We’ve all heard this before – talking to your neighbor, the cashier at the grocery store, your Uncle Frank. They all have the same response when you tell them that you teach yoga. Their eyes glaze over in disbelief when you enthusiastically exclaim, “No, yoga is actually FOR people who aren’t flexible!”
We know that a balanced yoga class that cues the body in movements and counter movements, helps give us both flexibility and stability, strength and stretching. We feel the strength part afterwards in our sore muscles, but what about the stretching? Is the stretching really doing anything to improve our overall flexibility? And does this give us better day-to-day functional movement?
In Tom Meyer’s May 8, 2015 post ,“Pre- and Post Exercise Stretching: Pros and Cons”, https://www.anatomytrains.com/blog/2015/05/08/pre-and-post-exercise-stretching-pros-and-cons/ he argues that stretching as commonly practiced in yoga classes, exploring the end-range of motion, does not improve the quality of movements in daily life. He cites research that points to when we train muscles we are training them in a very specific way and this does not always translate to better motion in our daily lives. So, if the stretching in yoga is not a health maintenance practice, what’s the point?
Well, according to Dr. Baxter Bell the point might be that stretching CAN improve overall flexibility when performed regularly, over a long period of time – not so much with short-term stretching. http://yogaforhealthyaging.blogspot.com/2017/05/friday-q-how-long-to-stretch.html With short-term stretching, muscles return to their pre-stretch length after a day or two and we are right back where we started. In Patanjali’s Sutras 1.14 we are reminded that our yoga practice must be consistently done over an uninterrupted time, in order to see healthy changes in our bodies and our minds. Dr. Bell suggests that with this consistent practice, we can see results after only three to eight weeks!
Good news, right? But how often do we have to practice? And the answer of course always is everyday. But the type of practice depends on what we are trying to change. Trying to break some of your sedentary habits? Start with a shorter, more confortable practice and add on from there. Using yoga as training for other sports? Alternate workout days with yoga/stretching days. Trying to go deeper into your yoga practice and master more challenging poses? Alternate deep stretching days with a more restful restorative practice.
As Patricia Walden says, “muscular action is the most direct expression of willpower in our body.” And we have to tap into that willpower to find the gumption to stick with it and know that we can effect change. Every time we activate a muscle group with our tapas (discipline), the opposite muscle group is lengthening and stretching. If we can stick with the discomfort for a few more seconds we are not only increasing our flexibility, but most importantly our patience and confidence.