Yoga and the Wisdom of Stretching
What, why and who are we stretching anyway?
What is a Good Stretch?
When I ask students what they’d like to do in class today, I often get the answer. “I’d just like to have a good stretch.” Although those who’ve been coming to class a while know that I am rather averse to using the word stretching. Being hypermobile myself, I’m wary of stretching; for us, it can cause more harm than good. And, as a yoga teacher, I’ve seen people injure themselves from stretching in a mechanical way. Lengthening, releasing, softening, melting, undoing and unwinding… are words that speak more softly to my muscles. This gentler, more curious approach lets my muscles know that I’m creating a safe space for them to let go of deeply held tension.
Definitions of Stretching
“To go as far or past the usual limit”
“To cause something to reach, often as far as possible, in a particular direction.”
Oxford English Dictionary
Looking at the above definitions, you can see why I don’t love the word stretch. It literally encourages an action that goes beyond our limits. As a hyper mobile person, I’ve definitely gone down the road of stretching things too far, stretching myself too thin and overdoing things, resulting in muscle weakness and pain.
Common Mistakes in Stretching
Here are some mistakes I’ve made during my 34 years of yoga practice:
I’ve mindlessly stretched muscles and fascial tissues that were already long, rather than strengthening them. At this time I had an “if it hurts, stretch it” type of attitude. This weakened the muscles further and made my joints even less stable and vulnerable to injury. This is a common mistake that hypermobile students make.
I’ve addictively stretched muscles so much that I tore some of the connective tissue fibres that attach the muscle to the bone. Stretch can feel so good on many levels - until it doesn’t. This is a common yoga injury caused by enthusiastic forward bending, called hamstring attachment injury.
I’ve tried to “fix” or lengthen tight muscles resulting in causing myself muscle spasms, which immobilised me for three days and nights with a pain worse than childbirth. So this is an extreme case, but do be aware of the stretch reflex. If your muscles feel they're being stretched too much they will contract, quite violently causing cramps or spasms.
Don’t Aim to Fix It
Mindless stretching; addictive stretching and a “fix it” attitude to stretching can create more harm than good. The third mistake might take you by surprise, we see stretching as therapeutic and it is, just maybe not how you might think. What I’ve realised is that fixing things with stretching doesn’t usually work. I’ve found it more helpful to turn my attention to what areas need to strengthen and what areas need to release (a different quality to stretch). However, different bodies need different approaches, which will reveal themselves to the owner of the body as they practise with attention and interoceptive awareness. This quality of turning our attention inwards to listen to the subtle messages of the body is known as interoception in modern science and pratyahara (withdrawal of the senses) in yoga.
Our aim in yoga is to abide by the key ethical principle of ahimsa which means “nonviolence”, or “to minimise harm”. However, we are influenced very strongly by our culture and society, which is built upon principles that create an enormous amount of harm. Hierarchy, oppression and domination are rampant, resulting in poverty, ill-health and addiction. We have a culture of deferring to authority, believing that experts know better than us about our bodies and what they need. This means we are prone to slavishly following diet, exercise and yoga regimes that create more harm than good. Practising yoga holistically enables us to step out of our harmful culture and embody a different way of being, even if just for an hour so per week. Practising with ahimsa encourages us to bring more nuance and sensitivity to our practice. We explore ways of listening to, learning from and collaborating with the body rather than treating it as a beast of burden, that should be in better shape.
The Body as a Machine
The “heads, shoulders, knees and toes” song of primary education, through to the diagrams of the human body (muscles delineated with actions and labels) have led us to take a mechanistic view of our body. We have a vague sense that we comprise of a framework of bones, and the muscles pull on the bones and make them move in certain ways, like a complicated puppet. The body is likened to a machine and the mind to a computer that commands this machine, that pulls the strings. It’s all distinct, precise, ordered, mathematical. It all adds up, it all makes sense. And in the clinical atmosphere of the cadaver lab, it might seem that way. Yet in a breathing, walking, conscious human… things are very different.
The Body as a Network of Living Systems
Our bodies may be more helpfully viewed as a network, a collection of collaborative, conscious, living systems. In yoga, there is more of an appreciation of the interweaving of the mind and body which comes from the kosha model, which was first described in written form in the Taittiriya Upanishad. Upanishad is a Sanskrit word that means “to sit at the feet of.” The Upanishads are a collection of teachings from ancient Vedic sages, yogis and Indian mystics, compiled around the 6th century AD. This text describes humans as having five sheaths that interleave each other with the outer layer being the physical body and the inner layer being the bliss body. This holistic model is used extensively by yoga teachers and therapists, being almost as popular as the chakra system.
If we follow the logic of the kosha model, when we are stretching our physical bodies annamayakosha, we are making more space for, prana, (our breath and vital energy) to flow through the pranamayakosha. We sense this as wave-like motions associated with the breath, causing a deeper unwinding of the physical body. As all the koshas or sheaths, interleave and intertwine with each other and are all imbued by conscious awareness, it follows that we are also stretching the mental parts of our being. These reside in the third and fourth koshas, the everyday more automatic or habitual thinking or our “mentality” sheath manomayakosha; and our deeper, more discerning thinking, the “wisdom” sheath: vigyanamayakosha.
The Wisdom of Stretching
Many yoga practitioners observe that stretching has the effect of creating more space around our thoughts, an expansion of our mentality. Our thinking mind (manas) becomes quieter and more spacious as we stretch and mindfully release the long-held tensions in our tissues. The consequence of this is that we are more open to new ways of thinking, more attuned to the wiser, clearer part of the mind. This part of the mind is known as the buddhi (the discerning mind) and is associated with the wisdom sheath, the vigyanamayakosha. In this way, we become more able to tune into our bodies and make better judgements, to move with more knowledge, kindness and sensitivity towards the body.
The Bliss of Stretching
Stretching the body with a focus on the breath, in this thoughtful, wise manner enables us to touch upon the innermost kosha, anandamayakosha - the bliss body. Many yoga students will know this as the floaty, relaxed “all is well with the world” type of feeling that we feel as we progressively release and relax tensions in the yoga postures (asana). We might become aware of this kosha in the final asana of our practice: savasana, the corpse pose. This asana is an invitation to drop into stillness and space. Within this stillness, we move our awareness from the surface physical body, through the sheaths of breath energy, mentality and wisdom to a place of deep rest, contentment and bliss. Savasana can be both the most challenging of postures, and the most simple and profound.
Underuse of the Body
Physical, mental and emotional pain are now at epic levels. My feeling is that this is a consequence of our refusal to pay attention to the wisdom of the body. Our lives are geared toward the body being restricted and moving less. We are endlessly stuck in shoes, chairs, cars and sofas, yet our physical bodies thrive more readily in a more living natural environment. Rather than climbing trees, scrabbling through bushes and walking over diverse and uneven terrain, we navigate flat concrete, uniform stairs and straight corridors. We rarely get the chance to use the full range of motion our bodies are capable of. It’s a real treat for the body to get to dance, crawl, climb and roll about. If we don’t move in this way, on a regular basis, even reaching up to pick a bag from a luggage rack can pose a challenge for us, as our body wisdom is so underutilised.
Stretching as a Listening Practice
Yoga, stretching and conscious movement in general, all help to nourish the body, just as wise words nourish the soul. There are many many ways to stretch… finding the right one for you is key. Let your body decide what is right, not your mind or your ego. Above all don’t let “the experts” decide what is right for you. Yes, you can take their advice, try their ideas and experiment. Yet remember, you are totally unique. No one knows your body like you. You are the expert in the subject of you, take the time to look inwards, practise pratyahara to discover what you really need.
Explore and Be Kind
I’d recommend viewing any instruction or exercise as an idea that you can explore in your own way. Try going slower, stay within a comfortable range of motion, and be sure to be kind and respectful to your body. Bossing the body about is the mentality we want to leave behind. Try collaborating, testing out, maybe even exploring new movements that you invent for yourself. Let kindness and comfort be your guide. In this way, you’ll be creating a safe and welcoming space for the body and its musings; a space where you can listen to your body, with a deep respect for all its wonderful, wise, messy, sensitive, intuitive and sensual glory.
"It is no measure of health to be well adjusted to a profoundly sick society."
If you would like to explore a kinder way of moving, particularly if you are carrying stress, experiencing aches and pains, then you might like to try one of my online Zoom yoga classes. They’re gentle and accessible classes suitable for most people who have some experience of a movement practice. You don’t need to do any thing I suggest that you don’t find comfortable or enjoyable. You do need to have your camera on though, so I can see your movement.
You can find out more and book here.
Please note, if funds are an issue, then do email me, we can work something out for sure.
Every Monday I run a Free Online Meditation at 8am UK time. Start your week by deepening your breath and balancing your nervous system. You can book your spot here.
Please note: this article represents my current thinking, which is imperfect and ever-evolving as I continue to learn and teach. We gain so much from listening to each other. Please do feel free to challenge me, correct me, comment, reflect and explore and share in the comments section. Please adhere to the principle of ahimsa nonviolence as we discuss. Let’s collaborate and find answers to the problems we face, both individually and collectively.
With love and good wishes, from Julia xx