At first glance this may sound like a perverse question for a Yoga Teacher to ask, after all stretching is what we teach, right?
Yes, No, Maybe. The answer is more nuanced.
Stretching is thought to help loosen the body and give us more flexibility, and within Yoga there can be a cult of flexibility alas. However, the opposite of flexibility is rigidity and tension, and without rigidity and tension we would probably fall over every time we moved. Extreme flexibility has another name – it becomes a strain when we overstretch and overstress ligaments in an accident or ill-judged movement.
So, we need to approach flexibility with caution – we want it matched with strength as a start, and we want enough flexibility to allow us to move fully, easily and pain free, but without creating laxity and instability.
Sometimes the word “stretch” itself is unhelpful as it creates a goal driven approach to a range of movement for its own sake – a better term for what we do to the body’s tissues in Yoga could be “stress”, as in stressing them.
Within our bodies, not all tissues are created equally – soft tissue in our body ranges from muscle tissue which moves dynamically through to ligaments and tendons which have more of a connecting and stabilising function, making them susceptible to strain. It could be said that muscles like to stretch, and other tissues like to be stressed, although that is a little simplistic.
Moving away from the purely physical, a stretch in our muscle fibres can help release psychological stress and relax us via receptors in our muscles called “Golgi Tendon Organs” and a process known as the Reverse Stretch Reflex; so if we are tense and experiencing stress psychologically, some gentle stretching can help a lot; Yin Yoga, which I largely work with, is especially good at this, as it takes a slow, measured and controlled approach with support.
So, in summary, some stretch is good, but strength and rigidity have their place as well; the key is to be flexible where we need it and have rigidity elsewhere. Of course, this is Yin and Yang.
Finally, it should be said that this is quite a technical area, known as Biomechanics, although even the validity of this term is disputed at times on the grounds that it’s misleading to think of the human body as a machine. On a personal note I have over 1,000 hours of training as a Yoga Teacher, some of which was spent classroom based studying the properties of tissues, and some of which was spent in a dissection room exploring these tissues practically; paradoxically, and I know others who have found this, the more I learn, the less prescriptive I become, as there is so much human variation.
You can learn more about my Yoga Classes at www.yinspire.co.uk, where you can book a class and find out more about my studio in Brading, Isle of Wight.