When having any conversation about yoga, you will often notice stretching mentioned in the same context. Even for experienced yoga practitioners, separating yoga from stretching seems like a rather fine line to draw. Practically speaking, however, are stretching and yoga all that different?
There are plenty of elements of yoga that are not included when it comes to stretching. Yoga is a holistic practice that pays attention to your breathing and mental state in addition to the physical activity it entails. Stretching, on the other hand, is an almost exclusively physical activity.
In these modern times, many of us have come to view yoga as simply another type of exercise, which makes it all too easy to merge yoga and stretching in our minds. To help us clearly separate the two ideas, let’s take a closer look at both, highlighting their differences as per their types, origins, execution, benefits, and more.
You may be well aware that there are various types of yoga, but you should know that stretching can also be broken down into a number of styles. A significant difference between stretching and yoga becomes apparent when we look at what separates the different styles.
The techniques involved in stretching are generally separated by the manner in which force is applied, while the yoga traditions most commonly practiced in the West are separated by a variety of qualities.
- Passive: The force of gravity helps you achieve the stretch.
- Static: You achieve a stretch only using force generated by your body’s muscles.
- PNF (Proprioceptive neuromuscular facilitation): An advanced form of static stretching that incorporates muscle contractions to the stretching action.
- Ballistic: You harness momentum generated by moving your body to achieve the desired stretches.
- Prop assisted: Using props such as weights to increase the force you can effectively apply while seeking to achieve a particular stretch.
- Partner assisted: You call in a helper to give you support in achieving a stretch.
- Prop assisted (angle): Props such as stepping boards can be used to limit certain ranges of motion so that you can go deeper into certain stretches. An example of this is using a board to increase the dorsiflexion of your feet and extend your calf muscles.
- Ashtanga yoga: A physically demanding posture sequence that requires a good knowledge of the series as well as flexibility and strength in order to achieve them.
- Vinyasa yoga: An athletic style that emphasizes the flow between various asanas or poses.
- Kundalini yoga: Focuses on core work and rhythmic breathing exercises in a fast-moving flow from posture to posture.
- Bikram yoga (hot yoga): Set pose sequences are executed in settings with the heat set to 105 degrees and the humidity set to 40 percent.
- Yin yoga: A slower, more meditative yoga style with plenty of seated postures (relying on gravity to help) held for relatively long periods.
- Iyengar yoga: Heavy emphasis is laid upon achieving precise poses and the use of props to achieve deeper poses and perfect forms.
There are plenty more yoga styles and traditions we could list, but the important takeaway here is the variety yoga offers compared to stretching. Stretching involves the basic physical motions of the body, while yoga takes these motions and enhances them with rhythmic breathing, inward mental focus, and continuous flowing movement from one pose to the next.
One of the distinguishing features of yoga can be observed in the way practitioners move from one pose, or asana, to the next. Rather than stopping one pose and starting another, it happens in a flowing, continuous motion.
The proper term for this is ‘vinyasa‘ and can be applied to any yoga sequence that involves moving from one asana to the next dynamically, making use of the breath as well in order to achieve a physical and mental state of awareness and release.
On the other hand, stretching makes no provisions for flowing transitions between one stretch and the next. It is a series of static activities rather than a dynamic progression.
In the practice of yoga, alignment refers to the way your body parts should be placed in order to achieve a specific pose as it should be. That means your arms, feet, head, shoulders, and everything else should ideally be in a certain position.
There is a reason why proper alignment is encouraged in yoga. It is so that you will have a stable foundation for your body as you move into the various asanas, helping to open up and extend your body so that you may experience the full benefits of your yoga practice safely.
Note that you do not have to be perfectly aligned on your first try—yoga is about gradual improvement over time. Some types of yoga place more emphasis on proper alignment, and so the use of props and partners for assistance is commonly accepted practice.
Stretching, in contrast, is generally more undefined and subjective. Athletes might have certain stretches they do in order to target specific muscles or muscle groups, but you will not find a detailed outline of where each of your body parts should be located if, for instance, you want to work out a stiff neck by stretching.
So we see that stretching and yoga differ again in the level of emphasis they place on body alignment.
Another element that is central to the practice of yoga is the manner in which we breathe while doing it. The term used to describe the breathing technique is pranayama—the formal practice of breath control. During yoga, we are meant to breathe in deeply and exclusively through our nose.
While practicing yoga, we harness the power of these breathing techniques by incorporating them into our poses and transitions, effectively helping our bodies and minds participate more fully in the session. The powerful effect of this combined action on our bodies is much greater than we would achieve through the postures alone.
This type of deep, diaphragm-initiated breathing has the effect of increasing the oxygen supply in our blood, thus increasing the amount of oxygen our muscles and brain receive. It results in increased energy levels, sharper mental clarity, and enhanced endurance, among other physiological effects.
In fact, the breathing techniques taught in yoga are acknowledged for their usefulness and therapeutic benefits even outside the yoga class setting. Many people use the techniques to relieve anxiety, manage stress symptoms, improve their concentration, or simply relax their minds and decompress after a challenging day.
Stretching does not bring the power of controlled breathing into the equation. As it is focused solely on increasing the mobility and readiness of muscles, it does not call for any coordination between these actions and our breathing rhythms.
If you want to to read more about pranayama, take a look at this article.
Stretching involves assuming and holding a certain position, but the length of time you are to hold the position is generally up to you. After lengthening your muscles to the point where they begin to become uncomfortable, many stretching exercises will have you release the pose.
Yoga differs somewhat in this regard. Many types of yoga advocate holding poses for 20-30 seconds. In most yoga types that employ the flow method, poses are not released but are continuously guided into other poses. The controlled shifts from one asana to the next make it necessary that yoga poses do not reach the practitioner’s point of discomfort.
You will be able to hold a yoga pose done correctly for much longer than you would while performing a stretching exercise. There are certainly some types of yoga—those designed to bring up your heart rate, especially—where the change from one pose to the next is quite rapid, but the larger significance here is that yoga allows for and quite often encourages much longer pose durations than stretching.
A new yoga practitioner will not be able to perform the same yoga sequences that a yogi who has been practicing for years will be able to do. For a beginner, it will take time for their bodies to develop the necessary flexibility, openness, and strength it takes to achieve certain poses.
This is why yoga is categorized into various types and traditions. These categories are even further classified according to the advancement levels each student or class group has advanced to.
Stretching is wide open for any level of ability. Stretching is fundamentally the same whether you are a professional athlete about to start a game or a couch potato getting up to grab a soda from the refrigerator after 6 hours in front of the TV.
While there might be differences in how deeply individuals might be able to get into their stretches, the stretch’s effect on the muscles being targeted will be similar.
As we’ve mentioned, stretching is an activity that is carried out by all manner of creatures, large and small. The simple extension of the muscles attached to our skeletal frames can be achieved instinctively by anyone at any time.
Yoga is not that simple. Even the most simple sun salutation involves more than the muscles of your body. You have to keep in mind your alignment, your breathing, and your mental state in order for it to qualify as yoga.
This isn’t to suggest that only experts are capable of doing ‘real’ yoga—far from it. Yoga is open to everyone with interest in gaining the benefits it offers us. The point here is that for you to practice yoga, even for the first time, you have to understand a little bit about what it entails and how to go about things, which is not the case for simple stretching.
It can be very easy to assume that stretching and yoga are more or less the same, especially as many of the benefits and effects that yoga offers practitioners are often ascribed to stretching as well. To be fair, this is true to some extent.
You will find that stretching and yoga are both acknowledged to be capable of providing the following therapeutic effects:
- Increased range of motion and flexibility: Both will serve to lengthen the muscles being worked on, allowing your joints to move along their range of motion more fully. The flexibility you acquire helps in the performance of daily activities with ease.
- Reduced risk of injury: An increase in mobility, flexibility, and range of motion helps us avoid certain types of injuries that often afflict us, such as pulling your back, spraining your ankle, etc.
- Improved functional performance: Functional performance refers to the ease with which we are able to perform certain basic actions or activities such as lifting a heavy object, climbing up a tree, and so on.
- Lower-back pain prevention and relief: A yoga type such as kundalini yoga will focus on increasing the flexibility and resilience of your lower back, stretching the muscles that serve the lower back specifically will have the same effect. Lower back pain is a very common issue, especially for those who spend a lot of time sitting down (which is most of us nowadays).
While the list above shows us some positive results that we may experience thanks to both yoga and stretching, there is plenty more going on when it comes to yoga. Take a look:
- Improved posture and body awareness: Yoga helps us build up our core strength, which is vital for proper spinal alignment and good posture. The mindfulness that holding poses and controlling our breathing fosters in practitioners also means that you will be more aware of your body’s positioning, meaning that you will quickly notice when you start to slouch and correct yourself. Stretching is relatively wanting in this regard.
- Stress management: While stretching might be able to help relieve the tension in your muscles, it falls short of properly dealing with stress and its symptoms in general. Yoga will help alleviate the mental and physical effects of stress such as insomnia, anxiety, poor concentration, mood swings, and more.
- Improved sexual health: Studies have shown that practicing yoga for 12 continuous weeks resulted in improvements in the sexual functional metrics of both male (confidence, partner synchronization, desire, intercourse satisfaction, orgasm, erection, and ejaculatory control) and female (arousal, desire, lubrication, satisfaction, orgasm, and pain) participants.
- Increased mental strength: Practicing yoga is a great way to build up your mental toughness. As you continue to learn, experiencing success and failure on your path to yoga proficiency, you will be learning how to deal with ups and downs in life as well.
- Self-confidence boost: As your body and your mind become more connected during your yoga journey, you will find that learning how your body works and making efforts to improve gradually teaches you to accept and love it for what it is. This comfort in oneself is the foundation of a positive self-image and a key pillar in building self-confidence.
- Teaches better breathing habits: Controlled breathing is an important aspect of yoga that is missing in stretching practices. Becoming used to paying attention to how we breathe and making conscious efforts to breathe in a way that benefits our bodies and minds will carry into our daily lives and become a good habit.
- Improves balance: As we train our bodies to achieve and hold poses such as the tree pose (standing on one leg with the other foot placed above or just below your knee), our stability and balance are significantly enhanced as well.
- Relief from migraines: Many people suffer from headaches and migraines in these stressful times, but yoga has been shown to drastically reduce their number of occurrences as well as their intensity or pain levels in practitioners after three months. The reasons for its therapeutic usefulness here are believed to be its stress-relieving capabilities and its effectiveness in increasing the amount of blood flow to the brain.
- Immune system boost: A Norwegian study came to the conclusion that yoga has the ability to enhance the effectiveness of our bodily responses to immune system attacks.
- Increased stability and balance: Yoga types that incorporate standing poses into their sequences are great ways of helping us enhance our stability and balance. This happens for a couple of reasons. Our bodies will build up core strength; increased proprioception will increase our awareness of sensory inputs, which will allow us to react quicker; and our spatial awareness of the spaces our bodies occupy will be heightened.
- Improved muscle tone: High-intensity yoga styles such as hot yoga, ashtanga, rocket yoga, and more help lengthen and strengthen our muscles. This, combined with the calorie-burning effects, also brings about results in a toned, fat-free profile.
- Better heart health and endurance: It is well established that yoga is highly effective in helping lower our blood pressure, reduce cholesterol and triglyceride levels, and slow down our heart rates. These are all beneficial to our hearts’ health and function and are especially helpful for those at high risk of heart disease or who are living with high blood pressure.
From the examples above, it becomes clear that a major difference between stretching and yoga is revealed in the sheer number and variety of benefits that we get from practicing yoga. Stretching on its own does have its benefits, but yoga is far more effective and thorough in this light.
The question of whether yoga is a good way to build strength is a somewhat controversial one, so we’ll take a bit of time to explain just how this works before establishing how this is different from stretching.
Yoga for strength is an uncommon notion as most people think of the practice’s loose-limbed, stretchy, and calm side. Few people are aware of yoga’s more vigorous, intense, and powerful side. This is understandable to some extent because the depictions of yoga we encounter in social media posts, television, and movies are all of the subdued variety.
Well, here’s the truth on the matter. Yoga is an effective strength-building activity because it emphasizes stability and balance. For you to achieve the various asanas and flows properly, you need to be able to handle your body weight with relative ease.
You can think of participating in sessions of dynamic, active yoga styles such as ashtanga, Jivamukti, rocket yoga, and power yoga as being the equivalent of vigorous body-weight training. This is to say that while strength trainers in the gym will use free weights, barbells, and machines, yogis use the weight of their own body to achieve the same results.
Picture the handstand pose (Adho Mukha Vrksasana). It isn’t hard to imagine just how much strength it requires to hold your entire body straight up in the air using your hands. Various muscle groups, including your limbs, core, back, and more, need to be working hard for you to hold this pose for any length of time.
A beginner may not be able to achieve this, but with continued practice, the relevant muscles will gain the strength to accomplish difficult poses such as these. That is the strength-building power of yoga. Of course, if you’re hoping to get huge muscle gains, yoga might not be an ideal solution for you, but if you’re searching for functional strength and muscle toning, then sure, yoga will do just fine.
Now, back to the main question—how does this contrast to stretching? Well, the simple fact is that stretching will not put your muscles through the type of strain necessary for muscle building. There’s just not enough resistance being faced by our muscles, and stretch durations are relatively short as well.
Stretching can be said to be practically timeless, being an instinctive activity human beings and animals alike perform. You will often see your pet cat or dog stretching itself, and you will probably stretch when you wake up or get up after sitting down for a while.
However, as far as recorded history is concerned, we trace back stretching exercises to the ancient Greeks. Their military personnel and athletes would incorporate stretches into their training regimens as well as part of their general health and fitness habits.
You can find stretching explored in terms of its therapeutic benefits in the works of Hippocrates and Galen, who are prominent contributors to the field of medicine as we know it today.
In 1874, the world was introduced to the science of osteopathy by Dr. Andrew Taylor. Stretching was at the core of this science, where the passive stretching of soft tissues was believed to help restore and improve their function and structure.
Chiropractic medicine also evolved at around the same time, and the hypothesis stating that physical problems emanate from a misaligning of our vertebrae, which results in the restriction of energy flow from our brains, saw stretching become relevant as a therapeutic measure here as well.
On the other hand, yoga as a practice is thought to have sprung out of the Indus valley civilization of around 3000 BCE. Mentions of yoga can be found in ancient texts such as the Rigveda, the Upanishads, and the Bhagavad Gita.
We believe that it developed into a proper systematic study sometime in the 5th and 6th centuries BCE. Yoga was formally introduced to the western world at the turn of the 20th century through the initiative of Swami Vivekananda. It grew in popularity and evolved in practice as various teachers and schools introduced their interpretations and practical tweaks to it.
What we encounter today when we consider yoga is a posture-based physical fitness, relaxation, and stress-relief technique. The Western world mainly practices Hatha yoga and its many variant schools, which made asanas (postures) much more prominent than they were. The more spiritual, esoteric traditions of yoga, mainly practiced in the East, are less commonly observed.
Historically speaking, then, we see that stretching is an instinctive action keyed into our very biology. We have probably been stretching since the dawn of time, even before we had any conscious awareness of why we did it.
Yoga, on the other hand, came about more deliberately as part of a human being’s efforts to achieve physical, mental, and spiritual wellness. The fact that modern yoga practice often lays minimal emphasis on the spiritual aspects might cause one to think of it in the same category as stretching, but history shows us otherwise.
The journey to good physical and mental health should be taken seriously by each one of us, which is why every method, practice, or technique that offers potential benefits should be given fair consideration.
At a glance, stretching and yoga might have some similarities, but closer investigation reveals the truth. While stretching definitely has its benefits and is something we should all do, the positive gains to be had from yoga make it a superior solution to whatever problems or for whichever purposes we might find them useful for.
If you’re trying to figure out whether stretching or yoga is for you, keep in mind that yoga will serve you much more comprehensively by helping you achieve optimal mind and body conditioning. Take a bit of time to figure out which style will suit your needs best, or simply ask for guidance wherever yoga is taught near you.
- Wikipedia: Yoga
- Yoga Baron: Modern Yoga Types
- Women’s Health Mag: Body Weight Workout Benefits
- Yoga Journal: Pranayama Breathing, Exercises, and Poses
- Stack Exchange: History of Stretching
- Web MD: Yoga May Cut Heart Disease Risk Factors
- NCBI: Rapid gene expression changes in peripheral blood lymphocytes upon practice of a comprehensive yoga program
- NCBI: Effectiveness of yoga therapy in the treatment of migraine without aura: a randomized controlled trial
- Healthline: Benefits of Ujjayi Breathing and How to Do It
- NCBI: Yoga in female sexual functions
- NCBI: Yoga in male sexual functioning: a noncomparative pilot study
- Science Direct: “More than I expected”: Perceived benefits of yoga practice among older adults at risk for cardiovascular disease
- NCBI: Yoga breathing, meditation, and longevity
- Healthline: What is dorsiflexion?
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