Does Stretching Matter?

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Read Dharma Mittra's response:

Dear Clay,

asana was originally defined as "a steady and comfortable seated position." All postures as we know them today have been created from this original seated posture as variations to keep the body healthy and fit for meditation. There are hundreds of postures suited for different levels of practitioners, including the most flexible. One of the teacher's duties is to help adjust the asanas to fit the physical and mental condition of each individual student as needed.

A well-trained and astute, egoless teacher, with divine inner intuition—and after studying and practicing the poses for a good length of time—can learn a wide variety of modifications to offer the student. The student, having mastered the initial version of the pose, should then be encouraged to gently go beyond its limitations until a stretch is felt.

For example, in Hanumanasana (Monkey Pose), if a student feels no stretch in the complete pose, I offer one of the many deeper variations, such as folding forward completely so that the chest rests on the floor alongside the front leg, with the arms outstretched.

But please remember that, traditionally speaking, yoga poses are not about stretching. The asanas are a divine offering designed to bring a specific state of consciousness according to their shape, the style of breathing, and their point of concentration. The correct alignment or shape of each posture is more important than the stretch. For example, Bhujangasana (Cobra Pose) actually should be shaped like a cobra, with a nice curve along the length of the spine and the feet together like the tail of a snake. The practitioner should feel comfortable and steady, holding the pose long enough so that a specific state of consciousness is attained.

Sri Dharma Mittra, who has been teaching since 1967, was the first independent yoga teacher in New York City. In 1984, he created the famous Master Yoga Chart of 908 Postures, which has become an invaluable teaching tool. Dharma is the creator of more than 300 postures and is the author of the book Asanas: 608 Yoga Poses. He is also the inspiration for the Yoga Journal coffee-table book Yoga. His Maha Sadhana DVD set (A Shortcut to Immortality, for Level I, and Stairway to Bliss, for Level II), has been widely acclaimed as preservations of the main teachings of yoga. Dharma Mittra: A Friend to All, is a biography documenting experiences of his students from the 1960s on. Dharma Mittra: Yoga Life of a Yogi teacher trainings (200- and 500-hour) are held in New York, San Francisco, Japan, and at workshops worldwide. For more information, visit www.dharmayogacenter.com.