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Stretching: How to Apply Scientific Research to Your Yoga Practice?

In part 1 of the blog (How to Stretch Effectively – Scientifically Proven Methods) we got an in depth view into the science behind stretching, its different methods, times and set, as well as rest, intensity, breathing & periodization.

This second part of the blog especially provides a lot of useful information for yoga teachers on how to implement stretching in yoga classes, as well as a holistic approach to yoga in general.

Our goal in yoga is much more than only increasing the range of motion, and I will come back to that holistic approach in a second. But for many yoga students, gaining more flexibility is a very important reason why they start yoga in the first place. Let’s say we WOULD want to design a yoga session with the main goal that it scientifically proven effective to increase flexibility. How could we do that? 

Warm up first – combine yin and yang. In the beginning of our yoga session, before we start going into a more flexibility focused part, we would first start with a series of asanas that warm up the body and increase the blood circulation. That could be everything from a classical vinyasa or power yoga approach, to repeated sun salutations to a part of the classical ashtanga series.

For our specific stretching part, we would first of all need to set a goal on which muscle group we want to work in this week. As we saw that total stretching time per week is the most relevant factor, we would focus on the same muscle group throughout all the sessions of the week. (Feel free to check up on the scientific background in part 1 of the blog).

For each muscle group we should find either 3 asanas per session that stretch that same specific area, or we could also repeat the same asana 3 times per session. Between two asanas that stretch the same muscle group there should always be at least one asana that stretches another muscle group or maybe a childs pose to give some rest time for 1-2 minutes.

Depending on the number of sessions per week we could either hold each pose for 30 seconds which equals to  about 8-10 breath cycles (6 sessions per week), or 60 seconds which equals to about 16-20 breath cycles (3 sessions per week); which is quite a bit longer than in most vinyasa yoga sessions but shorter than in most typical yin yoga sessions. 

Both versions are equally good! It doesn’t matter if you do 6 shorter sessions per week or 3 longer sessions, as long as you reach the total time of 5-10 minutes per stretch per muscle group. The different sessions per week could repeat the exact same sequence or work the same muscle group with a different set of asanas. There are so many amazing asanas to choose from! I don’t think we will get bored here.

To give an easy example to make things clearer, I want to design two very simple sequences for you, just so you understand better what I am talking about. Let’s say our targeted muscle groups are the hamstrings, the chest and the glutes.

For the first sequence, we will make our lives easy and use the same sequence 3 times to get to our 3 sets and have a break for each muscle group while stretching another one. The session is done 3x per week.

Warm Up:
sun salutation A (2 times) & sun salution B (2 times)

Stretch Sequence (repeat 3 times):

  • Paschimottanasana (Seated Forward Bend) (60 seconds) [hamstrings]
  • Setu Bandha Sarvangasana: Bridge Pose (60 seconds) [chest]
  • Raj Kapotasana Variation (Sleeping Pigeon Pose) (60 seconds) [glutes]
  • Childs Pose (1-2 minutes) [rest for all target groups]

Wind Down:
Savasana 5 minutes 

Now for the second session, we will bring a bit more variety into the stretch sequence. We will still stretch our target muscle groups hamstrings, chest and glutes 3 times but this time with a different asana every time and give a break for each muscle group while stretching another one. The session will be done 3x per week.

Warm Up:
sun salutation A (2 times) & sun salutation B (2 times)

Stretch Sequence:

  • Paschimottanasana (Seated Forward Bend) (60 seconds) [hamstrings]
  • Setu Bandha Sarvangasana: Bridge Pose (60 seconds) [chest]
  • Raj Kapotasana Variation (Sleeping Pigeon Pose) (60 seconds) [glutes]
  • Childs Pose (1-2 minutes) [rest for all target groups]
  • Supta Padangusthasana A (Reclined Big Toe Pose) (60 seconds) [hamstrings]
  • Dhanurasana: Bow Pose (60 seconds) [chest]
  • Eka Pada Sirasana: One Leg Behind Head Pose (60 seconds) [glutes]
  • Childs Pose (1-2 minutes) [rest for all target groups]
  • Parivrtta Janu Sirsasana: Revolved Head to Knee Pose (60 seconds) [hamstrings]
  • Gomukhasana: Cow Face Pose (60 seconds) [chest]
  • Sukhasana: Easy Pose (60 seconds) [glutes]

Wind Down:
Savasana 5 minutes

Keep in mind that low intensity is superior even to modest intensity stretches when it comes to gaining flexibility (read more in part 1 of this blog series). 

This could mean to use props such as blocks or bolsters in order to prevent going to deep into certain poses, similar to their use in iyengar yoga or for you as teacher to keep an eye on the level of your group and consider using poses such as the warrior poses that might not go into very deep stretches but will already provide a low intensity stretch to many people that might not yet be very flexible. 

Yoga Teachers: definitely encourage your students to leave their ego at the door before coming into your yoga class and get rid of the attachment to make a certain pose look exactly the way it looks with you, the teacher, or to compare themselves to others in class.

In a one-on-one class, partner work class or even while correcting individuals in a group class you could also use the PNF method, to provide another amazing approach. You could for example use the Supta Padangusthasana A (Reclined Big Toe Pose ) and ask the student to just bring the leg as close to the chest so he or she feels a very slight stretch sensation for 10-30 seconds. After that, you place your hand at the student’s heel and ask him or her to press the leg against your hand and away from the chest for 10 seconds.  After this phase of contraction, you can help the student to pull the leg closer to the chest than before for another 30-60 seconds.

Now, coming back to a more holistic approach to yoga, do you always need to structure your classes in the above explained way? Definitely not! Gaining more flexibility is just one of many achievements through yoga. The way you design your classes completely depends on the goal you choose for the sessions and also on your personal teaching personality. 

Let’s assume you are teaching at a fitness club, where the members can choose from many other classes to build strength and endurance. In this case they might probably go to your yoga class to achieve a balance in their bodies and to get more flexible. In this case a design as shown could be very beneficial, with a short warm-up power yoga part, a well-thought-out stretching routine with 8-20 breath cycles hold and a savasana part to bring in meditation ideas.

But let’s say you are teaching in a yoga studio where most of the members are already quite flexible but might maybe lack some strength and endurance training, in this case you could focus more on the first part that we used before as a warm-up and do the majority of the session in a ashtanga, vinyasa or power yoga style and the last part with a more stretching focused part with the 30-60 seconds holds on maybe 2-3 main muscle groups as target and finalize with savasana.

Or maybe your goal is much more linked to the non-physical ways of yoga, and you want to emphasize pranayama and pratyahara. In this case, you can obviously completely diverge from the design we mentioned above. You could do a kundalini style yoga, or you could hold the stretches much longer like a traditional yin style class, or you could emphasize the mediation phase before or after the asana part of your class.

Keep in mind that yoga is a fundamentally holistic approach. Best case: a comfortable yoga practice and inspiring meditation on a sustainable yoga mat.

As always: how you structure your yoga session depends on how you feel, how your students feel, on the goal of the class and on your personality. We just wanted to show ways how to design your yoga class in a way that it can improve flexibility with the knowledge of modern scientific studies. Now it is on you to combine these with the ancient wisdom of yoga.

About the author:

Julia Johann (@julinhajohann) is a fully-fledged Yogi, Professional Dance Teacher and Fitness Trainer from Germany. She harnesses yoga and science to improve flexibility and awareness in her everyday life.

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