Ah...stretching; the intervention that used to get great acclaim for preventing injuries. Then it was realized that injury prevention is more complex than doing a few stretches so the main benefit remains to be the obvious: more range of motion. More range of motion sounds like a good thing, right? So why do sometimes things feel worse after stretching? Sure, our muscles and tendons might be generally sore from moving in ways that are atypical for our day-to-day routines, but I'm talking about the more specific type of pain you can point to with one finger. There are many reasons why this may happen and the best answer is...it depends. Here are a few ideas.
Hinge points. Let's take this picture for our first example. You can see the wrinkles on her shirt gathering to a specific point in her lower lumbar spine, just to the right of where her shirt meets her pants. I'm going to go ahead and call it her L4-L5 vertebrae. These are segments (along with L5-S1) that often get more stress and strain in the lumbar region due to funky posture and/or funky strategies of movement. For example, think of people that tend to stand with their pelvis tilting too far forwards and their tail feathers sticking up in the air. Yes, tail feathers is an anatomical term :). With a stretch like this, ideally you want to see a more uniform arch instead of a hinge point. Our spines don't do so well with hinge points. Hinge points are also found in the neck. You can imagine that doing something like this photo over and over again could create over extension of this particular area of her spine which could feel pretty awful overtime. Ouch.
Hypermobility. People that tend to be more mobile or "loosey goosey" gravitate towards yoga because they're so darn good at it. We all know those people in our yoga classes that make no effort to "forward fold" their nose to their shin bones. All of our joints are reinforced with a joint capsule and ligaments. If you have the type of connective tissue that gives these structures more laxity (more stretch) then those joints have less reinforcement to stay in their neutral zones and may present as instability. We don't prefer joints that function beyond their neutral zones because that means there may be more stress and strain in one area of the joint more than another area: no bueno. These folks are better off strengthening to give these joints more protection.
Neural tension. "Angry" or "hot" nerves don't glide through their fascial sheaths very well, creating neural tension. In other words, the last thing an irritated nerve wants to do is be put at its maximum end range of motion and held there for a long time. This will feel like increasing pain that sometimes travels away from the body, such as down your leg or into your palm. These nerves do much better with a contract/relax type of mobility exercise or something called nerve tensioners or nerve sliders/gliders. This means moving into and out of a range gently and repeatedly in a way that challenges tissues to move without irritating them. If you feel tingling or a pulling sensation when you go into the challenging position that subsides when you back out of it, then you are doing it right. With repetition, you will be able to move further with less nervy symptoms. Just think, that feeling you've had all along that your hamstring is tight could actually be a stiff sciatic nerve. Mind=blown!
A weak muscle can feel like a tight muscle. In our brains, an area may feel tight for us when in fact it's actually weak. What do we know? It all feels the same! One hint that this may be happening is if a muscle group is consistently tight no matter how much you stretch it. An efficient muscle needs to be able to shorten AND be able to lengthen; to be able to contract AND be able to relax. Try strengthening instead and see what happens.
So what are we to do? Listen to your body, of course! And if you're not sure what it's telling you, reach out to a movement professional (ahem, physical therapist) to help you decipher the code. Just because yoga is widely accepted in the American culture as being a good thing, your body might be telling you otherwise and that is okay. Maybe some types of stretches just need to be modified or maybe you would be better off using other modalities of movement combined with strength. Getting on and off the floor in different ways is a great example of a movement activity that requires both. Stay curious and discover what works best for you and your body.