Flexibility and Stretching: The Hidden Secrets of Ashtanga Yoga

Ashtanga yoga is a dynamic and challenging practice that demands strength, flexibility and endurance. As Ashtanga practitioners, we are often obsessed with achieving the perfect posture, but sometimes we forget the importance of flexibility and the role it plays in our practice.

In this article, we will delve into the complex world of anatomy and physiology, and explore the hidden secrets of flexibility and stretching in Ashtanga yoga. We will cover what limits flexibility, the benefits of stretching, and the different types of stretching techniques that can be used to improve flexibility.

What is Flexibility and What Limits It?

Flexibility refers to the ability to move (without pain or restriction) through a joint’s range of motion. It is specific to a particular joint or set of joints and is not something general.

Factors That Limit Flexibility

Flexibility is not always a function of tissue restrictions. In fact, it’s most often not. The causes of limited flexibility fall into the following general categories:

  • Muscles: Flexibility is limited by muscles that are shortened, tight or in a contracted state. This is why runners tend to have tight hamstrings.
  • Connective Tissue: Flexibility is limited by restrictions from connective tissue. Tissue dehydration can lead to connective tissue becoming more and more unyielding.
  • Nervous System: Flexibility is commonly limited by the nervous system, which sends signals to muscles via sensory receptors in muscles.
  • Other Factors: Compression and joint issues such as arthritis can limit range of motion.

What Happens to Your Muscles When Anesthetized?

When anesthetized, a person’s muscles lose their ability to contract, and as a result, they become very relaxed and pliable. The significance of this is that it demonstrates that muscle tension can limit flexibility.

What Happens When Personal Range of Motion Limits Are Reached?

When personal range of motion limits are reached, the muscles become resistant to stretching, and this resistance is called the stretch reflex. The stretch reflex is a protective mechanism that prevents muscles from being overstretched and tearing.

Three Possible Muscle States

There are three possible muscle states: relaxed, actively contracted, and passively stretched. Active contraction and passive stretching are the two states that are most relevant to Ashtanga yoga.

What Is a Tensile Load?

A tensile load is one of the many ways that stretching is defined. It refers to the greatest pulling force that a material can withstand without breaking. In the context of Ashtanga yoga, it refers to the amount of tension applied to the muscles during stretching.

The Benefits of Stretching

Stretching affects the nervous system in a way that relaxes muscle fibers, reduces muscle tension, and increases range of motion. It also improves circulation, reduces stress, and promotes relaxation.

Types of Stretching

There are several types of stretching techniques that can be used to improve flexibility:

  • Passive/Passive Static Stretching: Relaxing into the stretch such as in a Restorative Pose.
  • Active/Active Static Stretching: Contracting the muscle in opposition to the targeted stretching muscle.
  • Dynamic Stretching: Stretch done with movement.
  • Resistance Stretching: Stretch is done with contraction while lengthening.
  • Proprioceptive Neuromuscular Facilitation (PNF): A muscle group is passively stretched, then contracts isometrically against resistance while in the stretched position, and is then passively stretched again.


Flexibility and stretching are essential components of Ashtanga yoga. By understanding what limits flexibility, the benefits of stretching, and the different types of stretching techniques, we can improve our practice and achieve greater range of motion.

So, next time you’re in class and the teacher calls for a forward fold, remember to breathe deeply, relax into the stretch, and enjoy the benefits of stretching. Namaste!

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