If you have taken my classes, you will notice that many of the stretches I do are active as opposed to passive stretches. Just to clarify the language I am using here: when I refer to active stretching, I am describing, in this case, a stretch where we incorporate some muscle engagement in the muscle that is being stretched. This is not to be mistaken with an active stretch where we are activating the antagonist muscle (the muscle that contracts/ acts in opposition), which will automatically release the tension of the muscle we are looking to lengthen.
Taking into account that the stretch is executed with safe alignment and reasonable load, both passive and active stretching are viable options for a yoga practice - it all depends on what the expected outcome is. Yin yoga, for instance, where low- to mid-range stretches are held passively (without muscle engagement and often with the help of a prop) for a longer period of time, definitely has its benefits. A study in rats published in 2012 has shown that holding a passive stretch for longer periods of time can even lead to tissue reparation (Ok, the rats were not specifically doing Yin Yoga so we should look at this evidence in a Yin Yoga context with a certain level of discernment... ;-))
That being said, studies on active stretching have also concluded that this approach is beneficial for bone, tendon and fascia growth - even more than passive stretching for that matter.
In an active stretch, we are training our muscles to engage in their end range of motion. As we will see shortly, strength and flexibility are interconnected, and are very much driven by the nervous system
When a muscle is stronger, the nervous system tends to understand that it is resilient to greater stresses, i.e stretching. If we are in a deep, intense stretch (where we might have gone beyond the point where we can use the strength of our muscles to bring the joint back into neutral) our nervous system thinks: "Woah! I am perceiving a danger of potential damage to tissue or injury! I'm not going along with this." As a result, the muscles will contract in defense. If we are actually sustaining injury to our tissue, it is the nervous system that triggers the sensation of pain we might feel as a result.
If our body can move into a stretch and hold it with control and coordination, the nervous system sees this as safe and will be more likely to allow our joints to yield to this range of motion. This can even improve pain outcomes.
My teacher, Jason, made a great analogy during his last teacher training when asked about the benefits of active stretching:
Imagine that you have a non-stretch, tearable (weak) fabric. If you pull either side in opposite directions it won’t yield to this stress and change in length - in fact, chances are it will eventually begin to tear.
If, however, you do the same with an theraband or an elastic (strong) fabric, the material will resist the stretch and at the same time will accommodate this outer force and lengthen.
The same goes for our muscles: If you want more flexibility, you need to strengthen that area too.
For anyone looking to build a more sustainable range of motion, I highly recommend doing active stretches on a regular basis. The three stretches I show in the video below are just a few out of countless possibilities. Using the ground, a wall, a strap or theraband are all great options for building resistance and therefore engaging the muscles in your stretch.
Thanks for checking out my blog again! If you’d like to stay up to date on my next posts and teaching offerings, be sure to subscribe to my newsletter. Also, you can find my online teaching schedule here. I look forward to sharing my practice with you soon!