretching muscle and the muscle opposing the stretch. After a period of contracting both, slightly increase the intensity of the contraction of the opposing muscle allowing a ‘controlled release’ into the stretching muscle. This technique helps deepen the stretch as well as align the bones for optimal stretch[viii].
Another form of combining the stretching muscle and it’s opposing muscle contraction is ‘isometric stretching’ and thought to be more effective than static-passive stretching or static-active stretching while additionally building strength in the stretched muscle[ix]. A simple way of thinking about this is ‘everything engages/nothing moves.’ Again, this type of stretching can be built into standing postures or even in some seated folding work. As pictured, one example is to stretch your outer hip while strengthening and resisting the action of the stretch in this plank variation.
Similar to controlled release, PNF or Proprioceptive Neuromuscular Facilitation, is less of a single type of stretching and more of a system with at least nine different methods. In general in a PNF stretch there is generally a contraction of the targeted muscle right before the stretch. It is often referred to as the ‘contract/relax’ method. One common instance of this in yoga class is in Supta Padangusthasana or a reclined stretch with a strap. With the assistance of a teacher holding the lifted leg, the student briefly contracts the hamstring muscle while the teacher resists. The student then relaxes and seems to have a deeper range of motion. Although outcomes of PNF compared to static stretching may be similar, it may simultaneously build strength in the targeted muscle. Furthermore, PNF is still working with the stretch reflex and is only building tolerance to stretch[x]. Other forms of contract/relax involve contraction while stimulating the tendons to stimulate the releasing reflex[xi]. This is seen often in uttananasana or standing forward fold wherein you can contract the hamstring and massage the tendons behind the knee and then release and go deeper.
We also recommend Roger Cole’s excellent breakdown of ways of working with the stretch reflex.
Stay tuned for Part Three where we will address timings for stretch and how to work with fascia.
Photos by Mimi Kuo-Deemer
Practise these concepts with my 90-minute online workshop, ‘Beyond Stretching’ available on-demand.
[i] Walker, B. (2011). The Anatomy of Stretching. Berkeley: North Atlantic Books.
[ii] Appleton, B. (2009). Stretching and Flexibility: Everything You Never Wanted to Know. Retrieved November 1, 2016, from http://www.mit.edu/activities/tkd/stretch/stretching_toc.html
[iii] Page, P. (2012). Current Concepts in Muscle Stretching for Exercise and Rehabilitation. International Journal of Sports Physical Therapy , 7 (1), 109-119.
[iv] Walker, B. (n.d.). Dynamic Stretching Explained. Retrieved October 25, 2016, from Stretch Coach: http://stretchcoach.com/articles/dynamic-stretching/
[v] Walker (2011)
[vi] Myers, T. (2016, September 13). Q&A with Tom: Optimal Time to Hold Yoga Pose? Retrieved October 26, 2016, from Anatomy Trains: https://www.anatomytrains.com/news/2016/09/13/qa-tom-optimal-time-hold-yoga-pose/
[vii] Page (2012)
[viii] Cole, Roger (2012). Five Ways to Calms the Stretch Reflex. Retrieved October 25, 2016 from Roger Cole Yoga: http://rogercoleyoga.com/articles/five_ways_to_calm_the_stretch_reflex_page_english.htm
[ix] Appleton (2009)
[x] Mitchell, J. (2014, July 15). Stretching and Muscle Control. Retrieved October 25, 2016, from Jules Mitchell Yoga: http://www.julesmitchell.com/stretching-and-muscle-control/
[xi] Coulter, H. D. (2001). Anatomy of Hatha Yoga. Honesdale: Body and Breath.