The word yoga is derived from the Sanskrit (the ancient literary language of India) root word meaning “to yoke or join.” Yoga is an ancient Hindu ascetic philosophy that includes mental, physical, social, and spiritual components. Traditional yoga instruction involved a master teacher who passed his teachings on to his disciples through an integrated eightfold process called Ashtanga Yoga. The eightfold process includes:
- Yama—rules and restraints for productive living in society, such as being truthful.
- Niyama—self-rules governing cleanliness and personal contentment.
- Asana—physical exercises called postures.
- Pranayama—deep-breathing training.
- Pratihara—freeing the mind from the senses.
- Dharana—focused concentration on an object.
- Samadhi—cosmic meditation
Yoga, as initially intended, was a way of life and a way of being. As students progressed through the eight stages of training, they would liberate and control their life force (also known as chi), which was believed to be located in the spinal cord and vital organs.
There are several different types of yoga, each one focusing on different aspects of the eightfold process. Hatha is the type of yoga that most people are familiar with. It employs various stretching exercises called postures. They are designed to reduce muscle tension and facilitate a relaxed state of being that is conducive to meditation. However, one does not need to practice meditation to enjoy the benefits of reducing muscle tension that can be attained through hatha yoga exercises.
The type of stretching most similar to that used in hatha yoga is static stretching. Static stretching involves passively stretching a specific muscle by putting it into a maximally stretched state and holding it for an extended period. Recommendations for the length of holding time range from 6 to 60 seconds. 30 seconds is most often recommended as the optimal time to build up to. Many people interested in stretching perform hatha yoga postures without realizing they are doing so. Modern static stretching programs, designed to increase flexibility, draw many of their stretches from hatha yoga postures.
Much of the current interest in stretching has evolved in part from the desire to achieve maximum flexibility for athletic purposes. Flexibility can best be defined as the ability of a joint to move through its full range of motion. Flexibility has long been recognized as an essential component of fitness. Some athletic activities, such as gymnastics, ballet, and diving, require maximum flexibility.
Yoga and stretching work by taking advantage of the elastic properties of muscles and connective tissue such as ligaments and the tissue that encapsulates joints. Through systematic stretching of muscles and tissue, it is possible to lengthen muscles and loosen the connective tissue. This increases a joint’s range of motion. An additional advantage of stretching and yoga is the reduction of stress-related muscle tension. Through stretching, muscle tension that has built up as a result of chronic stress is released.
Yoga and stretching exercises are designed to be performed slowly and gently; therefore, you should not rush. Most yoga and stretching programs are not designed to develop cardiovascular fitness. Never force yourself beyond the point of pain. The old maxim, “No pain, no gain,” does not hold true in the practice of yoga, static stretching, or any physical activity. Always stretch to the point of tension (just short of but never to the point of pain) and then hold that position. Initially, hold the stretch for a count of ten seconds. In time you will find that you can stretch farther and hold it longer.
Do not bounce when you stretch and hold. This is called ballistic stretching. Ballistic stretching employs rapid and forceful bouncing movements designed to push resistant muscle tissue beyond its normal stretching point. These quick, forceful movements have been shown to be effective in stretching, but they can also injure your muscles, tendons, and ligaments. If the forces generated by the jerks, bounces, and pulls are greater than the tissue’s ability to extend; injury may result. When you are stretching and performing yoga, always breathe normally. Do not hold your breath and never lock your joints fully when extending your arms or legs. You should keep your knees and elbows slightly bent.
Don’t expect immediate results. It took you a lifetime to get this tight. It will take a few months to loosen up. You may also find that because of your body type you are never able to stretch as far as others can. This is normal. A key to success is to try to stretch to your personal limit. Beginners are advised to take an introductory class with a certified yoga instructor to learn correct body positioning.