When I first stepped on my yoga mat and started practicing yoga, I quickly noticed a big difference in my flexibility. And indeed almost a decade later, I am much more flexible than I was when I first started. And so a normal question to wonder is whether yoga is just stretching.
The physical practice of yoga does involve a great deal of stretching, which means that in the long term you will most likely see an improvement in your flexibility. However, this is just a small part, or more correctly, just a little bit of what yoga can really offer.
So if you want to become more flexible then yoga will be perfect for you.
But there is more to it than that.
Even though yoga is now well known for its poses, they were not the focus of yoga in ancient India. Fitness was not even the main goal. Far from it! Yoga practitioners focused instead on other practices, such as expanding spiritual energy using breathing methods and mental focus.
It is important to point out that what is practiced as yoga nowadays does differ from what was practiced 2000 years ago in India.
Many things have been tailored to our modern lives.
Yes ok, yoga can be taught in different ways. Some yoga classes may be more strongly anchored on the physical side of yoga, where the teacher may not be aware or even interested to see further than that.
For the purpose of this article, I will try to present the various factors that are may be present in a more ‘complete’ yoga class:
As yoga practitioners, our practice tends to involve a great deal of muscle stretching exercises. These may be in the form of dynamic stretching (such as in a Power yoga class) or more static stretching (such as in a yin yoga class).
And there are a lot of benefits to this.
Indeed, flexibility is an important component not only of physical fitness but also of normal human function. Flexibility allows the tissue to accommodate stress, and to improve the efficiency of movement. This, in turn, helps minimize or even prevent injury.
Without stretching, our muscles shorten and become tight. This restricts our range of movement, which increases the likelihood of joint pain, strains, and muscle damage. Indeed, limited flexibility has been shown to be the cause of musculoskeletal injuries and lower back problems. And so it’s no wonder that yoga has many benefits for athletes.
For example, studies have found that people with chronic low back pain tend to also have tight muscles in the lower spine and also tight hamstrings. And this is one of the main reasons yoga is prescribed to people with lower back pain.
And so yoga classes tend to involve many yoga exercises that help stretch out the entire body. With regular yoga practice, these yoga stretches can help our overall health in a great way. Just notice how you’re feeling after a yoga session. You may experience some muscle stiffness, however, if you develop a yoga routine, you will notice a positive effect on your wellbeing.
Yoga is also referred to as a bodyweight exercise. What this means is that during our practice, we are supporting our body weight. This can be on our feet, like in warrior poses where the front leg is gaining muscle strength by holding us in that position.
Another example of this is the plank position. Our arms and core hold up the weight of our bodies. Repeated throughout practice and over time this will help improve our strength.
During the more physically demanding practices, such as Ashtanga, Vinyasa, and Power Yoga we are constantly lifting our own body weight and engaging our core throughout the practice. Over time, this will help build muscle as a consistent practice will strengthen and tone muscles all over the body.
A study carried out in the US in 2004 involved 26 participants between the ages of 20 and 58, who were subscribed to six weeks of regular yoga. They were split into two groups; those who practiced Hatha yoga and those who practiced Ashtanga. The results showed that people in both groups showed an improvement in core and upper body strength. Perhaps not surprisingly, better results were seen with Ashtanga yoga, given that it is a more physically demanding practice.
Something worth pointing out is that in the above study, the Ashtanga group also showed a decrease in their perceived stress levels.
Yogic breathing can be considered as the foundation of our yoga practice. And even just this factor alone differentiates yoga from just a stretching exercise.
Each yoga class begins with a focus on the breath.
It is interesting to point out that for most people when first instructed on how to breathe in a yoga class, we realize how shallow our breath is. We have a tendency to breathe into the upper chest and this way misses out on the depth of the breath. Or, we breathe into the belly and don’t allow the rib cage to expand, and this way we miss out on the height of the breath.
And you might now be wondering: why would I want to improve my breathing?
Well, taking deep breaths and allowing air to go into the lower lungs is important for delivering oxygen to the blood. But also this way we turn on the parasympathetic receptors which result in our heart rate slowing down and our adrenal glands slowing the production of stress hormones. And this is one of the reasons why we feel calm after a yoga class.
Regardless of the yoga practice, regardless of how easy or difficult we find the pose, the one thing we want to keep steady is the breath. And not just any breath. A breath that is smooth, steady, and evenly balanced.
The gaze, or drishti as is more commonly known in the Ashtanga community, is one further part of a yoga practice that also sets it apart from any other physical practice.
It is very easy to get distracted in a yoga class. The people, the sounds, the lights, the person next to you that is much more flexible than you even though you have been practicing for much longer..! And this is where the drishti really does help make our practice a personal practice, even when in a room full of people.
Our drishti helps us block out external distractions and deepen our practice by directing our attention inward. A steady gaze on a still point helps us become fully present in the moment.
In Ashtanga yoga, each asana has an associated drishti point as is further explained below.
|Nasagra Drishti||Tip of the nose||Upward facing dog|
|Hastagram Drishti||The hands or tips of the fingers||Trikonasana|
|Parsva Drishti, Left and Right Side||The left or right side of us||In yoga poses involving twists|
|Urdhva Drishti||Look upward or outward||Virhabadrasana (warrior B)|
|Nabhi Chakra Drishti||The navel||Downward facing dog|
|Padayoragram Drishti||Our feet or the tips of our toes||Most forward bends|
|Bhrumadhya Drishti||The middle of the brow at the third eye centre||Commonly during meditation practice|
A combination of drishti and steady breathing really does help anchor our thoughts and help us take our focus away from the often noisy, internal mind.
This, in turn, helps us achieve sense withdrawal, which taken a step further could mean to accept the fact that external stimuli can never truly fulfil us. And so our yoga practice is guiding us to a place where we realize that what we were desperately looking for on the outside was present inside all along.
Last but certainly not least is yoga philosophy. Aside from the physical practice of yoga which is what most people often think of when they hear the word yoga, this practice has an incredibly rich history and philosophy associated with it.
If you are lucky you will find a yoga teacher who may tap into the richness of yoga philosophy. And of course, there are teachers who have dedicated their lives to teaching yoga philosophy and most have written books on the topic. If this is something that interests you, I may write an article recommending yoga philosophy books to help take your practice off the mat.
For now though, we will take a little look at what yoga philosophy may offer.
The Yoga Sutras of Patanjali, are widely regarded as the authoritative text on yoga. They were written almost 2000 years ago and are a collection of aphorisms, outlining the eight limbs of yoga.
Sutra in Sanskrit means thread, and so these threads of wisdom offer guidelines for living a meaningful and purposeful life.
Perhaps the most famous sutra of all is:
Yogas chitta vritti nirodha
It means that yoga is the removal of the fluctuations of the mind. Our thoughts and feelings are no more to us than the waves are the ocean.
Yoga is the stilling of the mind until it is able to rest in a state of tranquility. This way, one experiences life as it truly is.
Patanjali instructs us to experience life through the clearest of lenses. Lenses that are not tainted by thoughts of good or bad, better or worse, old or new, mine or yours. When the fluctuations of the mind are totally removed, we are at one with everything and all that is.
Our yoga practice is there to calm the fluctuations of the body, breath, and senses. In the stillness we create, we’re able to recognize the unhealthiness of our limited and self-limiting identity. What remains, Patanjali concludes, is the self, able to exist in its true essence.
What is the difference between different types of yoga?
As briefly touched on above, some yoga practices may be more dynamic than others. For example, Ashtanga, Vinyasa, and Power yoga are all physically demanding practices. Hatha tends to be less physically demanding and may work more on static stretches. This really does depend on the teacher and the students present in the class.
Yin yoga is a static practice that focuses on stretching the connective tissue and helps increase flexibility. Restorative yoga is a very gentle practice that involves the use of bolsters, blocks, and blankets to help the body rest in calming and therapeutic positions.
For a more detailed guide to the different types of yoga, you may like my article: Beginner’s Guide To The Popular Types Of Yoga And Their Benefits
How do I choose the right class for me?
What I recommend to new students and what I did when I first started yoga is this. Google “yoga + your town”. See what is available and try out several yoga studios, teachers, and classes. Most studios offer free tester classes. Hopefully, you will find a yoga studio/teacher/class or a combination that is perfect for you.