In yoga we can vary our poses by making them active or passive. As with most things in yoga we need to use a combination of the two to keep our bodies in top form. Some days all you want is to gently move through poses that require the minimal amount of effort to give you a physical and mental release, and this is absolutely okay, you don’t have to do active and passive stretches in the same session. However, it is important that we balance this sort of passive practice with some more active variations at a different time to keep our body healthy.
Active stretches or poses often involve more core activation but most importantly they strengthen our end range of motion. No clue what that means, don’t worry, read on!
We have a range of motion for our movements; it varies from person to person. You might see a ballet dancer with a huge range of motion in the hips for example and acrobat with a large range of motion in the spine, whereas a body builder may have quite a small range of motion in the shoulders. Most of us are somewhere in the average.
Passive stretches naturally help you increase your range of motion because you are slowly encouraging the muscles to become more supple and making yourself more flexible, in turn increasing your range of motion. So, in general the more yoga you do, the larger your range of motion will become. Anyone who has practised yoga for a few months will have noticed this!
Increasing your range of motion is good to a certain extent but if we only ever do passive stretches, we run the risk of injury. It is important that we have strength at all points of your range of motion to support the joints and especially the ligaments and tendons that attach to the bulk of the muscle and your bones. This is where are active stretches come in. Our active stretches help us to increase our strength at the end of our range of motion and therefore help keep our bodies strong and safe as we increase our range of motion.
So now we know we need to do active and passive stretches, how can we translate that into our yoga poses? It is pretty simple. Sometimes we use gravity or our arms for example to draw ourselves deeper into a pose, this a passive stretch. To make it active we need to use our muscle strength to deepen a pose. For example, a forward fold would be passive if we use our arms to draw ourselves into it, but if we use our core and quads, and remove the hands from behind the legs we can make it active and strengthen our end range of motion. Still a little confused….. see the examples below and have a play next time you practice to feel the difference between active and passive.
Here is a simple hamstring stretch, where the use of the arms makes it passive. If you place the arms alongside the body, firm the lower back into the mat and use the core, hip flexors and quadriceps muscles to perform the pose you can make it active instead.
We can make Paschimottanasana passive or active depending on our arm placement. Here is a passive example with a grip around the feet, but this is also the same as the hands on the mat. And then an active example with the arms inline with the spine.