Yoga is not stretching

Yoga is not stretching by Debbie Farrar

I do not teach yoga as stretching.  To reduce yoga to stretching is to do it a disservice.  If I could ban my teacher trainees from using one word; that word would be 'stretch'!  Although that word 'stretch' is so ingrained into the vocabulary of most yoga teachers that it is a hard thing to let go of.  I still hear it popping out of my mouth occasionally, and I do not teach yoga as stretching.

In the second edition of his book Yoga Anatomy, the one major change that Leslie Kaminoff made to the text, was to take out every mention of the word 'stretch'.  Although I don't see eye to eye with Leslie on everything; I completely agree with him on that.

Many studies have shown that passive stretching at best gives only a temporary increase in muscle length.  Muscles return back to their usual length as soon as the individual returns to their usual movement patterns.  These movement patterns are governed by the nervous system.  It is the nervous system that determines what happens in the soft tissue, not the other way around.  

cats do not stretch

cats do not stretch

We commonly misuse, and therefore confuse, the term 'stretch'.  What a cat does when it wakes up is technically not stretching.  It is pandiculation.  However, we commonly call that thing stretching.  This is the beginning of the misunderstanding.  

The misunderstanding is not helped when we oversimplify the relationship between opposing muscle groups.  Actually, thinking about them as opposing muscle groups does not help at all.  The old agonist / antagonist way of looking at muscles is an old way of looking at muscular relationships.  In reality muscles can do much more than either contract or stretch.  So if you contract one muscle group, you do not automatically stretch its partner.  

Thinking about muscles working in partnership with each other, rather than against each other is much more helpful, albeit a little more complex, since we have to consider eccentric contraction - where the muscles lengthen as tension increases - as well as concentric contraction - where the muscles decrease in length as tension increases.  

Actually, while I am on the subject of tension, the common notion of tension being a bad thing does not help the situation either!  Our muscles need to be capable of holding tension, not only to articulate our bodies, but to support our skeleton and joints.

cats pandiculate

cats pandiculate

That thing cats do, pandiculation, is a muscular contraction, not a stretch.  When we contract muscles that stuck in the habit of holding unnecessary levels of tension, it sends blood to those muscles, which wakes them up.  When we let go of this conscious muscular contraction,  we consciously feel those muscles relax.  

Thus the nervous system gets to notice what it feels like to relax those muscles.  If the nervous system notices how to relax muscles, you have a neuromuscular pathway for relaxation.  We do not always have such a pathway available to us.

If we have been stuck in fight or flight for a while, some muscles get what is called sensory motor amnesia.  Simplified, this means these muscles had forgotten how to relax.  If this unnecessary muscular tension is present for a long time it can prevent the body from returning to its natural state of balance.  



In the state of fight or flight we are pumped with adrenaline, which among other things reduces our sensitivity to pain.  Thus, we may not feel anything happen at the time that it happens.  People who have been in flight or flight for a while often present as being extremely restless.  This can be like a vicious cycle where it seems impossible to relax because when we do our adrenaline levels drop and we feel the pain more acutely, so we make an unconscious choice to stay in fight or flight to avoid feeling that pain.  

This is certainly what it felt like in my case.  I had disc bulges when I was in my early 20s following the excessive stretching of gymnastics and ballet.  I could not sit still for 2 minutes, let alone sleep. So I could not get into that rest & digest state where we need to be for the body's homeostatic processes to kick in.

gratuitous cat picture

gratuitous cat picture

The more we notice the release of these forgetful muscles, the more well trodden the relaxation pathway becomes.  The more often that pathway is used, the more it is available to us, so the more we use it.  The more we use it, the less adrenaline we produce and the more likely we are to pass into a parasympathetic nervous response where all those relaxation hormones are released into the blood stream.  

When the body thinks its out of danger, it will start to heal.  Until then, we are still fighting or trying to run away from the battlefield.  

Good things to read: 



In my experience, a deeper understanding of how this works serves us well.  Since all of this is governed by the nervous system, and our brain is part of our nervous system, if the brain has a sketchy or simplified understanding of how the body works it may not allow the nervous system to do things that run contrary to what it thinks - that is without placing a great deal of trust in another person.  And I think we've maybe all put way too much trust in the concept of stretching as being good in the past.  And let's face it, its hard to trust anyone and anything when we are in fight or flight.

I feel a bit like Morpheus when I explain this to yoga people!  It is major paradigm shifting stuff for us.  Some of us are heavily invested in the stretching paradigm.  Our students come to us saying "I feel stiff, I need to stretch",  "what stretch should I do to get rid of my (insert any issue here)".  So it appears its not just us yoga teachers who are heavily invested in the myth of stretching as a panacea.  

However, if you have read thus far, perhaps you have already chosen the red pill?

If you want to see what yoga looks like when we don't reduce it to stretching, I will see you on the mat!


Debbie FarrarComment