The ubiquitous trope that “yoga is stretching” is based on a fundamental misunderstanding of both yoga and human anatomy.
Now that scientific research is largely debunking ingrained notions of what it means to “stretch,” the language that yoga teachers and media are using to describe what yoga practice does needs to be questioned.
In almost all avenues of health and wellness advice, importance placed on stretching is a given. Yet, when you ask someone if they know what stretching actually is they rarely have any idea about it. We associate the sensations felt when our bodies are put in one position or another, or challenged to move in new ways, as an abstraction that we call "stretching." And these days, when many people are looking to stretch, yoga classes are often where they go because, for lack of any other reference, they have come to think of yoga as merely an elegant way to “stretch out.”
A study in the Journal of Clinical Biomechanics found no differences in people's muscles and tendons after six weeks of a stretching regimen. What we typically think of as “stretching” is not actually making muscles longer.
When I was growing up we always had to try and touch our toes in physical education class. Some kids could touch easily and some kids could not. We were told to bounce. I remember having an image of two steel cables along the back of my legs being pulled taut and longer. This carried over into my early adulthood and foray into yoga. I was determined to mold my body into an ultimate enlightenment machine and was willing to withstand whatever pain might be in the way.
My ranges of motion did increase. But this came with a price. It was quite an accomplishment to achieve full splits that one summer when I made it my life goal. And I relished showing off my accomplishment in every yoga class I went to throughout the subsequent year. However, the degenerative issues and pain I now deal with in my SI joint seems hardly worth it. Eventually, wanting to feel better became more important than poses. And I began to discover that a lot of the discomfort in my body was not because of energy blocks or toxins that needed to be purified but the natural result of an "unbridled pursuit of unlimited flexibility" that I was being praised for and encouraged to pursue.
Muscles sliding long and conditioning oneself to withstand the signals that fire when we press our bodies past the point of safety are not the same thing.
Honestly, I'm not really much of an anatomy guy. At a certain point, too scientific a viewpoint sucks all the magic out of it for me. But watching video of people with limited motion who miraculously regain full range when placed under anesthesia is quite a revelation. As crazy as it may sound, we all have full ranges of motion in our bodies when we are under anesthesia. Clearly, what is restricting movement in our bodies is not determined by our muscles alone. And more importantly, if not determined by muscles then from where else would we derive the mobility and stability that constitute a healthy functioning system?
The technical keys to answering these important questions will need to be left to others more knowledgeable than myself. But in lieu of being able to fully explain these revelations empirically, I feel obliged to at least question some stock things I've been saying in my classes for years. And I think other yoga teachers ought to do the same. A quick perusal of the content that yoga teachers, media, and the fitness industry at large, are generating online reveals a grossly ill-informed use of anatomical platitudes. While well intentioned, these attempts to explain the nuanced phenomenon of a human system through sweepingly inaccurate statements, and what's worse purport to provide easy answers to complex conditions, is doing everyone a disservice.
Those ubiquitous numbered lists of yoga poses to address whatever condition are entirely bogus. Offering poses as a means of targeted stretches assumes a uniformity among human bodies that does not exist and serves to obfuscate a deeper understanding of how we move and feel.
I wrote a piece called Slow Yoga Revolution. The outpouring of camaraderie around a slower, simpler, and more attentive practice was remarkable. Seems like others are also getting over the allure of accomplishments and embracing the subtleties instead. For all those who find common sentiment there, I want to suggest that part of changing the dialogue around yoga practice requires becoming clearer about what we are saying to people. And not continuing to perpetuate myths.
So, I’m officially done with stretching. As far as I can tell, there really is no such thing. And even if someone can make an anatomical case to the contrary, the reasons why yoga practice makes people feel better encompass more than our ability to articulate physiology. In my experience, when my muscles slide long, when my body moves freely, when pain abates, it feels like a comforting release more than an intense sensation. Not like those two hard cords down the back of my legs being pulled taught, but rather the gentle caress of a loving hand that soothes my nerves. It feels like a softening. It feels safe. It has nothing to do with stretching.