Why Yoga Stretching is better?
Have you watched – after being still for a time, most animals get up and stretch – dog & cat stretch!
It is believed this is an evolutionary thing to wake up muscles after rest.
In modern times, people also sit still for long periods, and get up and hobble for a bit – not much stretching! What’s worse is that most sedentary behaviour occurs sitting in chairs. Research suggests long chair sitting is associated with lost hip mobility and probably hamstring tightness as well. US research indicated that children’s mobility had decreased from the 1960s to 2010s due to a greater sedentary lifestyle. Some people are becoming so stiff by middle age they can injure themselves with simple reaching tasks.
What’s more, sedentary sitting is often associated with mental tasks eg work & computer tasks, which can be associated with increased tension in the neck, shoulder blade area & arms. We tend to automatically increase tension when focusing on something, such as a screen. The upper trapezius muscles on top of our shoulders seems particularly sensitive to concentration & increased tension. I think many of us can relate to this!
So many of us do need some mobilising & stretching.
However, at the other extreme some people can overly focus on getting too flexible, to the point their joints can become unstable. This is often seen on social media & youtube videos, getting people to push themselves to extreme flexibility. In the earlier days, yoga was also guilty of focusing too much on extreme flexibility.
The truth, as for most things, is that we need a balanced approach. If you are too sedentary you need to stretch your body, but you only need enough movement for your every day activities and needs for your work, hobby or sport. For example, rock climbing needs a a lot of shoulder & hip opening mobility.
You can also get increased flexibility & mobility, not just from simple stretching exercises. Eccentric exercise, where your muscle lengthens out under resistance, also helps. A practical example of this is lowering slowly into a deep squat. It can give great mobility to hips, just like doing a deep Glut stretch. In fact, yoga employs this process in many of our yoga practices or asanas eg slow dynamic movements like flow & vinyasa, not just passive stretching like yin yoga.
What happens in your body when you stretch?
The body is composed of connective tissue which is both elastic and plastic, meaning in short term it stretches but can revert back, but with enough time it can change & adapt. It can adapt to being shorter and stiffer, if you don’t move or are injured, or can get mobile & longer, if you challenge it a little. Changing connective takes time – think months to years of sustained work.
Changes which occur in the short term are usually associated with building tolerance in connective tissue & muscle nerves to stretch. This means the stretch reflexes adapt so they don’t trigger tension or discomfort so much. Many people find stretching and movement in general is associated with less discomfort & pain in the body, when practiced regularly, especially as we get older.
We also appreciate that warming up & light stretching is also protective against muscle injuries for sports & activities, especially those which involve explosive or power movements eg sprinting, tennis serving, golf swing, and so forth. This preparation seems to help get the muscles & body working well, just like when animals get up to first move, as described at the start of the article.
One thing many older sports people, dancers, and yogis will observe is that as we get older we need to take more time in warming up before stronger activity. Staying active for life is important, and we can do amazing things in older age, but we just need to do a little more warming up & preparation.
But stretching has more to offer than just in our muscles & connective tissue!
Recent research has shown that regular stretching of major muscle groups reduces
Arterial Stiffness, and this can help reduce heart disease risk. Stretching stimulates cells in the body to release anti-inflammatory molecules, and as heart disease is inflammatory, stretching may help reduce the build up of plaques in the arterial walls.
Stretching also aids in body healing after injury or surgery, helping to increase molecules like “resolvins”, molecules which turn off inflammation. The stretching also helps the body to repair tissues in more healthy and natural ways.
If you practice yoga then you will have probably experienced some of these benefits yourself…
However remember, Yoga is much more than stretching: it is a profound system to becoming whole & finding wellbeing in:
Energy & Breathing
Stretching is part of yoga conditioning exercise, because when you stretch & strengthen your body, then your body becomes more comfortable, and so it becomes less of a distraction, so you can focus on what matters – living, experiencing, contemplating, meditating, enjoying life to the full… and yoga is the best way to stretch as it is fun & a complete system.