Passive Stretch VS Active Stretch

Yoga functions well as a relaxation tool for the whole body and mind. In the hustle and bustle of everyday life, our daily routine can often be a blur — a blur we allow ourselves to accept as normal, not noticing how depleting this pace is, and that we need to make time for ourselves. When we talk about, and practice relaxation, we must be aware of the different types of stretches there are, such as Active and Passive stretch.

Mental relaxation is the prime mover for all physical relaxation. Even within physical relaxation there are differences between the release of emotional and mental stress that we hold in our muscles, and the release of muscle tension.

Mental and physical relaxation both occur involuntarily at deep rest which means sleeping. The only close counterpart for voluntary mental relaxation is Meditation.

Physical relaxation can be of two types: Release of stress, or release of tension.

Release of stress is first finding out where you hold tension. Common places are jawline, forehead, neck, back and hips etc.. Focus on your tense muscles and find a position where they are in their neutral position (not contracted or extended). Laying flat on the ground in Corpse Pose is best for this. Then, start your meditation, and visualize the muscle groups you are working with as you voluntarily relax them one by one. Check out our Nidra Yoga post to see the relaxed pose for the different muscles. Your breath will help you relax further the same way it helps you stretch further.

Release of tension is much more complicated. Your body is under constant tension. Even while standing erect, there is a constant sway that the body automatically corrects by changing tension on muscles. To correctly release tension, without harming muscles, the best way is to practice Passive stretching.

An active stretch is when you engage the muscle that you are stretching. A passive stretch is a muscle that is stretched with external forces only. To feel this yourself, extend your right arm out in front of you and move the whole arm towards the left shoulder until you feel the stretch in the right arm. Go as far as you are able to go. Then use your other hand to push the arm further into the stretch. You will be able to go quite a bit further. The moment you start using your left arm to push the right arm, this goes from an active to a passive stretch.

Passive shoulder stretch for relaxation
Passive Shoulder Stretch

Passive stretching may result in increased flexibility but it is unstable. Your muscles do not have any strength to move themselves in that extended range of motion. Therefore, this range is weak and can be dangerous if load bearing positions are attempted in this range. Passive stretching is great for getting blood circulation to your muscles in an extended or contracted state. The above pose is also great for opening up the shoulder joint for increased flexibility.

For relaxation, you want to use passive support for your target muscles, but be careful not to go to far beyond your active range of movement.

Passive Shoulder stretch using bodyweight and gravity

You can also use gravity and your weight as external forces for a passive stretch, but this can be dangerous if an imbalance occurs. Load bearing positions should only be attempted inside the active ranges to avoid harming yourself.

For the asanas shown below, start all of them by stretching actively and then using the support muscles. Once supported, relax the active muscle completely. You will encourage blood flow and teach the muscle to stay relaxed when extended.

Active twist
Passive twist
Wide leg hip opener
Passive hip opener
Active leg stretch
Passive leg stretch
Active stretch
Passive stretch

If you practice Active and Passive stretching correctly, your muscles will first adapt, and then grow comfortable with new ranges of motion gently and safely.