The correct way to stretch will make muscle feel safe in a relaxed lengthen position.
Usually when people first get into stretching they really want to do a good job and look like the yoga pose in the picture, but this can actually work against you. When you stretch less is really more. When you stretch to the point of really feeling the stretch where you feel the burn and pull of the muscle fighting you at the end of its range of motion you will actually cause the muscle to contract more and shorten the muscle once you release the stretch. That burn you feel when you stretch to the end of your range is actually the muscle saying “stop or I am going to tear”. That puts the muscles into a state of stress or panic and the second you release the stretch the muscle will contract in protection. Which is the opposite of what we want.
So the correct way to stretch is to find the point where the muscle engages and then hold there for a few breaths until you feel the muscle release a little bit. Then once it releases a little, you can take the stretch a little bit more. You want to move slowly and really pay attention to what you feel and what the muscles are telling you. By stretching in this way you are showing the muscles that they are safe and will not be damaged or tear which allows the muscle to relax and lengthen. Over time the range of movement in the joint will increase as the muscles relax. It is not important what the stretch looks like, you may not touch your toes at first or be able to do a downward dog, but over time your muscles will feel more and more safe and over time you will increase your flexibility.
Stretching takes time, but that doesn’t mean you have to spend an hour at a time going through a whole sequence of yoga poses. Stretching is just teaching your body it is ok to be relaxed and have lengthened muscles. Like learning anything it just takes repetition. So even small little sessions of stretching throughout the day works to train the body. In fact, I prefer small sessions throughout the day over one long session once a week. If you have time to do an hour of yoga a day, great! Do it. But not having time is not a reason not to stretch. Making it part of your routine is the only way you are going to make progress and improve your range of motion and posture.
Another mistake of stretching is only stretching one side of the body or only in one direction. We want to be mindful of the tug a war system and be working in balance. When a lot of our daily activities have the same motions it is important to balance them with the opposite motion. For example if you spend a lot of your day looking a computer or driving in the car, you want to spend some time looking up at the ceiling and opening your arms wide behind you to open your chest.
If you would like to learn more about the correct way to stretch and some simple stretches to relieve chronic muscle tension and joint pain check out my ebook, The Arthritis Answer: Your Step by Step Guide to Living Pain Free available for download now!