Looking from the outside-in, yoga and stretching can look one of the same, however, to truly understand and appreciate the practises (and the gains you can get from both in your running) we’ll have down-dog-dive-in.
Yoga and stretching both works and engage the entire body, they can have similar goals however, the similarities end here.
Aims of the practice
Yoga is an ancient Indian tradition based on mental physical and spiritual practices. It’s aimed at stilling the mind (or mindfulness as it were). Yoga had a few basic principles dating back to c. 4th century BCE with developments through the generations (and centuries). They are:
- A meditation discovering dysfunctional perception and cognition. Overcoming that to release any suffering and find inner peace.
- Expansion of consciousness from oneself – everything no everyone is an extension.
- On a path of omniscience (path to know everything) with the ability and capacity to comprehend many varying forms of reality.
- A technique to attain supernatural accomplishments.
However, yoga can be and has been, westernised into two categories:
- Yoga as therapy – a stronger focus on asana postures. Gentle exercise and relaxation to help improve health. The calming music, imagery, breath work and meditation elements focused on relieving stress.
- Yoga as exercise – its primary focus is flexibility, functional suppleness, strength, balance and support of the participant. This is done with compound movements usually involving more than one area or ‘muscle’ of the body. Which makes it more westernised than the traditional Hindu spiritual practice. – This is probably the closest to stretching you will see.
Stretching is stretching. Its manipulating joint position to elongate a muscle to mechanically relieve muscle shortness, part of injury rehabilitation and/or relieve muscle soreness. Like the gym, we can focus on one muscle group at a time and work in isolation to ‘target’ one specific area, rather than a compound movement (like yoga). Functionality is yoga, ‘focus’, is stretching.
Frankly, anyone can stretch, likewise, anyone can also practise yoga. Yet it is the journey of poses, the development of mind-body connection (which can take years) to master advanced poses. Simply because strength, focus and openness are required.
For Yoga, its method of movement, length of time in a pose, and mindfulness element all centralise around your breath. Deep ‘belly breathing’ suppresses the sympathetic nervous system (your fight/flight response) and invites you to relax. It’s part of the spiritual, mindfulness element of yoga practise – seeing your mind and body as one. Essentially, Yoga pose ‘success’ can differ day to day, even differ throughout times of day! If mentally you are not ‘present’ forget about the pose pal!
Whereas stretching is pretty clinical. Holding for seconds count rather than using breathe to ‘melt’ into a pose (and more often than not, get deeper into it too). Stretching is based on science. Factual. You hold a static stretch for 30 seconds, 3 sets. For 6 weeks and you will see results. Its reliable.
There is something poetic about yoga asana. There is a rhythm, ebb and flow. Your breath controls the movement, and that effortless links one pose to another, even working one side of the body to the other drifts in a dream-like state – your body is in control of you, you’re not in control of your body. – A pigeon pose can target, glutes, quadriceps, gastroc and hip flexor in one pose – it opens the entire hip complex; Even involving the lower back too – in one movement.
A stretch routine can have a flow, don’t get me wrong but there is a mechanical approach to it. Starting with the most used muscles, of that session belt glutes, hamstrings, quadriceps and then finishing with the gastrocnemius and soleus for example. It’s fidgety. Whether up and down into glute, then hamstring then quadricep stretch position or rolling from face down to face up to target specific muscles.
Which one would be more enjoyable for You?
‘I can’t do yoga I’m not bendy enough’ I’m sorry, that excuse doesn’t fly anymore. The differing yoga types can get overwhelming! And there is something for everyone, without a shadow of a doubt. Yoga is for everyone. It doesn’t ask you to be something you are not, just to show up for yourself. You can have a relaxing yin session or a challenging power yoga sesh. Recover with restorative sessions or keep active with sun salutations. Every session will change, and help you.
The prescriptive stretch session can be pretty dull and no matter what your ability, a hamstring stretch will always be a hamstring stretch. The science journals and experiments (where we get the facts from) rely on data so things need to be the same session each time to measure the success rate. Incidentally, you will get the exact-same gain as a super flexible person doing the same stretch. No matter where your head is at – perfect for performance, a reliable, scientifically proven practice that almost guarantees results.
An athletes dream?
Ultimately, I think when choosing between stretching or yoga, decide what your goals of the practice is. If you want to add an extra workout (light or strenuous) to your training that focuses on breathing, strength, and balance for example, then opt for yoga. However, If you want to improve performance with regimented training, return after an injury, or improve specific, targeted flexibility in a particular area of the body, stretching is the better option.