I think back to the time I used to practice Ashtanga yoga almost everyday. There was a set sequence of poses we had to do. These poses had to go in the correct order to prepare our bodies or run the risk of injury. Some of you may have practiced Ashtanga yoga, so you’ll recognize the progressive sequence I’m about to detail.
I remember practicing Sun Salutation A, then Sun Salutation B. After a few more poses, I would prepare for Eka Pada Padangusthasana A, B and C. That’s the pose where you stand on one leg, lift your second knee upwards, grab your big toe with your fingers and lengthen your bent leg all the way.
Then, I’d keep gripping onto my toe as I swept my hovering leg from the front to the side my grip was on. I felt the intense stretch in my hamstring, but I didn’t feel flexible enough for to hold on that long before pain would creep in. Before I knew it, it was time to slowly swing my hyper-stretched leg back to the front. Now, it was time to release my grip of the big toe that was trying to escape this whole agonizing experience.
Once my big toe freed itself from my iron grip, the practice was not over. Now, my stretched out leg had to remain hovering on its own. It had to elongate, lift and remain as high as I had forced it to. My quad was burning and I wished that my “bandha” was a little more stronger than this.
There was no way for my unassisted leg to stay at that height. Slowly, it lowered down several degrees as my then-teacher gave me words of encouragement. “Very good. Practice and all is coming,” she said as she walked away to monitor another student.
“Very good. Practice and all is coming,” she said as she walked away to monitor another student.
In retrospect, this was an example of practicing a pose passively and actively.
Why wasn’t this the case for the remainder of the sequence? It was so much harder to practice a pose without the assistance of myself or my teacher. I actually began to notice this difficulty in most Vinyasa-based yoga classes. There aren’t many poses being cued actively in traditional yoga. The majority of postures are cued to be practiced passively.
In fact, the term “Fullest Expression of the Pose” somehow came about and programmed so many students to push themselves into deeper passive stretches.
If all you do is practice yoga poses with mostly passive stretches and minimal active stretches, then can an imbalance occur? If you do so much of one thing and too little of other, what does your inner truth think?
What You Can Gain After Reading This Blog
After you read what Passive and Active Stretching is, you can gain a whole new world of options for your personal yoga practice. Whether you’re practicing yoga at home or in the studio, you will now have the ability to tailor your approach to a pose based on what you’ve done with your body so far and what your current intention is.
The great part about reading this blog is that you will gain tools you can apply right away. You can begin experimenting with the sensations in your body, noticing what groups of muscles get engaged and how it impacts the performance of your other body parts.
Before I go “deep” into it, let’s go over a quick overview of your internal anatomy and how this ties into your asana practice.
WHAT’S INSIDE YOUR BODY
Inside your body, you have veins, arteries, nerves, connective tissues, fascia, muscle and all sorts of fluids flowing about. There are entire systems, each designed to handle specific tasks while overlapping and working in conjunction with other systems’ tasks. In addition, you have neurological systems and biomechanics.
What allows your body to move is the system of muscles, ligaments, connective tissues and fascia. They’re connected to your bones while your fascia is intricately weaved in and around your muscles. Inevitably, your bones connect to a joint. While some joints allow your limb to move in a nearly 360 degree rotation (i.e. your shoulders and hips), others only allow your parts to hinge in one direction (your knees and elbows).
The entire network of inner and outer tissues are held in place because of the awesome architecture of your anatomy. But, it’s your nervous system that sounds the alarm if your joints and limbs are moving past a safe range. So, your nervous system is there to work with your tissues and signal when your muscles should contract and when they should stop (like when you’ve reached the end of your safe range of motion). These pain signals include a dull or sharp sensation.
Your nervous system is really complex and there’s times when it can be overprotective, but for the sake of this article I will stick to the basics of what it does.
PASSIVE STRETCHING IN YOGA
Passive stretching (or passive range of motion) involves no engagement of your muscle tissues. It involves using a force outside of the actual intended mover. Common examples include your hand grabbing your foot to move it higher up a point, grabbing a yoga strap to force your leg to rise higher, using your elbow to cause a deeper spinal twist, gravity to fold your upper body over in Pigeon Pose or experiencing a teacher pushing your body part to move past its natural range of motion.
THE PROS OF PASSIVE STRETCHING
Passive stretching feels great. It sometimes alleviates a discomfort for a period of time. It’s associated with flexibility, which can be very appealing to people on social media.
THE CONS OF PASSIVE STRETCHING
Your body doesn’t really learn how to adopt the new range of motion when it is forced by other means. Without adequate strength in the surrounding muscles, there is a higher risk of injury the deeper you go. Without adequate strength, you can lose neurological control of your movement in those end ranges of motion. Your joints can become unstable, ligaments can lengthen and bones can grind against sockets with the increased laxity. Hyperflexible people have little control in those positions and have to do much more strength training to regain it.
ACTIVE STRETCHING IN YOGA
Active stretching (or active range of motion) occurs when you use your innate strength. Your muscles around the targeted area engage, giving assistance to your movement. Your nervous system kicks in when your movement becomes unstable, shaky or risky. At that point, your body has found its true end range of motion.
Examples of active stretching include using the sole strength of your hip flexors and glutes to bring your bent knee up during Tree Pose. Your bent knee and rising foot slide up the side of your inner standing leg until your nervous system and tissues stop. Another example is practicing a seated spinal twist without using your elbow to deepen the stretch. Your torso and thoracic spine (upper spine) stops at a certain degree.
THE PROS OF ACTIVE STRETCHING
The connection between the nerves and the muscles can strengthen. The connection between your brain and this body region can also strengthen. Input from active stretching provides new information that can stimulate your mind-body and encourage it to function on a new level.
Your mobility can increase. When your muscles accomplish something new, it can move better. This may also mean that your flexibility can improve to the degree that complements your mobility.
Active stretching can be beneficial in preparing for day-to-day activities. It can keep your joints safe and stable while allowing you to reduce injury. It can also protect you from unexpected sudden movements you may have to make.
THE CONS OF ACTIVE STRETCHING
Active versions of stretching doesn’t go as far as passive versions. It doesn’t look as appealing on social media (although there is a growing trend shifting away from hyperflexibility towards general health and safety). You may feel negative that your body isn’t able to do more than you had hoped.
Active stretching may not instantly reduce discomfort or pain, so people may become impatient with consistently doing them over time. People may have to continue doing Active Stretching/Ranges of Motion for months to years before a long-term reduction of chronic pain can happen. If folks feel like passive stretching is good for the short term, or if they don’t feel pain right away from pushing past their “edge” during a yoga pose they may ignore the need to balance it out with Active range of motion.
PASSIVE AND ACTIVE VERSIONS OF YOGA POSES
On the left, you can see that I am using my hand to pull my foot up to my groin area. On the right, you can see that my heel ends up lower without assistance.
You can see here with “passive” Pigeon Pose that I have used gravity to pull my torso down towards the ground. In the “active” version, I have engaged my glutes, which have supported my low back so firmly that I could not fold over. I had to stay upright. Because I am at-risk for a hip replacement, I only practice Active versions (upright or supine/lying on my back). I didn’t stay in Passive pigeon for very long…just enough to get a screenshot. It goes to show how often this happens in social media!
As you can see in Skandasana/Skandasan/Side Lunge Pose, I am able to rely on gravity to bring my extended leg towards the ground. My knee is borderline hyperextending and my glutes are relaxed.
In the “active” version, I engage my glutes. It stops me from being able to lower down any further. My bent knee doesn’t bend as much as it did during the “passive” version.
So, the next time you practice yoga, try doing an Active version and notice what happens. Send me an email and let me know how it goes! Need a helpful cheat sheet for reference? Just join my list and get free access to it, along with a whole bunch of other yoga resources.
Hope this helps!!
Julie (Your Head Rogue Yogi)