Stretching alternatives to yoga: what’s the difference?

The proliferation of yoga in the West over the last few decades has led to the practice being somewhat appropriated, diluted, and minimized. 

Many people now equate yoga with fitness or exercise or even just a form of stretching. 

Hence, many people who begin a yoga practice with this assumption are often confused or put off by everything else that comes with yoga that may not appear to serve the beginner’s goals of improving flexibility. 

As well as providing stretching alternatives to yoga, this post seeks to bring clarity to the misconception that yoga is purely stretching. Conflating the two will bring about confusion, preventing many potential yoga practitioners from even starting.

Jump ahead to:

If you’d like to learn more about common yoga myths, get my free guide below.

Stretching is a form of fitness, but yoga is not

To truly understand the difference between the two, we need to get really clear on our definition of yoga. 

As a beginner, your first forays into yoga can be equal parts exciting and intimidating. You’re met with new ways to move your body, new ideas about life, and even a new language. You quickly find there are different styles of yoga, separated somewhat into several different systems. You see classes labeled as “Hatha Yoga”, “Hot Yoga”, “Ashtanga Yoga”, and many more, leading to you questioning which one is right for you. 

Soon after, you find out that there are forms of yoga that go beyond a physical practice, such as Kundalini yoga, which can bring up concerns about what on Earth you have signed yourself up for. 

When you join a class you might be mystified as to why it starts or ends with a set of breathing techniques, or why there are miniature figures of Hindu gods in the studio.

In the end, it all gets a bit overwhelming, when all you were really after was the chance to improve your flexibility.

Yoga and stretching have of late become synonymous in the West, leading to great confusion and even aversion to this beautiful practice. 

So, in order for you to make the right decision for you when deciding whether or not to pursue yoga as a means to improving flexibility, or whether to find a stretching alternative to yoga, we need to define the two.

What actually is Yoga?

The answer to this could actually span several posts, as yoga has a deep and rich history that is riddled with question marks. However, for a beginner, we don’t really need to know the history in depth just yet (though that may come over time). 

Yoga is a way of life that harks from ancient India. If we take a bird’s eye view, we can see four main paths: Jnana Yoga, Bhakti Yoga, Karma Yoga, and Raja Yoga. The yoga that is popularised in the West is Hatha Yoga, which falls under the category of Raja yoga. 

Raja yoga is separated into eight limbs that all work in conjunction with each other: 

  1. Yama (personal restraint for moral refinement)
  2. Niyama (personal purification for moral refinement)
  3. Asana (postures for physical refinement)
  4. Pranayama (awareness and control of the breath as a means to control the mind)
  5. Pratyahara (withdrawal of senses to focus inwards)
  6. Dharana (single-pointed focus or concentration)
  7. Dhyana (meditation)

8. Samadhi (experiencing oneness with divinity).

The physical practice of yoga (asana and pranayama)

Hatha yoga focuses on the physical practice as a way to achieve a higher state. As this page states, it is important to know that asana has evolved drastically in the last 200 years. 

Hatha yoga is the umbrella term for all styles of yoga you see on YouTube that involve moving the body through a series of postures. 

You’ll find many different “categories” of Hatha yoga. These include Ashtanga, Iyengar, Hot Yoga, Vinyasa, and Power Yoga, among others including, confusingly “Hatha Yoga”. Even Yin Yoga, which is a Western invention, involves postures from Hatha yoga, blended with principles from Traditional Chinese Medicine. 

Essentially, they all stem from Hatha yoga but are each uniquely organized systems. You might see them referred to as “styles of yoga” or “types of yoga” which can be a bit misleading, as they are all one and the same style or type (Hatha Yoga).

A woman in a black tank top and tight purplr shorts is performing a yoga pose upside down on some blankets and propped up by a chair.

For example, Ashtanga Yoga is organized into six series. Each series builds upon the last and is a fixed set of postures coordinated with the breath. You practice the same set until your teacher moves you on to the next series. 

By contrast, an Iyengar class might not follow the same set of poses day in and day out, and some poses are held for a while. 

​These physical practices employ postures that work to open up the body to prepare it to sit for lengthy periods of time to meditate. 

Essentially, they work on the body’s strength and in particular flexibility. This is the part of yoga that has proliferated in the West, almost at the expense of all the other components (in particular the spiritual aspects) listed above. This is where, in the West, yoga has become synonymous with stretching.

A very brief history of modern yoga

It was passed down verbally from teacher to student for thousands of years until the teachings were organized into what is arguably one of the world’s first self-help books: The Yoga Sutras of Patanjali. 

This is one of the earliest texts that organize the teachings of yoga into a somewhat logical guide. It was written over 2000 years ago and still serves as one of yoga’s main texts today. These sutras (the Sanskrit term for “stitch”) are essentially a guide on how to live.  

Until the early 1900s, the practice of yoga (all components) remained largely confined to India, becoming popularized in the West in the 1940s when Indra Devi, who studied under one of the fathers of modern yoga, Krishnamacharya, for years, began teaching yoga in the United States.

A woman in a white sports bra and black leggings performs Downward Dog yoga pose.

The promise of self-liberation almost became a path of peaceful rebellion against the grip of capitalism, especially when technological advances allowed for the proliferation of information and the birth of “hustle culture” that dominates today. This wonderful post by Yoga International goes into much more detail on this. 

Yoga has not escaped capitalism, though. Certain aspects of yoga that are ripe for consumerism have been cherry-picked, culturally appropriated, and promulgated throughout Western society. Namely, the physical aspect of yoga – asana. Now, we equate yoga with expensive tight leggings, a non-toxic yoga mat, and lots of movement. Before, it was Indian pajamas, likely no mat, and movement for the purpose of seated contemplation.

It’s easy to see how yoga is now equated with stretching.

What is stretching?

Now we have a general idea of what yoga is, this leads us to focus on what exactly is stretching. 

Physiologically speaking, stretching is where a muscle or muscle group (also known as a compound muscle) is gently elongated in order to improve its elasticity. 

Stretching has a positive impact on your body, including:

  • ​improved mobility
  • improved physical performance
  • improved injury prevention
  • increased muscle health due to increased blood supply to the muscles
  • balanced nervous system

​According to Harvard Health, the best way to reap these benefits are to engage in regular stretching and allow for a lot of time for it to take effect. If you maintain a sedentary lifestyle for a few months, then expect it to take a few months of regular stretching to take effect.

Stretching in yoga

Most yoga classes include yoga poses that gradually work on elongating muscles, as well as strengthening them, over time. This is where yoga plays a pivotal role for anyone looking to improve flexibility. 

For example, a seated forward bend is a common pose in a yoga class that assists with lower back pain and tight hamstrings. Practiced repeatedly and in conjunction with a deep, smooth breath, the muscles will elongate over time. Most yoga classes will also make use of props, such as blocks or yoga straps to make poses more accessible at first. I frequently use a yoga strap to easily access a pose that I might not be able to comfortably hold without the aid of props. 

That said, the spiritual practice associated with yoga may not appeal to all. This is a deeply personal choice, and I’m not one to convince you otherwise. 

Personally, I feel that if the asana component of yoga serves your needs, then by all means focus only on that and leave the rest. My one caveat is that you are both aware of and respectful of “the rest”. Understanding the greater context of yoga is important to avoid further appropriating it. This also means that it’s on the practitioner to differentiate what is authentic yoga, and what is culturally appropriated. For example, the components of yoga that are denigrated by popular Western fitness instructors are in fact highly appropriated modern Western takes on an ancient Eastern practice that would horrify any Indian practitioner. That is for another post!

So, for those who are on the fence and want to explore other stretching alternatives to yoga before diving into a yogic practice, what choices do you have?

A young woman in ablack tank top is stretching her arms above and behind her head with her elbows bent so her hands reach down her back.

What are the best stretching alternatives to yoga?

The practice of yoga may not appeal to all, and that is perfectly OK. Everyone has different needs and there are some wonderful yoga alternatives to check out first. I would rather a practitioner who is concerned or on the fence make a fully informed decision before deciding to integrate the practice of yoga into their lives. Depending on your skill level, you may well be looking for a movement practice that focuses on low-impact exercise, some strength training (necessary for stretching), and some stretching. 

Below are three stretching alternatives to yoga to get you started.

A woman is lying on a Pilates machine with her knees bent and feet resting at about 90 degrees on an upright part of the machine. She is wearing white leggings and a teal tank top.

1. Pilates as an alternative to yoga: focus on fitness

One fabulous strengthening and stretching alternative to yoga is Pilates. Founded by Joseph Pilates in the 1920s, Pilates has boomed in recent years. The primary focus of this method is to improve physical fitness. This is done with a strong focus on the breath. Pilates includes static stretching, and dynamic stretching to achieve similar benefits to yoga, including improved core strength, greater muscle strength and muscle tone, greater range of motion, and a full-body stretch. 

There are plenty of Pilates classes on YouTube. I recommend starting out with Jessica Valant Pilates – she has a whole host of classes of varying lengths and targeted body parts. 

A woman in a pink sports bran and pink sports shorts is stretching her arms overhead in the sunshine.

2. Stretching apps that can be an alternative to yoga

For something a little more low-impact and suited to the limited amount of time you might have, some better options might be stretching apps. These offer stretching routines with step-by-step instructions to easily follow along at home. 

This site offers an overview of five different stretching apps to suit varying budgets. 

A group of men and women are performing yoga poses in a large white room with big windows. Some fitness ropes are hanging down from the ceiling.

3. Pietra Fitness: a Christian alternative to yoga

Perhaps the movement of a yoga asana practice intrigues you, but your religious beliefs either prevent you from practicing yoga, or you’re unsure of where those boundaries lie. As someone who spent years benefiting immensely from just the physical practice of yoga without paying much attention to all else, I’m not about to sit here and say “Oh well, that’s a shame”. For people who follow the Christian faith and are wary of the spiritual aspects of yoga, then check out Pietra Fitness, a Catholic-based fitness program. While it maintains the same physical and mental benefits of the physical practice of yoga, it incorporates Christian prayer. This page on their website gives a great overview of the difference between the two and provides some necessary insight into the history of yoga asana to help contextualize both yoga and Pietra Fitness.

A large ripped sheet of hot pink paper with the words "Final thought" in white block capitals is placed atop a beige computer keyboard.

Key Takeaways

  • ​It is important to understand the roots and evolution of yoga from its ancient origins to the modern era. Yoga hasn’t escaped capitalism, consumerism, colonization, and cultural appropriation. Therefore, as beginner practitioners, we need to be quite discerning in what information about yoga we are accepting at face value. 
  • Then, we can make an informed decision about whether or not the practice is in line with our own values and goals. 
  • Stretching and yoga are not synonymous, despite popular belief. Yoga involves far more than physical movement, which may contradict your own spiritual or religious beliefs. 
  • Therefore, to make an informed decision about whether or not yoga is for you, it’s necessary to understand the difference. Yoga is a vast and deep practice that is applied to daily life. Stretching body parts is one very small (and relatively new) part of that. Stretching is purely the gentle and persistent elongation of muscles and muscle groups. This leads to improved mobility among other benefits. 
  • Stretching alternatives to yoga include, but are in no way limited to, Pilates, stretching apps, and Pietra Fitness. Other stretching alternatives to yoga to look into include martial arts, Tai Chi, and Qi qong. 

If you’d like to learn more about some misconceptions about yoga, check out this post, or follow me on Instagram for yoga tidbits. 

Additionally, click below for a freebie that covers five common myths about yoga.

Until next week, much love!