Stretch and Hold: Changing habitual posture

Lead in (speed )

What do we mean by stretch and hold?  Today we are going to explore which kinds of exercises we might use that will help us change our habitual structure and improve not only our posture but our performance as well.


In the previous presentation on structural posture, we discussed habitual and dynamic structure. You will need to have viewed that presentation in order to understand  the ideas in this presentation.

Definition stretch and hold

Essentially stretch and hold is the technology used in yoga.  The different positions, or asanas, involve using your limbs and torso to stretch tendons in ligaments in parts of your body and hold them for a useful period of time.  Over many sessions the behaviour of your limbs changes, tendons and / or ligaments are lengthened and your habitual posture changes.

Sitting on sitting bones

For instance, when we are young we usually have no difficulty sitting on our sitting bones. This is when you sit on the floor with your legs outstretched in front of you.  See illustration. To do this properly you should be sitting on your pelvic bone, and not on the fleshy part of your backside. As you get older, you get stiffer, and often this ability is lost because the tendons and ligaments shorten.  If you practice sitting on, or trying to sit on the sitting bones by rocking back and forth gently and stretching the ligaments, then, over time, and with a little pain, you can regain this ability and change your habitual structure back to something closer to what it was before.

By stretching parts of the body and holding that position, or dynamic structure, for a period of time and then doing this repeatedly and regularly you can change the habitual structure of parts of your body.  That is the principle behind Stretch and Hold.

Benefits of stretch and hold

Stretch and hold exercises such as yoga have been used for centuries to improve emotional and physical well-being. Over the past few decades, increasingly, research has been done to try and unlock some of the secrets of yoga in a scientific way so that it can be put to better use in our modern technological society.  As this investigation progresses, more and more benefits are likely to be uncovered and more and different types of exercises developed.

The main event

Yoga downward dog position

Yoga chest stretching position

Positions in yoga mostly involve stretching the limbs, for instance you bend down and attempt to touch the floor in the downward dog position, as shown.  There are also many which involve stretching the chest such as the position shown in the second illustration.

Yoga positions are usually quite easy to do just by observing and following the yoga instructor.  When you put your limbs in the particular configuration required for the position, then you usually get it right.  Often the position itself creates the dynamic structure, with the accompanying pain that occurs as you hold it for a minute or so.  However, for the chest exercise pictured, the instructor will likely tell you to stretch your chest outwards as you do the exercise, something which is not so evident just looking at a person doing it.  Most positions do require some extra guidance.

In the chest exercise, understanding how to stretch the chest muscles properly is a lot less accessible than understanding how to do the downward dog position.  Effective chest expansion exercises involve understanding how it should feel internally when you do the stretching.  It requires developing a good kinesthetic understanding of your body, which means having a good sense of body position, muscle movement and weight as perceived through the nerve endings.  Your instructor will not be able to see if you really are stretching your chest muscles because the action is so subtle.  You have to do this yourself.


Let's discuss Stretch and Hold in relation to habitual and dynamic posture.  When doing Stretch and Hold exercises we create a dynamic posture; we voluntarily stretch a part of our body into a particular configuration, hold it there for a minute or two and then return back to the habitual posture once relaxed.  If we do Stretch and Hold effectively on a regular basis, over time, our habitual posture will gradually change and adopt some elements of the dynamic posture.  If we stretch the chest out and hold it long enough and do it regularly enough, then, over time, the openness and connectivity within the chest will change; we will find that we automatically 'hold' our chest in a more robust fashion than previously.  Whereas previously we needed to consciously hold that position as a dynamic structure, we now unconsciously 'hold' that position without having to think about it. If you recall the presentation I did on relaxation, you will recognise this as our old friend conditioning.  The more you practise a task the more likely you will be able to do it without having to think about it. This same principle applies to stretch and hold exercises.  The new dynamic posture, over time, will replace the old habitual posture, provided that we exercise it enough.

We will come back to this principle again and again in coming presentations.  In the relaxation presentation we discussed learning a new skill, and the part that conditioning plays in it.  Actual performance of the skill will always be better when relying on the new conditioned habitual structure rather than the dynamic structure, the one that you are trying to do.  For instance, if you are consciously and dynamically holding your body in a more robust manner while undertaking any activity whether that is swimming, singing, or giving a speech, your performance will never be as good as it will be if you bring your habitual posture up to standard and use that instead.  Consciously holding your body in a dynamic structure may improve things some of the time, but the effort of consciously exerting your body will drain resources from other parts of your performance and the forcefulness of it may cause you to lose some of your shine.  Hold and stretch exercises are for training and not for actual performance.

Personal example

I first discovered stretch and hold exercises when taking yoga in my youth.  The pain and suffering of holding the pose was always rewarded later by greater flexibility and feeling of well-being.  I soon found out that the benefits of yoga are not well understood by Western science, especially when it comes to psychological health.  Further, I found that, with the right logical principles, stretch and hold can be used in ways not currently practised in the yoga tradition.  Hence I started applying it to other parts of the body as you will find out in later presentations in this series.


Your habitual structure can be changed by doing stretch and hold exercises such as yoga.

Challenge to audience

Our understanding of how we can re-engineer our bodies for greater functionality by doing stretch and hold exercises is in its infancy.  There is a whole new frontier of learning to be explored and exploited.

References and further reading