Stretching vs. Yoga: Which to Do & When

Stretching and warming up

Your hamstrings are tight, your lower back aches, and your neck and shoulders are clenched from too many hours staring at a screen. Do you need a good stretch, or should you sign up for yoga class? What's the difference between the two?

Elasticity and Enlightenment

The facile difference between stretching and yoga is this: People stretch, animals stretch, even caterpillars appear to stretch, but only humans do yoga. That doesn't really capture it, though. Both activities are approached with intention.

  • In stretching, the intention is to lengthen muscles and make them more flexible while increasing the range of motion around a joint. Stretches target an isolated muscle or muscle group.
  • In yoga, the intention is mind-body awareness, flexibility, balance, and strength. Yoga is an ancient mental, spiritual, and physical discipline designed for holistic mastery over body and mind in a quest to achieve enlightenment.

So, stretching is about muscles, mobility, athletic competition, personal bests, and injury prevention. Yoga is about whole-body harmony, improving control, and incorporating breathing, mindful focus, and a variety of choreographed moves to align, elongate, strengthen, and free the body from constriction -- inner tension and outer stiffness. Superficially, the two overlap, but the primary intention for each is distinct.

To Your Health

Mature couple stretching together

Stretching improves range of motion, leading to better athletic performance and lowered risk of injury in everyday activities. A good stretch boosts the blood flow to your muscles, increasing vigor and energy. Regularly stretching muscles can slow the effects of aging, improve balance and posture, and speed recovery from hard exercise.

Yoga also improves flexibility and range of motion, but the weight-bearing poses build strength, the breathing exercises expand lung capacity and oxygen absorption, and holding the pose deepens the stretch, resulting in better circulation and lower blood pressure. Yoga is relaxing, but it banishes fatigue as it reduces cortisol levels and stress. Twists, contractions, and releases promote lymph drainage, massage organs, and speed toxic waste out of cells. Cumulatively, the effect increases vitality and feel-good hormones and relieves depression.

Common Ground

Yoga and stretching were tested as therapies to lower back pain in a randomized trial conducted over 12 weeks, with conclusions published in the Journal of the American Medical Association. The study compared a beginner class, based on the gentle customizable Viniyoga method, and a simple stretching class. Both had the same length and similar exercises, and both gave nearly identical relief from lower back pain. Researchers speculated yoga's mental component might confer a long-term advantage in managing back pain and may have contributed to the good results test subjects experienced from their sessions on the mat. However, when a therapeutic stretching program is designed with the same rigor and attention to detail as the poses in a yoga class, the physical effect is about the same.

Basic Stretching, When and How

Stretching comes in seven flavors: ballistic, dynamic, active, passive, static, isometric, and PNF, a combination of passive and isometric stretching. The simplest, and usually safest, DIY stretching method combines static and dynamic stretches.

  • Runner athlete stretching legs
    Dynamic stretches are what you do before exercise to warm up gradually so your muscles are ready to be challenged. Swing a leg slowly back and forth, speeding up as stiff muscles loosen, until you've reached your maximum comfortable range of motion. Stand tall, hands on hips, and twist from side to side, increasing the twist as it becomes easier. Now you're ready to go for that jog or rock your backhand on the court.
  • Static stretches are for after your game, exercise, or exertion. They take advantage of already warm muscles, as you reach to the farthest position you can and hold that pose, breathing evenly to deepen the stretch incrementally and increase your flexibility and range of motion.

To maintain an effective flexibility system, just remember to warm-up and cool down with appropriate stretches before and after exercise. Or, up your game and grab a spot in stretch class at your gym or community center to relax your hip flexors, open your tight shoulders, and release those clenched hamstrings. Regardless of your choice, play it safe. Don't push past a stiff muscle into an injury and forget "no pain, no gain." You're elongating and strengthening your muscles, not conquering them.

You, Your Mat, and Yoga

Woman in yoga pose

The traditional practice of yoga provides a series of static stretches and increasing the speed of a flow sequence adds dynamic stretching to the mix. But the stretching benefits you get from yoga are not the point of doing yoga. The discipline, which requires class instruction or a DVD for you to learn the correct poses, is designed to quiet and focus the mind, as well as to strengthen and relax the body. You may not be interested in the meditation gains, spiritual progress, and mind-body unity that yoga delivers, but they happen right along with your longer, stronger muscles, lowered stress levels, and decreased anxiety.

The deliberate practice of yoga asanas highlights correct alignment and conscious breathing throughout every position you assume on the mat. Tim B. McCall, M.D., medical director of Yoga Journal, points out that a yoga practice offers flexibility, strength, and cardiovascular conditioning, even as it calms the nervous system. There are many styles of yoga to suit your preferences and physical condition. You may thrive in the hothouse environment of a hot yoga class with its set 26 poses and sauna-like flexibility-boosting heat. Beginner hatha yoga might ease you into a solid practice that reduces your stress as it clears your mind and improves your range of mobility. If you love challenge, test yourself in a rigorous ashtanga class or sign up for power yoga and rock that bendable spine. Pace yourself with a certified instructor in class and daily at-home practice for incremental, injury-free results.

Who Needs to Stretch?

Everybody needs to stretch. "You're as old as your spine" is folk wisdom steeped in fitness truth.

  • If you sit in front of a computer for hours at work, sit in your car to commute, and sit in front of the tube at night to relax, you are killing your hamstrings, ignoring your abs, and stressing your shoulders and back. Daily stretches will keep you from eventually moving through life like a crab or shuffling along like a giant marshmallow.
  • If you've been injured, your medical provider may prescribe stretching to help rehabilitate the injury or revive an immobilized joint.
  • If you play sports, repetitive motion will overdevelop some muscles and ignore others, leading to imbalance and tightness. Stretching can prevent this and keep you injury-free.
  • If stress is your game -- and it probably is if you're alive -- stretching helps. Harvard Men's Health Watch points out that stretching lowers stress by relaxing your mind.

The Added Bonus of Yoga

Adding the controlled breathing exercises and the mindful focus of meditation -- all part of a yoga class or practice -- further reduces physiological and mental stress and lowers blood adrenalin levels. Whichever form of stretching you choose, regular practice will lift your spirits as it moves your fingertips ever closer to your distant toes.

Stretching vs. Yoga: Which to Do & When