Finger Yoga
Finger Yoga

Yoga Primer

The best way to learn Hatha yoga is from a human teacher.

Also finger yoga is best learned after studying the other aspects of yoga for some time.

However, I will take this opportunity to briefly present some of the most basic and fundamental elements of hatha yoga here.

Hatha yoga involves stretching

Traditionally Hatha yoga consists of a range of exercises that affect the body and mind.

Many of these are static postures with the limbs placed in extreme positions.

These positions are impossible for untrained individuals to assume - and stretching exercises are typically necessary in order to adopt them.

Hatha yoga also employs balancing poses, inverted poses, locks, strengthening poses - and a number of other things that have nothing to do with stretching - but I won't discuss those much further here.

Stretching has theraputic value

You might think making muscles longer would not substantially affect their state of health. You would be mistaken.

  • Effect on muscles

    Stretching muscle tissues are one of the best things you can do for them.

    Muscle fibres adhere to adjacent muscle fibres. They become glued together with breakdown products of exercise - such as lactic acid.

    Their range is reduced. The process is iterated. Over time the muscles become shorter.

    Shorter muscles result in bunched up muscle fibres. Muscle fibres not in alignment result in wasted effort.

    A muscle with a reduced range is less effective at pumping blood through its body, and more likely to poison itself in its own exhausts.

  • Effect on bones

    Short muscles have a huge effect on the body structurally.

    It is as though parts of your body become tied together with ropes that restrict movement. Initially this manifests as stiffness - but over time the effect is increasingly one of being tied up - imprisoned in your own body.

    The effect can be seen most dramatically in the aged.

  • Effect on joints

    Short muscles can prevent joints from moving through their full range of motion.

    Joint surfaces that are not use tend to be subject to deterioration - and in the case of joint surfaces, that often means the formation of crystalline deposits on the unused surfaces.

    The presence of such "calcium spurs" further restricts motion. They irritate the surrounding tissues, and can cause pain, inflammation, and auto-immune responses, and a range arthritic symptoms.

Age and stiffness are linked

If you look at young tree branches, they are moist and supple.

By contrast elderly branches tend to be dry and stiff.

This pattern is repeated across a wide range of organisms.

The association between suppleness and youth is well recognised. Humans are typically at their most flexible as babies. For example, most babies can easily wrap their legs behind their head.

The least flexible are the elderly - where often short muscles - and constant tension in the front of the body - combine with gravity and a weakened skeleton to produce a "dowagers hump". The convex thoracic region - and the resulting coiled-up fetal appearance - is one of the distinctive characteristics of the elderly in many western countries.

Indeed this curve is regarded as so characteristic of the aged that it - and the associated difficulty in walking - were used to characteris the aged in an international ideogram:


Clearly, aging causes stiffness. It is equally true - though perhaps less obvious - that stiffness causes aging - in other words becoming stiff is a component of the aging process - rather than being a harmless age marker.

Stretching - the antidote to stiffness

Stiffness has an antidote. That antidote is stretching exercises.

Stretching exercises take the ends of each muscle and mechanically pull them apart.

By doing so, links between adjacent muscle fibres are mechanically broken.

The fibres are brought into alignment - so they more nearly run parallel to one another.

The muscle tissue itself is lengthened - allowing the sketelon to resume its full range of movement, and eliminating unused joint surfaces.

Performed dilligently, stretching exercises have the power to return most muscle tissues to their natural lengths over time.

However clearly the best thing to do is to stretch since childhood - and to prevent ever getting stiff in the first place.

How to stretch

Most animals stretch. However some humans have taken the art of stretching to extremes - and it has received a significant volume of study.

Several things have come to light.

  • Stretch staticly

    The best way to stretch is widely regarded as being static stretching.

    Static stretching involves adopting an extended pose - and maintaining it.

    Inexperienced stretchers will often be seen "bouncing" in poses. They will try to touch their toes and then rapidly and repeatedly attempt to go further.

    This is an error - bouncing provides concentrated, out-of- control force, and is inferior in every way to a slower, more sustained approach.

  • Warming up really helps

    Muscle tissues are at their most brittle and prone to damage when they are cold.

    Warming up before stretching makes the stretches both safer and more effective at lengthinging the muscles. Temperature is the important factor - whether the heat is internally generated or externally supplied is a secondary factor.

  • Stretching order is important

    Several complex considerations dictate the order of stretches.

    Some poses are "antidotes" to other ones.

    Muscles stretch best when they have just been contracted - this observation leads to approack known as PNF stretching.

    Some poses are energetic - while others are calming. Different poses are suitable at different occasions, and for different purposes.

  • Stretching duration and intensity are important

    Stretching for too short a period of time - or with insufficient intensity - will result in ineffective stretching - and slow progress.

    Stretching individual muscles for too long a period of time produces diminishing returns - and is likely to be a waste of time. It is better to rotate the groups you stretch - and not do the same ones in rapid succession.

    Stretching individual muscles too forcefully can damage them - by causing excessive microscopic tissue tearing.

    The questions of how much and for how long to stretch are ultimately down to the individual and their temprament.

Stretching tips

  • Relax what you are trying to stretch

    Stretching tense muscles magnifies the tension in them, and makes it visible. Magnification of failure to relax and feedback are the fundamental elements of biofeedback. Use this magnification of tension as a biofeedback technique to assist relaxation.

    Clenching muscles you're stretching is not only counter- productive - it increases the likelihood of damaging the muscles and their tendons. There are reflex mechanisms designed to prevent extensions from going too far by clenching the stretched muscle. Working slowly - and tiring out the muscle before stretching it - can both help avoid this happening.

  • Pay attention to what you are trying to stretch

    Put your attention into what is being stretched. Use your kinaesthetic sense.

  • Exercise your will

    Like muscles, your will grows more powerful the more you exercise it. It is strengthened by use, and atrophies if neglected. Developing your will is important - without a powerful will you will not control your environment - instead you will be at its mercy.

  • Isolate muscles

    Use isolation to develop detailed control over individual muscles, the ability to stretch each one, and develop your body image of each part of your body.

  • Practice with persistence

    Giving up - or lapsing into practicing intermittently - is one sure way to avoid making progress.

    To avoid this, practice religiously.

  • Stretch concurrently

    Stretching muscle groups individually gives the most control and allows complet attention to be given to the part in question.

    However, stretching your whole body like this can be a time- consuming process. To speed things up, it is often possible to stretch many muscle groups concurrently, in series or in parallel.

  • Stretch and strengthen

    Flexibility without strength is not always desirable.

    Strengthen the muscles you stretch as well as stretching the muscles you strengthen.

Closing remarks

I hope this introduction has been sufficient to help those who know little about yoga to appreciate the rest of this site.

This page is inevitably a poor substitute for a good yoga teacher. If you lack exposure to one of these, I encourage you to seek one out.

Tim Tyler | Contact |