Non-yogis may find it hard to understand the difference between a good stretch and a yoga pose. Could it be that yoga just a fancy form of stretching?
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Both yoga and stretching emphasize placing the body in various positions to help lengthen and strengthen. But while it’s true that stretching is a big part of yoga, there is so much more to it than that.
So what, exactly, is the difference between stretching and yoga? Let’s begin to answer this question by diving deeper into the purpose and origins of yoga.
What is yoga?
If the media were to be believed, yoga is a practice done by fit and attractive people bending into difficult positions like circus performers, while letting out an occasional, “ohm.” This, of course, does not accurately depict the therapeutic value of the practice.
In truth, yoga is a form of exercise that incorporates strengthening, breathing, stretching, balance and calmness of mind. It can be traced back more than 5,000 years (some historians argue it goes back as far as 10,000 years), and is based on a tradition of holistic healing that integrates the physical, mental and spiritual aspects of movement to improve overall health and wellbeing.
Yoga is rooted in ancient Indian philosophy, but there are various styles that combine physical postures with breathing techniques, meditation and relaxation, to varying degrees. Yoga is recognized by the National Institute of Health as a mind-body medicine.
Many yogis have tried to define yoga in different ways, but one of the most practical explanations can be found in the Yoga Sutras, one of the founding texts of yoga. It defines yoga as the ability to focus the mind in one direction for an extended period of time.
Another Hindu text, a scripture called the Bhagavad Gita (often referred to as simply the Gita), defines yoga as dexterity in action.
So which of these is correct? Both of them; they both communicate the key elements of the yogic state.
The takeaway here is that yoga is about more than just a physical movement. While it’s true that practicing yoga can improve flexibility, strength, endurance and balance, it also facilitates characteristics of mindfulness, compassion and kindness. Other important outcomes include changes in life perspective, increased self-awareness, improved energy to live life joyfully and enlightening the individual to an overall sense of calmness and wellbeing.
Yoga Postures vs. Stretching
Stretching is defined as making something wider or longer by pulling it or to put your limbs in positions that make the muscles long and tight.
So what makes yoga postures, well, yoga? Yoga poses have two very distinct qualities that need to be cultivated in order to be considered “yoga.” These qualities are described in the Yoga Sutras as sthira sukham asanam. (In English, sthira is translated as steadiness or alertness, sukham is translated as comfort or ease and āsana is the given position of the body.)
In order for postures to be considered yoga, there has to be a balance of steadiness and alertness, as well as comfort and ease in the mind, body and breath of the practitioner.
Simple stretching of the limbs or particular muscles does not require the same level of attention, focus and breathing that yoga postures require. So it’s entirely possible for someone to look like they are doing yoga, when they are in fact just stretching. While it can be beneficial to stretch, stretching offers significantly fewer health benefits than practicing yoga.
With the sudden rise of yoga as exercise in the Western world there are, understandably, some misconceptions of the foundations of yoga itself. As much as we can use yogic postures to maintain our physical health and wellbeing, the postures themselves are not the goal of practice. That may be hard for some of us to accept, considering the amount of bendy so-called “yogis” posing for selfies on social media.
You don’t have to be able to turn your body into a pretzel to have a successful yoga session. This point is articulated very well by senior yoga therapist A.G. Mohan in his book, Yoga Therapy: Guide to the Therapeutic Use of Yoga and Ayurveda for Health and Fitness.
“Our goal should not be to place our body in the position of an asana,” says Mohan. “Rather we must develop the strength and flexibility that will enable us to assume such a position.”
But if the purpose is not to perfect a pose, then what is it? The purpose of yoga postures are to maintain and restore the mind and body to optimal functioning. Each pose is designed to have specific effect on the body. If we force ourselves into a posture, then stress and discomfort will follow, leading to disturbed breathing and potentially cause imbalances in the body and mind. As a result, we lose the benefits of the practice.
What’s breathing got to do with it?
This is where breathing techniques comes in. Breath is our life force energy, freely distributing energy, also known as prana, throughout the body. The breath is also the link between our mind and bodies.
Luckily for us, we don’t have to think to breathe — breathing happens automatically, the process is taken care of by our autonomic nervous system. When we begin to control our breathing, we start to switch from an unconscious automatic process to a conscious process, which can have profound effects on our mental and physical health.
Utilizing proper breathing techniques can affect the balance and function of our nervous system. For example, creating long exhales and chanting can be used to relieve stress and promote relaxation. T
How the pose moves dynamically and how the breath is manipulated can and should be customized, whenever possible, to the person practicing. This powerful benefit of breathing is the entryway into the healing process, especially for people suffering from trauma, depression and anxiety.
Ready to get started? Here are three ways to check if you are practicing yoga correctly or simply stretching:
Yoga or stretching? How to know if you’re doing it right:
1) Are you moving in sync with your breathing? Is your breath calm and smooth? Let your breath guide you in and out of postures. If it becomes short or disturbed, come out of that particular movement until you can breathe freely. Do not compromise the breath for a pretty pose.
2) Where is your attention placed? Are you focusing on the present moment or are you worrying about your to-do list? Be mindful of your thoughts as you practice. Whenever your mind begins to drift, simply return your focus back to your breath without judgment. It doesn’t mater how many times the mind wanders, it matters only that you come back to the present whenever you get distracted.
3) Is there a balance of stability and a sense of ease as you perform the poses? Or are you forcing the body into a particular posture that is uncomfortable and potentially painful? Never force the body into a particular form; it will only cause disturbances and injuries. Instead, ask for modifications in poses that may be out of reach.
Yoga is a personal and experiential practice. It’s not for everyone, and not all practices are created equal. What is helpful for some people may be harmful to others. Consider contacting a yoga therapist or experienced yoga teacher before getting started.
Yoga Therapy: Guide to the Therapeutic Use of Yoga and Ayurveda for Health and Fitness. By A.G Mohan and Indra Mohan
The Heart of Yoga: Developing a Personal Practice by TKV Desikachar
Photo credit: Jennifer Rea of Rea in Focus.