Saturday, April 18, 2009

Yoga vs Stretching

My father challenged me to write a non-biased piece on yoga vs. stretching. Apparently I get quite fired up when people speak of yoga as just "stretching". I truly don't mean to, so if I have ever snarled or cringed when this is said I am very, very sorry. Perhaps the full practice of yoga has become so sacred to me I am tender about it being considered just a stretching practice. It has had a profound impact on my life, and I so rarely think of the flexibility or stretching benefits when I think of yoga.

Here's just a few things I've gained from practicing:
  • It has given me space to reflect every day and come back to the simplest essence of who I am- outside of my career, my relationships, etc.... just me at the core.
  • It has taught me how to breathe, which in my opinion is the most powerful tool we own.
  • It has made me appreciate my body for what it is.
  • It has made me a gentler person (at least I hope) and more grateful for the life I have been given.
  • It has taught me to not only be grateful for my life, but to show this gratitude by being the best person I can each day and act kindly toward other beings and the earth.
  • It has taught me that we are all connected and share in the struggles of life (some way more than others, so perspective is important)
  • It has carried me through some of the hardest periods of my life and reminded me to "just breathe".

So, to answer the question as posed by my papa, here goes...

Q: What is the difference between yoga and stretching?

A: Although yoga involves stretching your muscles, it is quite different than the stretches you might do to prepare for running, working out at the gym, etc. Yoga in its entirety also goes far beyond physical practice.

Some key ways yoga is different (note, this is extracted from various articles... my way of removing my bias :)) :

  • Yoga places emphasis on alignment, meaning that how you are touching your toes is more important than whether you can actually touch them or not.
  • Most yoga poses are not stretching an isolated area, but rather involve the whole body in both stretching and strengthening.
  • Yoga involves awareness of the breath. Many styles, such as vinyasa, hatha and ashtanga, use specific breathing techniques and also use breath to guide the movements.
  • Asana, or the physical practice of postures, in only one aspect of a yoga practice, albeit the most well-known one these days. Even if you only engage in yoga through asana practice (an excellent place to start), be aware of the eight limbs of yoga. Each limb relates to an aspect of achieving a healthy and fulfilling life, and each builds upon the one before it. Only one of the limbs involves the performance of yoga postures.

Here is a description of the eight limbs (From

  1. Yama: Five ethical guidelines regarding moral behavior towards others:
    Nonviolence, Truthfulness, Nonstealing, Nonlust, Noncovetesness
  2. Niyama: Five ethical guidelines regarding moral behavior towards oneself:
    Cleanliness, Contentment, Sustained practice, Self study, Surrender to God
  3. Asana: Practice of yoga postures.
  4. Pranayama: Practice of breathing exercises.
  5. Pratyahara: Withdrawal of the senses, meaning that the exterior world is not a distraction from the interior world within oneself.
  6. Dharana: Concentration, meaning the ability to focus on something uninterrupted by external or internal distractions.
  7. Dhyana: Meditation. Building upon Dharana, the concentration is no longer focused on a single thing but is all encompassing.
  8. Samadhi: Bliss. Building upon Dhyana, the transcendence of the self through meditation. The merging of the self with the universe. Sometimes translated as enlightenment.

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