Sometimes, the challenge of teaching anatomy to yoga teachers is…
People often believe they aren’t flexible enough to practice yoga, as if yoga were only meant for flexible people. It’s not! The opposite is actually true: a regular yoga practice will increases your flexibility and range of motion. So if you are feeling tight and stiff there’s no better practice for you than yoga. Take me for example: just recently I was able to comfortably do “the splits” for the first time in my life. I’m 41 years old and I never thought this would happen… Ever! But it did. Just to be clear: I wasn’t born with the flexibility I have now, It has developed slowly over time, thanks to yoga.
The reason yoga bestows so much flexibility is that it involves a lot of stretching. Many of the poses regularly performed in a yoga class stretch and therefore lengthen the muscles. This is because yoga poses (asanas) hold the muscles in a lengthened position as you take several long slow breaths. This allows for short and tight muscles to reset their “normal” length to this new, longer position. This is the opposite of what you do in gym workouts where the muscles are shortened (and become bulky) through fast repetitions.
Though it may take a while to do the splits, the benefits of stretching are immediate. Stretching relaxes both the body and the mind. It reduces muscle tension, relieves stiffness and it also calms the nervous system, reducing stress. With consistent practice, stretching improves flexibility and range of motion. It also increases body awareness (proprioception) and improves posture.
Interestingly enough, the benefits of stretching are similar to those attributed to yoga: increased flexibility, stress reduction and relaxation. Coincidence? I think not! Yoga involves a lot of stretching which not only benefits the body but the mind as well. I hope all this talk about stretching has inspired you to give it a go.
Here’s a few tips on how to stretch safely to maximize results and avoid injury:
- Warm up first. It’s important to warm-up before stretching to avoid injury. Five to ten sun salutations – will help get the blood flowing to the muscles and raise your body temp. It is important your muscles are warm before stretching as stretching cold muscles can cause injury.
- Hold each stretch for 3 to 5 slow breaths – or 10 to 30 seconds. Start small holding for 10 seconds at first and letting your practice build up over time. Holding a stretch too long too soon could cause over-stretching.
- Don’t push. Stretching should not be painful, it should feel good. Breathe mindfully into the tighter spots while keeping and equanimous mind (meaning, don’t judge yourself). And please, no bouncing!
- Make sure the stretch takes place in the muscle belly, not in the joint. An example: many people tend to hyperextend their knees which can create pressure on the tendons and ligaments in the back of the knee. This is a sensation you want to avoid. You want to feel the stretch happening in the muscle belly, not in the joint.
- Focus on main muscle groups. When choosing a stretching routine, focus on main muscle groups, such as the calf, front and back of the thigh, trunk, chest, shoulders and neck.
- For best results, practice regularly. 10 to 20 minutes of stretching 3 x a week is generally recommended for best results. Remember, this should not feel like a chore but like a gift: it is your present to yourself. You will be glad you did it.
I hope this article has inspired you to start stretching today – or better yet, to start practicing yoga. Sometimes committing to a regular weekly class can help establish a new exercise habit.
PS: If you want to come stretch with me, I’ll be back to teaching my regular Thursday yoga class at Centre Cos on May 7th at 8:15 pm. RSVP required. See you on the mat 🙂