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Yoga Is Not (Just) Stretching

Yoga Is Not (Just) Stretching

Mention yoga, and most of us picture rubbery young women flowing gracefully through all kinds of poses. Or perhaps we recall black-and-white photos of emaciated Indian gurus with their feet tucked behind their heads.

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But, as my philosophy professor Douglas Brooks quipped, “Yoga is not stretching in Sanskrit!” In fact—bad news for Equinox and all the health clubs that promote yoga as physical fitness—yoga was never primarily about the body. From the beginning, Indian yogis sought to move energy, or prana, throughout the body. They described the body as a vessel containing 72,000 nadis, or energy pathways.

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Opening these channels allows energy to flow more easily. We can then redirect the prana by engaging certain muscles to create bandhas or locks to stem the flow.  Pranayama uses the physical breath to guide prana.

The final goal?  To move energy up the main nadi, located in the spine, from the base of the torso to the crown of the head, and hence to achieve enlightenment. Having stretched and strengthened muscles throughout the body, yogis could also sit still in meditation for long periods of time, making such enlightenment possible.

Along the way, yogi masters reaped the benefits of living in supple, strong, well-balanced bodies. This may explain why many Indian gurus live to be more than 100, despite the limited diet and environmental challenges of a country with the highest infant-mortality rate on the planet.

But let’s be clear: Yoga does involve stretching, not just of the physical body but also of the breath and the mind (stay tuned for upcoming blogs on this). But how, what, and why we stretch is key. Too often, teachers and students misunderstand the biomechanics of yoga poses, pushing themselves and their students to stretch by pulling on joints (specifically ligaments) instead of lengthening muscles. Ligaments tie bones to other bones, literally holding us together. Like the plastic that binds six-packs, once ligaments are stretched, they can’t contract back to their initial length. Stretching ligaments destabilizes the body—potentially dangerous, especially as we age and lose our balance more easily.

Muscles, on the other hand, are meant to expand and contract. And they need to, to ensure both healthy tissues and mobility. Specific actions, which Anusara yoga creator John Friend called “Muscular Energy,” stabilize our joints so that just the muscles stretch. Muscular Energy radically changed my own practice, helping me to cope with the pitfalls of hypermobility. I pass these valuable techniques on to students in my classes and private lessons.

But which muscles should we stretch? In the ideal human body, all muscles should be elastic enough to permit functional range of motion and tissue oxygenation. Many muscles and muscle groups come in pairs, called “agonists” and “antagonists.” It’s especially important that these pairs are balanced in both strength and flexibility. And here yoga as commonly practiced sometimes gets it wrong:

  • Way too many poses stretch the inner thighs (adductors); very few stretch the outer thigh (abductors). Most “hip openers” involve external rotation of straddled legs; hardly any, internal rotation of crossed legs.

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  • Many poses stretch the back of the thighs (hamstrings), many fewer the front (quadriceps): think of all the forward bends compared to the handful of bent-knee backbends.

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But just as important as stretching, yoga challenges the body in three other ways:

  1. Strength
  2. Stamina
  3. Balance

Yup, a yoga body is strong! While we’re busy stretching the pecs, abs, and quads to open up the front of our bodies, we need to strengthen the spinal muscles, trapezius, and back of the shoulders to enable us to sit up straight and stand tall.

Trapezius

Stamina—the ability to exert strength over time—increases when we hold poses for extended periods. To feel this, start counting how many breaths you hold your standing poses, then add three to five slow breaths. When your legs start to shake, you’re building stamina! You need stamina in your upper-back and neck muscles to avoid hunching forward over your computer. You need it in your arms to carry a toddler or a sack of groceries, in your legs to climb the subway stairs.

Yoga Stamina

Way back when we transitioned from quadrupeds to bipeds, moving through the world suddenly required balance. Watch this in action as a toddler moves from crawling to walking. Notice how less stable elderly people lean into canes, which function as third legs. Poses like Tree and Warrior 3 challenge us to stand on one leg. Balancing poses like High Lunge woven into sun salutations raise the stakes: Maintaining balance in motion is always more difficult. And of course, energetic and emotional balance can be even more elusive, but more on that in upcoming blogs!

Some years ago I taught a class called “Yoga for Stiff Guys.” But this was not a stretch class. Rather, I wanted stiff guys (and gals) to know they brought abilities to yoga, specifically strength and stamina. So we did lots of Chatarangas, Planks, and arm balances. We did Chair pose and Handstands. We moved slowly and held poses for a long time. After a while, bendy young women started joining us. Many of them were humbled to learn that yoga is not just stretching. And humility, while often downplayed in our egocentric culture, is a mainstay of any successful yoga practice!

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