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Yoga has taken over the western world by storm and for good reason. While there are many components to yoga — strength building, spirituality, meditation, internal balancing — it is also based around a simple structure of stretching. Even if you’re not a yoga person and even if you’re not an active individual, stretching should absolutely be part of a healthy daily or weekly routine.
Why is stretching so crucial to overall health?
It’s not just about flexibility — which is important — it’s also an integral component for healthy muscles, which in turn boosts the health of your joints, in particular, your range of motion. This decreases your risk of strains, muscle damage, and joint pain throughout your entire life. More than that, stretching helps maintain a healthy weight or aids in unwanted weight loss, increases blood flow throughout your body, and improves your posture.
On top of that, when it comes to mind and mental well being, stretching can be a ticket to calm. In fact, stretching has been shown to reduce stress, calm the mind, and can even help you get into a state of meditation.
So, without further ado, let’s learn a bit more about stretching!
First There Was Yoga, Then There Was Stretching
Yoga may seem like a recent trend come to life over the last couple of decades, but that’s only here in the Western world.
The practice of yoga is actually ancient, the beginnings of which “were developed by the Indus-Sarasvati civilization in Northern Inda over 5,000 years ago.” While the practice was initially mentioned in the Rig Veda — the “oldest sacred texts … containing songs, mantras and rituals to be be used by Brahmans, the Vedic priests” — yoga has gone through many refinements focusing on different ways to sacrifice “the ego through self-knowledge, action (karma yoga), and wisdom (jnana yoga).”
To make it a bit easier to follow, the development of yoga can be broken into classical, post-classical, and modern eras. The classical era — also called Raja Yoga — came about in the second century and is the “first systematic presentation of yoga,” which follows the eight-limbed path towards enlightenment. Jump forward a couple of centuries and you’ll find yourself in the post-classical era. Post-classical yoga practice focuses on the physical body “as a means to achieve enlightenment” through a “system of practices designed to rejuvenate the body and prolong life.” This era birthed Tantra Yoga — meant to cleanse the body and mind — and the beginnings of Hatha Yoga — an exploration of the physical-spiritual connection through physical practices. Last, but not least, is the modern era of yoga. The modern era of yoga simply refers to the practice’s introduction and popularization in the Western world beginning in the late 1800s and early 1900s. The type of yoga practiced in the Western world is considered Hatha Yoga.
Yoga Versus Stretching
Stretching is an integral part of yoga, in fact, almost all of the moves within Hatha Yoga practice tend to stretch some part of your body — intentionally or unintentionally.
Yet, there is a marked difference between the practice of yoga and the stretching you perform before or after a workout and they are both equally important to a healthy body.
Stretching is an important step for preparing your body for a workout or cooling it down afterward. It helps to keep the “muscles flexible, strong, and healthy, and we need that flexibility to maintain a range of motion in the joints.” This is especially true for highly active people or athletes who practice endurance sports. When you lag on stretching, your “muscles shorten and become tight” and grow weak, which can lead to “joint pain, strains, and muscle damage.”
While stretching is an important component of yoga, there’s so much more involved in the practice.
Yoga not only focuses on lengthening muscles through stretching, but it also aims to improve relaxation, as well as help some obtain a state of meditation through breathing. Yoga practice is encapsulated with “constant focus on inhaling and exhaling” which “helps you to pay more attention to your body and what it needs, so you don’t overstretch.” Along with breath, yoga “incorporates alignment, strength, and balance.”
Stretching is a basic principle or by-product of the entire yoga practice.
Different Types of Stretching
While it’s easy to simply jump into a yoga practice or a stretching routine, it’s always a good idea to learn the basics beforehand. This is especially true for anyone who is just beginning to incorporate stretching into life. Understanding the different types of stretching, what their goals are, and how to safely introduce them to your body is key for avoiding damage. This is also a good place to start before entering a yoga practice. Stretching is a huge by-product of yoga, therefore preparing your body for this type of movement can help your yoga practice be more productive and safe.
Beginning with a static stretching routine is the best way to ease your body into better flexibility. This is the most commonly practiced stretching and is “executed by extending the targeted muscle group to its maximal point and holding it for 30 seconds or more.” There are two types of static stretching: active — when “added force is applied by the individual for greater intensity” — and passive — when “added force is applied by an external force … to increase intensity.”
This type of stretching is most akin to yoga as it requires “the use of continuous movement patterns that mimic the exercise or sport to be performed.” With that said, while the continuous flow is similar to yoga, dynamic stretching is meant to prepare the body for a specific sport or activity such as running, jumping, or sprinting.
It’s recommended to only practice ballistic stretching with a coach or trainer or if you have been practicing them for some time. Ballistic stretching is “typically used for athletic drills and utilizes repeated bouncing movement to stretch the targeted muscle group.” This stretch triggers what is called the stretch reflex, but if not performed appropriately, it can lead to an increased risk of injury. If you want to try this stretch make sure to perform it “from low-velocity to high-velocity and preceded by static stretching.”
Active Isolated Stretching
Active Isolated Stretching (AIS) follows some of the same principles of yoga poses as the stretch is held for two seconds and is then repeated several times. With each repetition, you should be “exceeding the previous point of resistance by a few degrees,” therefore pushing and challenging yourself with each movement.
Health Benefits of Stretching
No matter what type of stretching you perform or if you attend a yoga class a few times a week, this type of physical activity and exertion is incredibly beneficial for both your mind and your body. Plus, stretching your muscles has long-term health benefits that can aid you when you grow older. Keep in mind, you don’t have to be an avid runner, endurance athlete, or committed yogi in order to integrate stretching into your daily routine! Stretching itself is a form of exercise when done appropriately. Need more motivation? Here are a few of the health benefits from stretching!
Improves Range of Motion and Increases Flexibility
This may seem like a pretty obvious by-product of stretching, yet most of us don’t really understand how important flexibility and range of motion are for our bodies. Improved flexibility helps “you to perform everyday activities with relative ease [and] it can also help delay the reduced mobility that can come with aging.” Full range motion refers to the ability to “move a joint through its full range of motion” and it supports freedom of movement. Static and dynamic stretching were found to be “effective when it comes to increasing range of motion.”
Increases Blood Flow to Muscles
We know that exercise increases blood flow to the brain, which can improve cognitive abilities and even keep your brain younger longer! So, it stands to reason that blood flow to your muscles is just as beneficial. By stretching on a regular basis, you can improve circulation, “which increases blood flow to your muscles,” and that can lead to “[shortened] recovery times and reduced muscle soreness.”
Improves Posture and Back Strength
Ever wonder why ergonomic workspaces are becoming all the rage? Because back issues are also becoming all the rage. With desk jobs and computer-based work becoming more standard, so are the back issues that come from poor posture and weak back muscles.
It all comes down to posture, muscle strength, and pain reduction.
By strengthening and stretching certain muscles, you can “reduce musculoskeletal pain and encourage proper alignment,” which in the end both improves posture and strengthens your back. This will also decrease the “likelihood of straining the muscles in your back,” and prevent future issues as you grow older.
Yoga and Stretching for Stress Relief and Calm
One of the lesser-recognized, yet powerful benefits of practicing yoga or a DIY stretching routine takes place in your mind.
It’s well-documented that exercise can help lift depression and improve your mood due to increased blood flow, better body image, and the release of endorphins. Stretching and/or yoga both have similar effects, yet offer a more calming edge through breathing and slow movements.
Looking at what takes place in the body, you need to understand what happens to your muscles in response to physical or emotional stress.
Specifically, your muscles grow tense.
By using stretching or your yoga practice to target the specific “your body where you tend to hold your stress, such as your neck, shoulders, and upper back,” you can not only avoid unpleasant side-effects such as tension headaches, but you can also mediate and deplete the built-up stress in your body. Yoga, in particular, is a great tool to kick stress and help calm the mind. While the physical exertion of slow movements, stretches, and small or large challenges play a large role in releasing endorphins, the breathing practices incorporated through a yoga routine bring you to a place of mindfulness.
How to Begin Your Stretching Routine
Before beginning any new physical activity, it’s a good idea to speak with your primary care physician, a trainer, or a coach. These individuals will be able to assess any current injuries or ailments that may affect how you approach stretching in a safe manner.
With that said, if you’re aiming to simply jump in, there are a few basic safety precautions to take note of:
- It’s important to note that you don’t have to stretch every muscle in your body in order to get a good stretch. In fact, when you’re just beginning, you may want to focus solely on the critical areas that are important for mobility. These include muscles in your lower extremities — such as “your calves, your hamstrings, your hip flexors in the pelvis, and quadriceps in the front of the thigh” — as well as stretching the muscles in your “shoulders, neck, and lower back.”
- Repetition and patience are key for proper stretching. If you’re just beginning, you’ll need anywhere from weeks to months to loosen overly tightened muscles. It’s recommended to begin by stretching at “least three or four times per week,” hold your stretch for 30 seconds, and don’t bounce — this can cause injury.
- Slight burning or tension are normal for tight muscles, but a clear feeling of pain is not. If you’re feeling anything more intense then a tightness, a tension, or a slight burning sensation, the stop immediately.
- Recent research has found that it’s not necessary and can actually be detrimental to stretch before a workout. If your muscles are cold “the fibers aren’t prepared [for exertion] and may be damaged.” Begin with a bit of light exercise (this could be a short walk) and then work your way into a stretching routine.
- When it comes to yoga, feel free to dive right in, but make sure to take a beginners class or speak with the instructor beforehand regarding your beginner’s level.
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