6 Mistakes You're Making When You're Stretching, According to a Yoga Teacher
Sure, we all have heard that physical activity is good for us. You might even be familiar with the World Health Organization's recommendation to get at least 150 minutes per week. But what about exercise's foil, stretching? Turns out, stretching and practicing yoga boast some impressive health benefits, too. From helping your sleep to preventing injury and more, a regular stretch session is worth adding to your routine. As with anything, getting started can be overwhelming. Luckily, we talked with Jessica Pashko, M.S. RD RYT, about common mistakes and misconceptions about stretching, and how to fix them.
"I definitely think stretching is important for several reasons. One of which is mobility and functionality in our bodies," Pashko explains. Stretching can help us prevent injury and stimulate blood flow through our bodies, which helps with joint lubrication. Pashko adds, "Stretching is a way to connect with our bodies. We tend to spend a lot of time in our heads so when we stretch it's a way to ground ourselves in our physical bodies." That said, people might have misconceptions about stretching. Stretching might seem boring, pointless or painful, none of which should be the case. "[People might think] stretches are supposed to look a certain way, and that's not true. It's not about how it looks but rather how it feels," says Pashko.
6 Mistakes You're Making When Stretching, According to a Yoga Teacher
"The only time I'd consider stretching a mistake is if it causes harm to one's body," clarifies Pashko. "We can beat ourselves up about not being able to do this or that, but if it feels good that's most important." Pashko notes that it is important to check in with your physical therapist or doctor to make sure stretching is safe for you.
1. Holding Your Breath
"Breathing while stretching can help release tension and help create more ease in whatever stretch, pose or posture we are doing," states Pashko. In short, don't hold your breath. Counting breaths can help hold yourself accountable to breathe, as well as syncing breath up with movement as it feels natural to you.
2. Hyperextending Your Joints
Another common mistake is hyperextending your joints, like locking out your knees or elbows in a pose. "This is dangerous because it can harm our joints by putting tension where there shouldn't be," Pashko explains. "It can lead to injury but also direct the stretch in a different way than the muscles you are trying to target. It all comes back to safety." Instead, aim to keep a soft bend in your joints to avoid injury and discomfort.
"We can actually over-stretch our muscles. People might think they need to stretch for a very long time, but the research tells us that 30 seconds is appropriate," Pashko advises. "Moving into deep stretches without warming up can also cause harm, so it's important to warm up and be gentle with ourselves."
4. Painful Stretching
"If stretching feels painful, it's an indication that someone is ignoring their body's sensations. I think it's influenced by their perception of what the stretch or pose "should" look like," shares Pashko. "A lot of people experience pain while stretching because they didn't stop at their edge and pushed it too far, or it's related to misalignment. Your edge is the place between comfort and challenge."
5. Misaligning Your Spine
Pashko shares that another mistake is misalignment of the spine. Proper spine alignment helps ensure safety while we stretch and also helps direct the stretch to the desired place. This might vary from stretch to stretch, but typically a straight neutral spine is the preferred posture. When in doubt, ask an expert like a yoga teacher or physical therapist about safe spine alignment. Being mindful of your spine can help you prevent injury and stay safe while stretching.
6. Stretching an Injury
"Stretching an injury can be very dangerous because that is not always what our injuries want. It's really important to check in with a physical therapist or doctor if there is anything going on before using stretching as the bandaid," states Pashko.
How to Start Stretching
With starting any routine, it can be helpful to pair it with something you are already doing. For example, you could do five minutes of stretching after you brush your teeth in the morning, or take ten minutes of quiet time to stretch right before bed. If you go for a daily walk or exercise, stretching is a great way to cool down. It could also be helpful to set a daily reminder to get up from your desk and stretch for a few minutes at a time that works for you, maybe after or before a lunch break.
"Our bodies are so different and change every day, so I'd recommend someone to bring awareness to their body. Scan for areas of tension or discomfort to give information about which areas could use attention," advises Pashko. She also recommends starting simple when it comes to stretching. "A stretch or pose might feel deeper one day, but then the next day be very tight. And that is very normal," she says. Pick a few stretches and stick with them, too. After all, practice makes progress!
There are plenty of beginner-friendly stretches you can try today (check out this home yoga sequence for inspiration). Pashko says to consider what you are doing during the day and what areas of the body might need more support. For example, if you are sitting at a desk all day, try some hip openers. If you are using a keyboard, you might be rounding your shoulders forward which can cause tightness in the chest, neck and back. You can progress into deeper stretching as well. The bottom line: "Respect where your body is and work to move into deeper expressions as it feels good for you," concludes Pashko.