Yoga vs Stretching: The 5 Main Differences, Discussed

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When it comes to yoga poses, many athletes and sedentary people alike are immediately discouraged or count themselves out from probably being able to even do yoga.

After all, yoga has certainly earned a popular (and often well-deserved!) reputation for requiring a fair amount of flexibility, and a good yoga session can help you feel well-stretched and limber once you are done.

But, how do yoga and stretching compare? Are yoga and stretching the same thing? Is it better to do yoga or to stretch after exercise? Is yoga or stretching better for flexibility?

In this guide, we will discuss the similarities between yoga and stretching as well as the differences between yoga vs stretching to help you decide whether or you should focus on stretches or yoga poses for your own workout routine.

We will cover: 

  • Is Yoga the Same As Stretching?
  • Yoga vs Stretching: How Do They Differ
  • Should I Stretch Or Do Yoga?

Let’s jump in!

A person in Child's Pose.

Is Yoga the Same As Stretching?

Yoga and stretching are often lumped together or used interchangeably when people are considering whether they are doing a stretch vs yoga pose.

After all, there are certainly similarities between yoga and stretches, as certain styles of yoga involve holding yoga poses for an extended period of time, which stretches muscle groups in the same way that static stretches do.

In fact, some yoga poses even resemble common stretches.

For example, standing Forward Fold yoga pose can also be considered a standing hamstring stretch where you reach down and touch your toes.

The Butterfly Pose in yoga is like the groin stretch, and there are countless other yoga poses that are like static stretches that you might perform after a workout.

In this way, yoga and stretching can both fall under the umbrella of flexibility exercises.

Both yoga and stretching can help stretch tight muscles and connective tissues, potentially relieving stiffness and increasing flexibility and mobility.

Hands on a yoga mat.

However, yoga is a distinct form of exercise that differs from stretching.

In fact, what we consider to be the physical practice of yoga (the yoga poses referred to as asanas) is actually only one of the eight arms of yoga as a spiritual practice or discipline.

The practice of yoga dates back over 5,000 years with origins in Ancient India, where the Rig Veda, a sacred Sanskrit text, first mentions the term. 

Compared to yoga, stretching is still in its nascent stages.

Furthermore, yoga has spiritual and religious roots, whereas stretching workouts were developed as a form of injury prevention or exercise warm-ups and cool-downs. 

Yoga is one of the schools of philosophy in Hinduism and is also a component of the meditative practices of Buddhism and Jainism. 

Let’s look at some of the primary differences between yoga and stretching.

A yoga class.

Yoga vs Stretching: How Do They Differ

Here are some of the key differences between yoga vs stretching:

#1: Positions

Even though there is some crossover between certain yoga poses and certain stretches, there are hundreds of yoga poses, many of which are not directly replicated by common post-workout stretches or dynamic stretches before exercise.

For example, Tree Pose and Chair Pose in yoga don’t readily replicate a stretching exercise.

Thus, the postures or body positions for a yoga workout can be quite different from the stretches you would perform.

#2: Purpose

Some yoga poses are held for an extended period of time, like a static stretch near the end range of motion for the tissue, providing a good stretch or increasing flexibility in the way that stretching does.

People in  a yoga class.

However, the primary purpose of many yoga poses is not necessarily to increase flexibility or stretch your muscles, tendons, or connective tissues.

For example, some yoga poses are geared towards strengthening your muscles rather than stretching your muscles.

Indeed, while yoga may not burn a ton of calories or be a particularly vigorous cardio workout, some yoga poses are challenging on the muscles and require a lot of strength.

Examples of yoga poses for strengthening muscles include the Boat Pose, the Warrior poses, and the Chatturanga or Plank Pose.

Static stretches are designed to do just that—stretch your muscles and connective tissues.

Calisthenics or bodyweight strength training exercises (like push-ups, V-sits, planks, and wall sits) better mirror some of the yoga poses for strength vs stretches.

In this way, a key difference between yoga vs stretching for exercise is that yoga workouts are more diverse and can address different arms of fitness aside from just flexibility and mobility, whereas stretching is mainly geared towards flexibility and/or warming up or cooling down the body before or after a workout.

People in a yoga class.

#3: Pacing

While certain styles of yoga do involve holding yoga poses for an extended period of time in the way that you might hold a stretch, other types of yoga or yoga workouts are much more dynamic.

More dynamic workouts involve a flow or sequence of yoga poses that move relatively quickly from one body position to the next.

These types of yoga workouts are more cardio-based and may be more vigorous, burn more calories, and target strength or mobility rather than just flexibility, restoration, relaxation, centering, or some of the other calming and low-intensity characteristics ascribed to stretching vs yoga.

For example, Vinyasa yoga and power yoga tend to move quickly through strength-based yoga poses, so you will notice significant differences.

Other types of “stretching yoga” are a little more similar to basic stretching, such as Yin yoga and Hatha yoga, though there are still plenty of differences between these types of gentle yoga vs stretching.

A person lying down breathing deeply.

#4: Breathing

Although it is important to breathe properly during any type of exercise, and breathing while stretching can promote flexibility and relaxation, the emphasis on deliberate breathwork is much more central to the practice of yoga vs stretching.

In fact, breathwork is one of the other eight arms of yoga aside from the asanas (poses).

Known as pranayama in yoga, breathwork techniques involve carrying out particular rhythmic and conscious breathing patterns for several minutes at a time. 

Breathwork in yoga is used to help quiet your mind, bring awareness to your body, and shift your body from a state where the “fight or flight” sympathetic nervous system is dominating to one where the “rest and digest” parasympathetic nervous system is activated. 

Studies have demonstrated that various forms of breathwork or pranayama in yoga can improve cognitive performance, enhance the oxygen perfusion of tissue, reduce blood pressure, support glucose metabolism, and increase immune function.

For example, diaphragmatic breathing has been shown to confer numerous emotional and mental health benefits, such as reducing anxiety, depression, stress, emotional burnout, and low back pain, even when the interventions were short.

Two people meditating.

#5: Mindfulness

Much like the focus on breathing in yoga versus stretching, the deliberate attention towards mindfulness, centering the body, and the mind-body connection is an integral part of the practice of yoga vs stretching.

Of course, many athletes do try to connect with their body when stretching and may use biofeedback to inform which stretches to perform, how much to deepen or push into a stretch, etc.

However, mindfulness in stretching isn’t inextricably linked to the practice of workout stretching in the way that it is with the practice of yoga as a physical and spiritual form.

There are actually five core principles of “points” of yoga: 

  1. Proper Exercise (Asanas)
  2. Proper Breathing (Pranayama)
  3. Proper Relaxation (Savasana)
  4. Proper Diet (Vegetarian)
  5. Positive Mindset and Meditation (Vedanta and Dhyana)
A hamstring stretch.

Should I Stretch Or Do Yoga?

Since most of us only have a limited amount of time to exercise, we can’t do every possible type of workout in a given week.

This leads to the need to make decisions such as: Is it better to do yoga or stretching? Should you stretch or do yoga for flexibility?

Ultimately, there are certainly some shared characteristics or similarities between yoga and stretching, as well as notable differences between yoga vs stretching.

Generally, considering the primary differences between stretching vs yoga is the best way to determine whether it is better for you to stretch or do yoga in your own fitness routine.

That said, because there are shared benefits of both stretching and yoga and unique benefits of each discipline, most people can benefit from yoga workouts and stretching workouts.

Consider your fitness goals and needs as well as how much time you have to allot to yoga and/or stretching when determining the best yoga poses, best stretches, and/or best option to add to your workout routine when you don’t have time to do both.

To learn more about breathwork exercises that you can include in your workout routine and/or daily life for stress relief, check out our guide to the benefits of diaphragmatic breathing here.

Tree pose.
Photo of author
Amber Sayer is a Fitness, Nutrition, and Wellness Writer and Editor, as well as a NASM-Certified Nutrition Coach and UESCA-certified running, endurance nutrition, and triathlon coach. She holds two Masters Degrees—one in Exercise Science and one in Prosthetics and Orthotics. As a Certified Personal Trainer and running coach for 12 years, Amber enjoys staying active and helping others do so as well. In her free time, she likes running, cycling, cooking, and tackling any type of puzzle.

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