We know that we go to Yoga to become more flexible and stronger, but what are we actually doing? Stretching is a single word that we use to cover what is actually a complicated process with multiple different aspects. A more specific description of what we’re really talking about is increasing range of motion.

Range of motion is defined as the full range through which we can move an individual joint. It is described in degrees of a circle. Our available range of motion is created from a combination of connective tissue tension, nervous system stimulation, and the bone shape and angle that create our joints. There are some parts of this combination that we can affect and change with yoga, like the amount and type of tension in our connective tissue and possibly our nervous system stimulation. The aspect of range of motion that we can’t change is the shape of our bones and the angle at which they meet to create our joints. Our range of motion can also be affected by things like injuries to the joint or swelling of tissues around the joint.

When might we want to increase range of motion?

The reality for most of us is that we do activities during the day that have the effect of decreasing our range of motion in certain actions. The range of motion in our hips may decrease if we spend most of the day sitting at a desk or if we spend a lot of time doing sports like running or cycling. If we did a lot of weight-lifting or simply spent time carrying our children around, then the range of motion in our shoulders might be limited. When range of motion is reduced, there is potential for that increased tension to be felt elsewhere in the body. So, if reduced range of motion is contributing to reduced functionality in our body or contributing to pain even, then we might want to consider increasing that range of motion.

How do we increase range of motion?

In order to increase our range of motion we need to impact, not just our connective tissue, but how our nervous system interacts with our connective tissue. For this reason it makes sense, that the more effective time to try to lengthen or stretch connective tissue is when we are relaxed. That is, when we are not telling our nervous system to contract the muscles that we want to lengthen.

How much stretch do we need to increase range of motion?

Although it’s often debated, there really is no one amount of time that research suggests that you should hold a stretch to make it effective. It’s true that if we don’t go far enough or hold it long enough, that no change will happen. However, a recent review paper from 2018 suggests that one key aspect of stretching for increased range of motion, is frequency of stretching per week (Thomas et al., 2018). They reported that stretching five days per week had far more impact on increased range of motion than holding a stretch for a long time in a single session (Thomas et al., 2018). The type of stretching (static stretching, dynamic stretching, or proprioceptive neuromuscular facilitation [PNF]) does not seem to matter with respect to increasing range of motion (Behm, 2016; Thomas et al., 2018). All three types of stretching increased range of motion.

Conclusion

So, really the “right” amount of depth of stretch varies from person to person and even from day to day, but what seems to be more important if you are looking to increase range of motion, is that you stretch frequently. Just like so many other aspects of our yoga practice, stretching to increase range of motion in a way that is both effective and not injurious, is specific to each person and each moment. Although it’s a bit of a cliche, what’s really important is that you practice consistently and as you’re lengthening muscles, you listen to your own body in each practice so that you find the right depth for you.

References

Based on an article by David Keil from Yoga Anatomy

Avela, J., H. Kyrolainen, and P.V. Komi. 1999. Altered reflex sensitivity after repeated and prolonged passive muscle stretching. Journal of Applied Physiology. 86(4):1283-1291.

Behm, D.G., A.J. Blazevich, A.D. Kay, and M. McHugh. 2016. Acute effects of muscle stretching on p