So, why is Yoga more than stretching?
If you have been to a Yoga class, then you should know how most lessons are structured, for those of you who haven’t, I’ll explain very quickly. First, you ‘awaken the body’ and every teacher and style does this differently, some in ways I don’t agree with, but I won’t get into that so much. Secondly you start to warm up and do a whole load of poses that strengthen the body and you do this so that lastly, you can get into some crazy flexible positions.
now let’s think about the gym and your typical fitness classes. They all talk about warming up before you start and at the end you stretch. You do the same in dance, you do a dynamic, warming stretch, you dance for an hour or so and then you stretch. Notice the pattern…. Warm up, strengthen THEN stretch.
This pattern is so incredibly important and that’s because society today barely move. Our muscles and joints are cold. Think of your muscles as an elastic band for a second. Imagine if you picked up a cold elastic band (it’s unlikely you would J but let’s pretend) what do you think would happen if you tried to stretch it? It would most likely snap, or wouldn’t stretch at all. Our muscles are the same. This is why yoga gives you so much more than a stretch. It is an ancient and clever practice, that retrains the body and takes it to its full potential! However, like I said before, not every style of yoga does this in the best of ways, I’m sorry to say that, because I do truly love all styles of Yoga, but some are not made for the modern body and I only say this from my own experience. Some styles go too quickly into the strengthening portion, when the joints and muscles are still tight and they’re not ready to move in such a way and so many people are living with injuries and pains these days that you really do have to be careful about how you train the body. If you do it cleverly you can truly make changes. I changed mine completely. I used to have terrible lordosis and ribs that didn’t function properly, legs that barely did any work, basically I was all over the place! And just with clever movement I have completely changed the shape of my spine and body and have next to no pains these days. It’s great!!
How to stretch properly
The method I use in my teaching comes from Dr Elena Voyce, my teacher, friend and life saver! She taught me that to gain flexibility you must make the muscles function properly and to do that you should put them in the right place first. Yes, I am talking about alignment, which thankfully lots of people are talking about nowadays! For this post, I am just going to talk about stretching the hamstrings.
Let’s think about society… most people sit down for the majority of their day, so because of this their hamstrings are constantly over stretched and therefore, tight. Most people sit incorrectly, so their pelvis and hip flexors are not functioning properly. So, what can we do about this. Re train them! Unfortunately, I could probably write a massive book on how to properly stretch the hamstrings, but I can’t really do that here J so instead I just want to give you a little thing to try and to help you understand why yoga is more than stretching.
- Stand up, as you normally do with your legs straight. Now roll down and try and touch the floor without bending your knees. As you do this I want you to notice what happens to your feet, and how you roll down, i.e. do you roll smoothly through the spine or do you get stuck somewhere in the back. Don’t worry about what you notice just remember and see how far you down you get comfortably.
- Now try this: stand with your feet hip distance apart, parallel and slightly pigeon toed (so your big toes come slightly towards each other, watch that your knees don’t come together.) Now bend your knees and bring your body weight into your heels. Ground your heels and your feet into the floor and try to pull back through your ankles, like you’re skiing. You should now be able to feel your hamstrings and sitting bones engage a little. Now bow your head, breathe deeply into your back and ask your ribs to move back. Try to relax your pelvis a little and allow your hip bones to lift up and back slightly, as if lifting them and creating space in the belly, which in turn allows your tailbone to relax. Without losing the connection to your feet or the space in the belly roll all the way down with your legs bent. Once all the way down keep that connection to the feet and ankles and the lift in the hips. Now pressing down through your heels can you start to straighten your legs from your heels to your sitting bones, as if pushing your thigh bones up to the ceiling and keep your hands on the floor. Only go as far as you can without feeling like you’re pulling the muscle at your sitting bones. Does this feel different? Do you feel more of a stretch, but gain some heat in the body? Hopefully the answer is yes and hopefully you now see that what Yoga poses should do, is create strength and heat as well as a stretch, when you get this, you’re going to start stretching in a much more efficient way!