If you take a rubberband with a knot in it and pull on each end, what happens?
It gets longer from end to end, but the knot in the middle gets tighter.
The typical body is filled with tension. The act of forcing bodies into exaggerated shapes not only drives the tension deeper in, but also tugs and tears at the tendons that attach the muscles to the bones, while pulling apart the ligaments that hold our skeleton together.
So if that’s what stretching is, it is really bad for you.
However, finding and releasing the tension you carry in the belly of your muscles is very good for you. We need a name for that to contrast it with stretching. What shall we call it for the purposes of this article? How about yoga?
I had a man work with me the other day, a great athlete, able to push himself further than most have tried, and a mutual friend recommended he explore yoga to help heal some old injuries.
He revealed the same background assumption that I started with, which is that yoga equals stretching, and we stretch because our muscles are short.
Stretching, I thought, was necessary because, like a sweater that had shrunk in the wash, my muscles had gotten too short, and I needed to pull on them to make them long again. To do this, I would have to go outside my comfort zone, tolerate the pain there, while waiting for the muscles to get stretched out. If for some reason I was satisfied at some point, I would be comfortable. Of course I am always tempted to stretch further, while grinning-and-bearing the tugging and tearing sensations that seem to indicate that I am making progress.
Let’s roll with that as the definition of stretching for now.
And now over to yoga.
The practice in yoga most similar to stretching would be part of a hatha practice. Hatha yoga has many pieces, including asana (postures), pranayama (breathing), dhyana (meditation). When people think of yoga as stretching, they are referring to the asana part of the hatha part of yoga.
Asana is defined as “comfortable stability in the body, free from tension, where we can meditate on limitlessness.” – Yoga Sutras of Patanjali, II.46 – II.47
From this definition we can see that asana is not going outside our comfort zone. Our job is to stay in a state of comfortable stability, not creating any tension, and meditating in each and every shape we can put ourselves in. The difference shows up most clearly at the edge of what we believe to be safe, where the body tends to lock up.
When stretching – we have an agenda to go further. We find the edge of our comfort, go just past it, and hang out there. I’ve noticed that when most people stretch, their breathing becomes erratic, their face contorts, and their muscles brace against the intense sensations they feel.
Ironically, this bracing against sensations is the cause of some of the muscular tension they are trying to relieve.
When practicing asana – we have no agenda. We find the edge of our comfort, but stay within our stability and the comfort that creates. A yogic pause to meditate in the gentle version of that shape builds trust in our subconscious mind that our ego is not attacking the body. Our body’s self-preservation stays relaxed, and the fear-based tension evaporates because we didn’t
When in yoga, our breathing is smooth, our face is peaceful, and our muscles are in a sweet balance of relaxed engagement. The sensations we feel are fascinating, inviting. There is nothing to brace against so the body tends to relax and open.
The relationship to sensation is extremely important as we get more flexible.
In the early days of our practice, if “feeling the pose” means “feeling discomfort,” what do we feel for once we have released the tension? Unfortunately for many, the only way to create that discomfort is by tearing the muscles.
I’d like to see a world where “feeling the pose” means “feeling blissful.”
I’ll add that relaxing tension is only a piece of the practice, and that it is best accompanied with a sweet engagement of the muscles. This is a much bigger topic, but in short:
In Star Wars terms: It’s using The Force, not using force.