Saturday, 17 January 2015

How I Stopped Yoga and Got Better (Or Is Overstretching Ruining Your Practice?)

Active movements help me create the strength and flexibility to come into this posture (no hands!)

An unlikely post for a yoga teacher!

A student came to class today and told me about her hip problem.  It is chronic.  She said she had been doing yoga for a while but it was not getting better.

The thing is, I am currently teaching a series that emphasises mindful movement around the hip joint for greater movement and stability and spinal freedom.

Now, some people might say "Oh, great, you have come to the right class.  It is all about hip-openers!"

But my advice was the opposite.

"Stretch less and tense less," I said.

I advised her to focus on gentle, pain-free movement instead to encourage the flow of circulation and energy.

"Move and lengthen but don't feel tension or tightening.  If it starts to feel like stretching then stop," I said.  Firmly but calmly of course.

I explained that stretching might be aggravating whatever it was that she was experiencing (I did ask whether she had seen a physio/osteo/etc and she had not so we were in murky area here).

And I offered that as long as the movement did not hurt (not even a little bit) then she might try.

She was looking at me and nodding all the while.

"Yes," she replied, "when I stopped doing yoga it felt much better!"

Hallelujah, I thought!

Empirical (okay, anecdotal) evidence had arrived in our class for everyone to hear.  Stretching more can contribute to a problem rather than alleviate it.

When she stopped yoga and all the hip stretching that was supposedly 'good' for her she actually got better.

I was so pleased she had the motivation to still come to yoga after all of the problems she had been having.

I don't want to imply that all stretching is bad.

I learned from senior teachers Simon Borg Olivier and Bianca Machliss, of Yoga Synergy, (they are also trained physiotherapists) that stretching is sometimes something that a trained professional might guide you through for therapeutic reasons.

However, in general, it is better to experience lengthening rather than stretching.

For me I think about stretching as simply pulling on a muscle that is already tight.

What I look for in my yoga practice is to try to lengthen and relax my muscles rather than 'stretch' them.

It does not mean I am passive and weak in my postures, flopping around like a rag doll.

It does not mean that I just sit there stuck and unmoving so nothing 'stretches'.

Quite the opposite.

I use active movements to help bring me into and out of postures and to keep me there.

When you use active movements in a thoughtful way you can become stronger and more flexible without feeling that you are either being pulled from limb to limb or that you are shuddering from the effort of it all.

What happens instead is you get more movement.

You get pain-free movement.

You get ease and grace of movement.

It is a delicious experience.

Here Tilak uses active movements to strengthen hip flexors and knee extensors and relax and lengthen hip extensors and knee flexors.  All with a smile!

 This is the type of thing I teach in class.  It is what we will work on for 7 days at our upcoming retreat in Bali (

It is what I learned from amazing teachers like Simon and Paddy ( and  

Of course, there is more to it than that.

At the beginning of every class I say move slowly, tense less, stretch less, think less, and breathe less.

These are some of the key principles I learned training with my teachers.  Read Simon's excellent post about how not to hurt yourself in any style of yoga by applying some key principles here:

 Happy and safe practicing!


  1. How funny! It's almost like you wrote this post for me! I fell out of titibasana almost 3 years ago and have suffered with si joint issues on the right side since. I have come to the conclusion that the right side has over stretched ligaments that won't allow the joint to stabilize. With avoiding deeper yoga stretching (as you are suggesting) the si area feels more stable. I am slowly and with awareness moving into my practice again. Thank you for sharing all of your information as it has helped me to rethink my practice and not quit altogether. I wish I could join you in Bali. Kind regards, Ann

  2. Hi Ann! Thanks for that comment. It is so good for people to hear about these sorts of things. I certainly hope you might think about not quitting all together! I really encourage people to move pain-free and mindfully. Slow movement is generally best as you will be alerted to any discomfort and take action accordingly. If you have ever seen a crowd of people doing tai chi then this type of beautiful movement is what I encourage! We sometimes do strong postures in our classes--like handstands and arm balances, but we come into them without force or strain and by using key activations that help us to feel firm but at ease. I hope you won't mind but I have copied and pasted your words anonymously to share with my students so they can see this is something real. It certainly would be great to see you in Bali! If not this time maybe another. Much metta and happy and safe practicing!

  3. It's funny that you want to share my experience with your students (feel free, btw) because I tell my students to stretch less, tense less, etc.! I have had to scale back to more gentle classes but haven't given up yet. You encourage me. As for observing tai chi, my husband practices it so I have a front row seat. Often I gave thought that many of your movements and the way you seem to depend more on your skeleton rather than the muscles reminds me of ba gua and other internal martial arts. Take care, Ann