If you’ve never tried yoga because you thought it was just boring old stretching, boy are you in for a pleasant surprise. Yoga is far from boring. And it’s so much more than just doing a few simple stretches.
Is yoga just glorified stretching? Yoga is like stretching in some ways. They both increase your flexibility and mobility. But yoga is much more complicated. It focuses on a mind-body balance. Yoga helps you go within to restore your spirit as it improves your overall health and well-being.
Yoga combines static stretches with dynamic, moving stretches. It also works on balance and strength, which regular stretching doesn’t do. The breathing techniques in yoga can contribute to stress relief and help with mental health issues. You’ll also get a release of endorphins both during and after a yoga class.
Let’s Start at the Beginning – What Is Yoga?
Believe it or not, people have been practicing yoga for over 5,000 years. (Some historians believe that it goes back 10,000 years!)
It is a complex ancient practice that is rooted in Indian philosophy. Originally yoga was a spiritual practice. But modern-day yoga has become a way of promoting physical health and mental well-being.
While stretching helps you to increase flexibility, yoga does that plus so much more. Yoga helps you to make a mind, body, and spirit connection. And it is an incredible way to improve physical fitness.
The elements of physical fitness include:
- Strength training
- Balance training
- Flexibility training
- Core work
Stretching will help you achieve flexibility, but it does nothing for the other four elements. Yoga, on the other hand, meets the requirements for strength training, balance, flexibility, core work, and some forms even give you some aerobic benefits. And on top of that, yoga improves endurance and gives you calmness of mind and spirit.
Yoga takes the mental, physical, and spiritual elements of movement, and it uses those three things to improve your overall health and well-being. You can think of it as a form of holistic healing. The National Institute of Healthrecognizes yoga as a mind-body medicine.
There are many different styles of yoga. They each use postures, meditation, breathing techniques, and relaxation at varying degrees.
People define yoga in many ways. But basically it boils down to using physical poses to focus the mind and spirit for the purposes of well-being.
Yoga Postures vs. Stretching
We all know what stretching is. When you stretch, you make your muscles longer. You do stretch in yoga, but there is a lot more to it.
The main purpose of yoga is not just to stretch your muscles. The goal is to maintain and restore the body and mind to function optimally. In yoga, you do postures or poses (stretches) where you balance steadiness and alertness, along with comfort and relaxation of the mind and body. You also focus on the breath.
In yoga, you put your body into the asanas, and that will include some stretching. But you are also developing the strength, balance, and flexibility that allows you to do so.
When you do simple stretching, you don’t use the same level of attention or focus. You also don’t concentrate on breathing the way you do in yoga.
Now don’t get me wrong. Stretching is good for you, and there are benefits of doing it. It’s just that yoga offers significantly more health benefits.
The 8 Branches of Yoga
There are eight limbs of yoga. When you practice each of them, it helps you to live a more disciplined life. The overall goal is to alleviate suffering.
Yogis believe that by using these eight branches, you can quiet the mind and merge into a state of oneness with the divine. When this happens, you can live a life of health and purpose. Yoga allows you to find the answers within instead of looking to the exterior to determine right and wrong.
The eight limbs or branches of yoga are the core principles of the practice that work as a compass for living a life of meaning and purpose.
The Yamas are general rules of moral code. There are five of them:
- Ahimsa (nonviolence in word, thought, and deed – and the practice of self-love)
- Satya (truthfulness – always tell the truth and be silent if your words might harm others)
- Asteya (non-stealing – even in ways that are non-material like withholding time or information)
- Brahmacharya (fidelity and chastity – use your energy with intention and avoid overindulgence and excess)
- Aparigraha (non-possessiveness – you already have everything you need, and you are enough)
Niyamas are the rules of personal behavior. These inform your worldview and self-discipline. The Niyamas include:
- Saucha (cleanliness)
- Santosha (contentment)
- Tapas (self-discipline and willpower)
- Svadhyaya (the study of sacred scriptures and self)
- Ishvara Pranidhana (the surrender to the divine or devotion to God)
The Asanas are the physical postures used in yoga. Originally it referred to preparing the body and mind to sit still for seated meditation. Many centuries later, the practice of the physical poses came into play.
In addition to the physical aspect, asana means an outlook on life that there are many opportunities to learn. You can think of it as learning from all things.
Pranayama is a breathing technique in yoga designed to control your vital life force. Breathing can be either voluntary or involuntary. Well, Pranayama is when you consciously control your breath. It’s the mindful use of breathing, and it is an indicator of mind and body health.
When you do pranayama, you improve your health, concentration, clarity, focus, purpose, creativity, and compassion.
Pratyahara refers to withdrawing the senses. It means that you withdraw from all external stimuli. This helps you to have internal awareness.
With Pratyahara, you remove all distractions and use meditation to return to a quiet peace mindfully.
The point of pratyahara is to go inward. You’re not so much trying to block your senses as you are quieting them so that you can see beyond yourself.
Dharana is the next branch of yoga. It refers to intense concentration. Typically you will focus on one object like the flame of a candle. When you do this practice, you are training your mind for focus and stillness.
Dhyana refers to meditation. In this state, you are keenly aware, but without focus. In Dhyana, you are practicing awareness without judgment or any attachment.
This is a peaceful meditative state that comes before complete bliss. Many athletes and artists call this the flow state.
If you’ve ever gotten so engrossed in something that you lost all tack of time, then you have reached this state. Dhyana in yoga brings you back to that state.
Samadhi means merging with the divine. This is the state of ecstasy. With this limb of yoga, you are connecting and coupling with the universe. You will get a sense of peace and a feeling that all things are one.
Types of Yoga
There are many styles of yoga that are practiced all around the world. Today we’re going to highlight seven of the most popular in the United States. Stretching only woks on flexibility. Each of these types of yoga work far more.
Hatha is often considered one of the gentler forms of yoga. It’s great for beginners because it’s slower than other types. In Hatha yoga, you hold each pose for several breaths. This type of yoga works on building strength and balance. It also improves flexibility and gives you the meditation aspect.
Some people use the term Hatha generically—any form of yoga where you’re taught physical postures is Hatha. According to that definition, almost every yoga class taught in the United States can be considered some form of Hatha yoga.
If you take a Hatha class, you will get a gentle introduction to basic yoga poses. You may not leave class all sweaty, but you’ll feel longer, more flexible, and more relaxed.
Another very popular type of yoga is Ashtanga. If you have a type-A personality or you’re a perfectionist, then you will likely enjoy this type. In Ashtanga, there are strict guidelines. It’s challenging and orderly.
Ashtanga uses six series of particularly sequenced yoga postures. And you repeat the same poses in the same order in every class. This type of yoga works on endurance, strength, and aerobics.
One of the things that I love about this type of yoga is that it flows well. As you breathe through each posture, you build internal heat. So you will certainly work up a sweat in this demanding class.
Do you love dancing? If you do, you’re going to enjoy Vinyasa yoga. The movements and breath are linked in this type of class and move in a flow. Remember how I said some types of yoga would give you an aerobic workout? Well, Vinyasa is one of those.
It’s a much faster pace than most other types of yoga. Many classes feature pumping music that matches the beats to the poses. Vinyasa is intense, and no two classes are the same, so you’ll get a lot of variety in your workout.
I recommend Vinyasa for people who love HIIT workouts. It’s also great for runners and endurance athletes. You will work on strength, flexibility, endurance, balance, and cardio in this style.
When you just stretch, you don’t usually work up a sweat. But with many forms of yoga you definitely will. Bikram is one of those. In Bikram, the room is heated to around 105 degrees with 40 percent humidity.
Bikram is like Ashtanga in that every class repeats the same sequence of postures. Classes are typically 90 minutes long. And you will work on endurance, strength, balance, and flexibility.
This is a vigorous type of yoga that can feel particularly intense and strenuous, especially given the heat in the room. You must hydrate before, during, and after this class.
Another intense form of yoga is hot yoga. Hot yoga is a lot like Bikram in that the room is heated. But in hot yoga, you don’t stick to the same 26-pose Bikram sequence.
The benefit of the heat is that it helps you to go deeper into the postures and stretches, but you have to be careful not to overdo it. Just like in Bikram, in this style you will work on endurance, flexibility, balance, and strength.
If you love a workout where you sweat buckets, then you’ll enjoy hot yoga. It’s an intense class because of the heat, but many hot yoga classes are beginner-friendly, so don’t be afraid to start here.
Now, if you’re looking for a yoga class that will help you get your zen on, then you should try Yin yoga. Yin yoga is the opposite of the fast-paced Ashtanga. It will help you balance and calm your mind and body.
In this style of yoga, the poses are held for several minutes. This meditative style is designed to restore the length and elasticity of your muscles. It’s also mentally restorative.
Yin yoga is great for people who want to stretch and unwind. But I don’t recommend it for anyone who has connective tissue disorders.
In Iyengar, we get super nit-picky about detail and precision. This is a very meticulous type of yoga where special attention is paid to proper alignment in each pose. Typically you will use props in this style of yoga, like blocks, straps, blankets, and bolsters.
Iyengar won’t get your heart rate up too much, but you’ll be surprised how mentally and physically challenging it is. This style will help you build strength and improve balance.
If you have any chronic conditions or injuries, then this class is the way to go. Iyengar is also great for yogis of any age.
Some Yoga Poses Are Similar to Stretching, But Not Exactly the Same
In many ways stretching and yoga are similar activities. They both help you increase your flexibility, which leads to better mobility and fewer aches and pains. Some of the regular stretches that you do after a workout are very similar to yoga postures.
Here are some examples of common stretches (and their yoga equivalent):
- Seated forward stretch for the hamstrings (Paschimottanasana)
- Low lunge stretch (Anjaneyasana)
- Squat stretch (Malasana)
- Lying glute stretch (Sucirandhrasana)
If you were just stretching, you would sit on the floor and reach for your toes. But in yoga, there is more to it. Here’s how you do this simple seated forward stretch for the hamstrings in yoga:
- Start by bringing your arms out to the side and then reach up toward the ceiling, sitting up tall.
- Take a deep breath in and stretch your spine.
- Then begin to stretch forward as you exhale, hinging at the hips.
- Every time you inhale, you should try to lengthen your spine further.
- You should try to deepen your forward bend every time that you exhale. Instead of trying to get your nose to your knees, you should concentrate on resting your belly on your thighs, keeping your spine long.
- Focus on keeping your neck in a neutral position. Don’t release it down entirely, and don’t look up. Let your head be a natural extension of your spine.
- Once you get into your full extension, grab your ankles or shins and try to relax into the pose and breathe deeply. Keep your feet flexed.
This short video will take you through the steps.
Have you ever done a runner’s lunge to stretch your legs and hips? Well, that is very similar to anjaneyasana. But instead of just lunging here are the yoga steps:
- You will begin this posture by getting into a low lunge. Then allow your back knee to lower to the ground.
- Keep your front knee directly above your ankle.
- Inhale slowly as you raise your arms straight up over your head, keeping them in line with your ears.
- Then exhale as you deepen the lunge and allow your hip to come closer to the ground.
- Inhale and realign your front knee over your ankle.
- Repeat on the other leg.
Watch this video to see how you put it together.
If you’re just stretching, you can do a squat. But in yoga, you will follow these steps to do your squat:
- Start by standing up tall with your feet the width of your yoga mat.
- Slowly bend your knees into a deep squat position.
- Allow your knees to open slightly.
- Inhale as you bring your arms inside of your knees. Then bend your elbows as you bring your palms together in a prayer position.
- Next, bring your hands to your heart center as you exhale, keeping your forearms parallel to the ground. Let your elbows put some pressure on your legs and open your knees slightly wider.
- Breathe deeply as you allow your butt to move toward the ground. Relax your shoulders and let them press away from your ears.
- Hold this posture for five slow deep breaths and then slowly straighten your legs to come out of the pose.
This video will show you the movement.
The sucirandhrasana is very similar to a lying glute stretch. Here are the steps:
- Begin by lying on your back with the soles of your feet on the ground and your knees bent.
- Then extend your leg straight up.
- Inhale as you cross your left ankle over to rest above your right knee.
- Exhale as you gently press your left knee away from your torso.
- Deeply inhale as you lift your right foot off the floor, allowing your right knee to come toward your chest. Then thread your hands around your right thigh.
- Exhale as you gently pull your right thigh closer to your chest. This will open your left hip.
- Hold this pose as you breathe deeply, and then slowly move back to the starting position.
- Repeat the pose on your other leg.
This video will take you through the posture.
The Incredible Health Benefits of Yoga
As I mentioned, stretching is good for you and will help with flexibility and mobility. But there simply is no comparison when it comes to the health benefits of yoga. Research shows that the following are all a result of practicing yoga.
- Improved overall wellness
- Stress reduction
- Anxiety relief
- Depression management
- Decreased lower back pain
- Helps recovery from and treatment of addiction
- Chronic pain management
- Relieves menopause symptoms
- Helps people quit smoking
- Improve your quality of life and manage symptoms during illness
- Stimulates brain function
- Prevents heart disease
- Aids in weight loss
The Bottom Line
As you can see, yoga is a lot more than just glorified stretching. It’s much more complex, and there are more health benefits to it. Stretching will lengthen your muscles and improve mobility.
Yoga does that too, plus it brings you a mind, body, and spirit connection. There is also a meditation component to it. And it builds strength and balance. Regular stretching can’t do any of that.
If you’ve never tried yoga before, you will be surprised at how challenging it is, and how good it will make you feel. You can practice yoga at any age or fitness level. And you don’t have to be super flexible to do it. In fact, if you’re not very flexible, then it’s even more critical that you do yoga.