Monday, December 14, 2009

Yoga and stretching

Last weekend I was in an elementary yoga course, where I learned the sun salutations, the deep ujjayi breathing and some asanas.

First, a quick description of Ashtanga yoga for those who don't know (like me 2 weeks ago). In yoga you do a precisely defined series of stretching movements and light gymnastics. They are called asanas. Each asana also defines when you inhale and exhale. If yoga was a state machine, then "states" would be the stretching postures while "transitions" would be inhalations and exhalations.

Yoga is primarily a meditative exercise, secondarily a breathing exercise and only then a physical exercise (although meditative component emerges only after you are so familiar with the asanas that they "empty your mind"). Lots of emphasis is placed on breathing and recruiting all the muscles below stomach for deeper breathing.

Now, back to the main topic.

Parapara stretching

Parapara is a dance for hands. The hand movements are quick and simple. The aesthetics concentrates on 45 and 90 degree angles and big, symmetric hand motions. In parapara, choreographies are song-specific. Everyone dances the same way. Professionals make choreographies for popular Japanese disco songs and distribute them as DVDs.

When I was in India, after I came from gym I danced at least 15 minutes of parapara as a form of stretching. 30 minutes wasn't exceptional. The big circular motions ensured that every part of my hands got stretched.

Parapara stretching was effective, since I didn't have much soreness or snapping, even though I had only begun strength training and therefore my technique was lousy and my body was unprepared.

Traditional stretching

Shoulder snapping started only after I returned to Finland. Gym was far away from my flat, so I did final stretching in the gym with the traditional movements they teach in school, for example:
  • grapping some wall corner with your hand and strethching it backwards,
  • putting your hand behind your neck,
  • pushing the wall, or
  • trying to reach the ground while keeping your feet straight.
These are solid movements to aid recovery, but they didn't quite cut it. First of all, I had some serious shoulder snapping, which forced me to stop exercising for some weeks. My weightlifting book says that most people's shoulders are woefully unprepared for strength training. For a beginning weight trainer, the question is not if you will have shoulder problems but in which specific lifts they emerge for you.

Nor did these stretches increase flexibility. I still couldn't reach the ground while keeping my feet straight despite having done that particular stretch after every gym workout for almost a year.

Yoga stretching

So parapara worked well and traditional stretching didn't. Yoga combines the best of these two so my hopes are high.

In parapara, you do lots of movements but each single movement is light and easy. Similarly in yoga, you don't lock your feet and don't try your flexibility limit, as the next breath takes you to the next posture quite soon.

In traditional stretching, each stretch is easy and everyone can complete them. In yoga, each asana has a posture which no beginner can complete. You do it as far as you can while focus on breathing keeps the stretch light.

Parapara has the weakness that it only stretches hands and needs videos. Yoga seems to provide equally efficient dynamic stretching system for the whole body, enabling me to avoid soreness and increase flexibility.

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