Yoga is often thought of as a calming exercise routine. There are many types of styles promoting wellness and health of the body and mind. With so many different types of yoga and various poses to learn, it can get confusing. The question of whether yoga is passive or active is quite common, as how you stretch will affect the body in a different way. But which is right?
Yoga has active and passive stretches, and each should be used in your practice. In a passive stretch, your muscles are assisted by an external force, like a strap, to promote movement. In an active stretch, the muscles work alone. Find a balance between passive and active stretches to avoid injury.
There’s always something new to learn in yoga—the different types, its history, or its benefits. But we are going to explore passive and active stretching and why it is essential. You will also learn about some poses and whether they focus on passive or active stretching. It wall also highlight how a slight modification can change the type of stretch.
What Is the Difference Between Active and Passive Stretching?
Many people, including those who exercise regularly, are unsure about the difference between the two. One reason could be confusion about terminology:
- Active stretching is also sometimes known as static-active stretching.
- Passive stretching is also known as relaxed stretching or static-passive stretching.
Stretches can be further classified into dynamic, ballistic, isometric, and PNF, among others. Most of these are variations on active or passive stretching. For example, isometric stretching is a kind of passive stretching that includes tensing the muscles.
We will be using the words active or passive stretching to avoid any confusion.
One stretch is as good as another, right? If only that were true. Passive and active stretches affect the muscle tissue differently.
A passive stretch doesn’t mean you lie down and stretch. Instead, it refers to a stretch in which you receive assistance from an external force. That force could be your hands, another person, a surface such as a wall, or a yoga prop.
Picture yourself sitting on the floor with your legs straight in front of you. If you use a hand to help you bring one foot back for a calf stretch, the external force—in this case, the hand—is assisting the stretch. The part of the stretch that the muscles cannot do independently, is the passive.
Congratulations! You have just completed the Seated Forward Fold.
In an active stretch, the muscle tissue is stretching without an external force. If you perform the same calf stretch and don’t use your hand to help you stretch, the muscles are stretching without any assistance. During the entire stretch, the muscle tissue is active.
Some yoga poses use a combination of both active and passive stretching. In the Boat Pose, you begin by sitting on the ground with your knees bent. Lean back and use your hands to lift up your legs (passive) and then let go. As you remain in this v-shaped pose, your abs and thigh muscles actively keep your legs in the air.
Note: Even though we are focusing on passive versus active stretches, some would call the Boat Pose a dynamic stretch as it includes movement. However, dynamic stretches include more continuous movement. Arm circles or squats are other examples of dynamic stretches.
How Do Stretches Affect Your Muscles?
To understand this, one needs to know a little bit about what muscles are made of and how they know when to stretch.
Muscles consist of many thousands of musculus fibres. A muscle might have several thousand of these fibres, each around 1.5 inches (3.81 centimetres) long, and each fibre is made up of tiny strands of fibrils.
Muscles that control movement are considered skeletal muscles. These include not only our legs and arms, but muscles used to move our eyes or tongue. If you can control the muscle, it is a skeletal muscle.
Finally, skeletal muscles are either slow-twitch or fast-twitch. A slow twitch muscle is one you can easily contract for a long time. The muscles that give us our strength are called fast-twitch. These muscles contract quickly but cannot remain contracted for long.
The GTO and Muscle Spindle
When we stretch, the nerve receptor where the muscle and tendon connect senses the tension. The receptor sends a signal to the spinal cord, which then signals to the muscle it should relax. This communication between the Golgi Tendon Organ (GTO) helps to regulate muscle tension.
Muscle spindles are another set of sensors that communicate with the muscles and spine. The spindles sense how much and how fast the surrounding muscles are stretching. The communication between the spindles and the spine causes a reflex that contracts the muscles. Otherwise, they would be stretched too far and be damaged.
Without the GTO and spindles, we would not be able to stretch our muscles without damaging them. But with proper stretching, we can reduce the strength of the reflex while stretching the muscles safely.
What Is Wrong With Passive Stretching?
One of the concerns with passive stretching is that you can pull the muscles or joint, connecting them further than is safe for them. For example, bring your head forward to stretch the muscles in the back of your neck. Now push your head down. You can bring it closer to your chest, but you feel a pull and can overextend the muscles if you aren't careful.
Passive stretching provides for plasticity, or flexibility. Muscles, like most materials that have some give, can be stretched into three regions:
- The elastic region is the natural stretch. A rubber band, for example, can be used countless times if it is not stretched too far.
- The plastic region is step further than that which feels natural. If you stretch a rubber band to the point it cannot return to its original size, you pull it into the plastic region.
- The fracture point is the final straw, and the point at which you can cause serious injury. Pull the rubber band to its fracture point, and it breaks.
In active stretching, the muscles are pulled into the elastic region. However, in passive stretching, the chance is greater that we stretch the muscles into the plastic or fracture points. The consequence is this is that we may weaken them.
What Are the Advantages of Active Stretching?
Active stretching has many benefits. You have already learned that active stretches carry fewer risks than passive ones, but that is not the only advantage. Active stretches also:
- Make it easier for the muscles to move into their range of motion.
- Increases the flow of blood through the muscles.
- Primes them for physical activity.
The biggest reason to include active stretches is to reduce the risk of hurting oneself.
Why Include Passive Stretching in Yoga?
In active stretching, we are building strength in our muscles. Think back to the Boat Pose. As you hold yourself in the V-shape for longer periods, your abs, lower back, and thigh muscles grow stronger.
However, active stretching does little to help increase the range of motion in our joints. Our ankles are a good example. A person with strong ankles who stumbles might be less likely to hurt themselves but more likely to fall because of limited flexibility. Of course, a person with flexible but weak ankles has a greater chance of hurting themselves.
To build strength and control over our movements requires active stretching. But to increase our range of motion, we need passive stretching. That is why yoga uses both.
How To Modify Active Yoga Poses to Passive Yoga Poses
Many yoga poses—also known as asanas—can be either passive or active. Let’s go over a few of them and to safely modify one to the other.
Stand on one foot and bring your leg up to the inside of your thigh, until your knee is at a 90-degree angle. Then use your hand to bring your heel up to the highest position on your other leg. That is the passive version of the asana.
Now take your hand away. Your leg will slide down because the pose is now active. If you are new to this pose, bring your other arm out to help you remain standing.
Side Lunge Asana
Sometimes the difference between a passive and active pose is what you do with other muscles.
For example, in a side lunge, you lower your body with one leg extended while you "sit" on the heel of the other leg. When your glutes are not engaged, the extended leg is passive because gravity is pushing it down.
If you try the same lunge while keeping your glutes engaged, you won’t be able to lower your body as far. This is because the glutes are now actively controlling the lunge.
Full Lotus Asana
The full lotus is the classic seating position when we picture a yogi—someone sitting straight up with legs folded over the thighs. If you have ever tried this pose, it seems active, especially as your ankles poke into your thighs. Depending on your flexibility, it can also seem impossible.
However, it is a passive pose because to achieve it, you use your hands to pull the legs into place. If you can do the pose, try getting into it without your hands. The first leg is doable, but the second—good luck.
Note: Work up to this asana. It puts stress on the hips, knees, and ankles and you don’t want to damage any of those. One way to do this is to start with a half-lotus.
How To Avoid Damaging Your Joints in Yoga
Common injuries in yoga are due to two reasons:
- Improper form
- Repetitive motion from doing the same pose the same way
Doing asanas in both passive and active forms can help with repetitive motions. This is done by slightly modifying how the stretch is working the muscles.
Some common areas where you can injure yourself include:
Knee pain is common in people who have tight hips or preexisting conditions. To keep from hurting your knees, keep them over your ankle whenever you lunge and try to track your knee to your middle toe. Also, never bend your knee inward, also known as hyper-extension. A slight roll of your thighs and glutes can help you from doing so.
Injuries to the lower back are common in yoga. Two common reasons for injuries is rounding the spine in poses like downward dog or keeping legs too straight while going into the asana. Doing so causes your spine to flex incorrectly.
To prevent injury to your lower back:
- Keep a micro-bend in your knees.
- Move slowly during twists.
- Make sure to use your core strength by engaging your belly muscles.
In case you are wondering, a yoga HIIT fusion class might be formatted like this:
We are not used to being on our wrists for extended periods. Outside of the yoga studio, our wrists become aggravated from our computers and phones. But in the studio, weight and alignment can damage them. As you enter a pose such as a plank, put weight on the wrists gradually.
Injury prevention includes spreading the weight evenly through your hands and fingers. Avoid having your shoulders go beyond your wrist, and don't cup your palms.
Injury Prevention to Specific Poses
Doing poses correctly can also prevent injuries. Here are a few common poses and how to avoid injury.
In this asana, you spread your legs apart, bend to one side, with one arm stretched up and the other on your ankle. You can prevent an injury in this pose by:
- Using a yoga block to keep you from overstretching your torso.
- Moving your pelvis forward to protect your lower back.
- Micro-bending your knees.
This can easily be an active pose by not having the downward arm press against your thighs.
Downward Facing Dog
This asana provides an excellent stretch for your back and builds arm strength. Your body is also shaped like a triangle, except that your hands and feet are on the ground and your glutes are pointed up. To prevent injury in this pose:
- Keep your heels from touching the floor by lifting them as much as you need to avoid pain in your hamstrings or Achilles Tendons.
- Bend your knees if there is tension in your lower back.
- Spread your fingers to lessen pressure on your wrists.
- Keep your neck relaxed.
Making this pose active would require you to take your feet off the floor, which would be the first step of a handstand. The Downward Facing Dog is an example of a pose that shows passive does not mean easy.
To do this pose:
- Start on your back with this asana.
- Bend your knees and put your feet flat on the floor, keeping them hip-width apart.
- Slide your arms down, palms facing down until your fingertips are lightly touching your heels.
- Then lift your hips, using your glutes and legs.
- Engage your arms and shoulders to lift your chest.
Prevent injuries by:
- Keeping your chin tucked toward your chest.
- Bringing your knees closer to your glutes to increase the arch in your back (be careful with this if you have knee pain).
- Having your knees parallel and pointing your toes forward.
It’s hard to imagine that a person could hurt themselves with this pose, but this is why even a simple pose requires being mindful of one’s body.
A child’s pose begins with the table asana. Lower your hips to your heels and then your forehead to the floor. Your arms can be spread forward, or folded underneath your forehead, or along your body.
This stretch uses the hips and knees. If your hips are tight, consider using one or more blocks between the ankles to relax into the position. A folded blanket between your calves and the back of your thighs can help take pressure off the knees. Also, this should be a comfortable stretch, so pay attention to how much you are stretching your spine.
This pose can be made active by bringing yourself into a seated position without the use of your arms. Overall a child's pose is meant to be a relaxing Asana commonly done after a challenging one.
What To Do To Prevent Injury When Switching From Passive to Active Stretches?
Modifying yoga stretches from passive to active requires analysing where you are providing help and how to remove (or reduce) it. Although you can do the analysis independently, you take a risk if you don’t position yourself correctly.
That is one reason to take yoga classes. An instructor is aware of the small details that you might overlook in how you do an asana and guide you to do them correctly. This doesn't mean you shouldn't do yoga at home or use videos. It is just recommended to learn the basics first from someone who knows them.
Ask the instructor about passive and active poses. If that person has never heard about those, find another class. Then ask them how one of the asanas you have read about can be modified. If you are satisfied with the answer, you have found an instructor to work with.
Active stretches provide strength, and passive ones give you flexibility. An exercise routine should provide both—otherwise, you risk injury. Although there are more passive asanas in yoga, a good routine includes both. Many passive asanas can be modified to be active. Be mindful when doing so that you don’t injure yourself. Relying on a yoga instructor is a good way of doing so.