As a fitness enthusiast and formerly certified personal trainer, I often hear people talk about their fitness routines and what they do to stay healthy. However, there’s one misconception that comes up now and then, which is this idea that yoga and stretching are the same thing. I mean, sure, yoga and stretching both involve bending your body, but that’s like saying running and walking are the same because they both involve moving your feet.
In reality, there’s a whole lot more to yoga than turning yourself into a pretzel, so let’s dive into yoga vs stretching to discern the difference between these two very different practices – and which you should incorporate into your fitness regime.
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What is Yoga?
Yoga is a holistic and spiritual practice originating from India. From a physical health standpoint, yoga does a whole lot more than improve flexibility. Studies show it can reduce stress, improve mental health, and even mitigate chornic pain.
Practicing yoga involves performing various physical postures (called asanas) that help enhance strength, flexibility, and balance. It also involves learning the proper breathing technique (called pranayama), a deep diaphragmatic breath that is linked with each movement. Meditation and mindfullness are also a big part of a traditional yoga practice.
Although yoga workouts are popularized in the West as a trendy and effective way to exercise, traditional yoga is about so much more than the physical; it’s about deeper spiritual connection between the mind, body, and spirit.
Types of Yoga
Some of the most popular types of yoga include Hatha, Vinyasa, Ashtanga, Bikram, and Restorative yoga. Hatha yoga is a slower-paced, gentle type of yoga that is good for beginners. Vinyasa yoga is a faster-paced, flowing type of yoga with a strong emphasis on breath with movement. (Vinyasa is my personal favorite!)
Ashtanga yoga is a rigorous and challenging form of yoga that requires a lot of strength and flexibility. Bikram yoga, also known as hot yoga, is done in a room that is heated to around 105°F, which can help increase flexibility.
Restorative yoga is a gentle and relaxing type of yoga that involves long-held poses designed to help reduce stress and improve flexibility.
How to Get Started with Yoga
Starting a yoga practice is relatively easy in that there isn’t much equipment involved. You’ll want to invest in a quality yoga mat, (I highly recommend the BMat or Gorilla Mat) but most other yoga gear (such as straps, blocks, and bolsters) are optional and can be substituted with household items.
As far as the type of yoga to practice, Hatha yoga is a great style for beginners. When you get familiar with the poses, you can consider looking into Vinyasa and Ashtanga yoga styles for a more fast-paced and challenging workout.
Restorative yoga is a good option if you want to focus on deep stretches, relaxation, and meditation.
I also recomment you find a yoga class or instructor near you. Even if you plan on doing yoga at home, taking a few classes with yoga instructors wil help you build a foundation for your practice and teach you how to perform the poses properly.
Start off with a few staple poses, such as downward dog, plank, child’s pose, and mountain pose. (Sun salutations are a great sequence to start yoga class with!) These poses will help you get acquainted with the practice and build you up for the more advanced poses.
From there, make a point to practice yoga regularly. Even if you can only spare a few minutes a day, practicing yoga consistently will help you see the benefits of the practice and improve over time.
The Benefits of Yoga
As someone who has been practicing yoga for over a decade, I can personally attest to the countless benefits it has provided for me, both physically and mentally. Here are some of the benefits you can expect:
Improves Flexibility, Mobility, and Stability
With regular practice, you can improve your flexibility, mobility, and stability by challenging different muscle groups and joints. Some of my favorite poses, like warrior 3, wheel, and eight-angle pose, require balance and lots of core strength training, which can help you to develop overall body control muscle and coordination.
Reduces Stress and Anxiety
One of the things I love most about yoga is that it’s not just a physical exercise but also an exercise for the mind. With regular practice, yoga helps achieve a sense of calm and relaxation.
Breathing techniques and being present in the moment can reduce stress and anxiety levels. I almost alway leave a yoga practice feeling happier than when I starte. (Sometimes I feel downright blissed out!)
Not only does yoga have physical and mental health benefits, but it can also increase your confidence! For example, I find achieving new poses is incredibly empowering. One of my favorite experiences was when I finally achieved eight-angle pose after months of practice.
It felt amazing to see tangible results and know that my hard work had paid off. Yoga requires a lot of patience and dedication, and when you finally achieve a new pose or even hold a pose for a little longer than before, it can boost your confidence and motivate you to face other challenges in your life with newfound confidence.
Yoga can also help build strength. Certain poses, such as Chaturanga, Warrior 2, and Boat, are real muscle shredders! As you progress in your fitness levels and your practice, you can modify your yoga poses to be more challenging.
What is Stretching?
Stretching, is a similar exercises but much less complex in nature and is primarily focused on improving flexibility and range of motion. It involves moving your body in ways that stretch your muscles and connective tissues.
Types of Stretching
The two primary types of stretching are dynamic and static. Dynamic stretching involves movement and is often done as a warm-up before exercise. It helps to loosen muscles and get your blood flowing, preparing your body for physical activity.
Static stretching has you holding a stretch for a period of time, which helps to cool down your body and reduce muscle tension after exercise.
There is also something called proprioceptive neuromuscular facilitation (PNF) stretching, which is a technique that involves contracting and then relaxing a muscle group while it is being stretched, resulting in a deeper stretch. Another technique called ballistic stretching involves bouncing into a stretch, which is meant to push you beyond your normal range of motion.
However, these last two methods can be risky, and I wouldn’t recommend you try them without the guidance of a physical therapist.
The Benefits of Stretching
Stretching alone without the yoga aspects is still plenty beneficial to your health in a variety of ways:
Primes You for a Workout
Stretching – particularly dynamic stretching – gets your blood flowing and improves your range of motion before you start lifting weights or breaking into a run. Dynamic stretches involve movements that utilize full range of motion to increase blood flow and loosen up the muscles and joints, preparing them for the workout ahead.
An example of a short warm-up involving dynamic stretches would be 30 seconds each of high knees, jumping jacks, arm circles, toe taps, and butt kicks.
Cools You Down Post-Workout
After a workout, static stretches help stretch muscles throughout the entire body to gradually cool down and reduce muscle tension and mitigate post-workout muscle stiffness. These stretches involve holding a stretch for a longer period of time, allowing the muscles to relax and recover after they have been put to work.
Improves Flexibility and Mobility
Like yoga, stretching exercises can also improve your flexibility and mobility, making it easier to go about your daily activities. You’ll find there is a lot of crossover between yoga poses and flexibility stretches. (For instance, forward fold is basically touching your toes.)
Stimulates the Parasympathetic Nervous System
The Parasympathetic nervous system, or PSNS, is an essential part of our body’s inner workings is all about relaxation, tissue repair, and digestion. When we engage in some gentle stretches, we give our PSNS a friendly nudge, helping it balance out the stress response from its counterpart, the sympathetic nervous system.
As we stretch, our body releases endorphins and neurotransmitters, creating a calming atmosphere of tranquility.
How to Incorporate Stretching into Your Routine
Sometimes it’s tough to find the time to stretch daily, but the good news is it doesn’t take long to reap the benefits. Stretch before and after your workouts for 3-5 minutes, and try to take 5 minutes in the morning when you first get up to stretch.
Begin with a few easy stretches and slowly work your way up to more challenging ones. A few of the most effective stretches include calf, hamstring, hip flexor, and neck stretches.
Proper breathing is an essential part of stretching, so make sure to breathe deeply and slowly, inhaling through the nose and releasing your breath through the mouth.
Here’s a simple stretching routine for beginners that can be incorporated into any other workouts in your daily routine.
- Start with a few deep breaths, inhaling through your nose and exhaling through your mouth. This will help you relax and focus on your stretching.
- Lunge forward with your right foot, keeping your left leg straight behind you. Place your hands on your hips and feel the stretch in your hip flexors. Hold for 30 seconds and then switch to your left leg.
- Stand up with your arms spread out to the side. Keeping your arms outstretched, reach your left hand down toward your right foot until you’re touching the toe (or as close as you can get to it). Hold for 30 seconds and repeat on the opposite side.
- Lift both arms straight above your head, then bend the elbow of your left arm and grap it with your right hand. Gently pull your elbow to the right until you feel a good stretch and hold for 30 seconds. Repeat with the opposite side.
By following this simple routine, you will begin to see the many aforementioned benefits within a couple of weeks. Just remember to breathe deeply and focus on each stretch 30-60 seconds each for maximum effectiveness.
Yoga vs Stretching: Conclusion
While signficantly different practices, yoga and stretching can both have a beneficial impact on your overall health, emotional wellness, and well-being. In both cases, it is important to start slowly, be patient, and remain consistent in your practice.
Regular practice of yoga or stretching can help you feel more energized, relaxed, and focused throughout the day, while reducing the risk of injury. So, go ahead and start reaching for those toes!