“Notice that the stiffest tree is most easily cracked, while the bamboo or willow survives by bending with the wind.” Bruce Lee
Flexibility is one of the 5 core Yoga 15 skills. In yoga, we improve flexibility by holding static stretches for 2-3 breaths, practicing passive stretches for a few minutes of more, moving dynamically through full range of motion and incorporating relaxation techniques, such as diaphragmatic breathing and body scan meditation. Working on flexibility releases tension, eases aches and pains and enhances athletic recovery.
THE BENEFITS OF PRACTICING YOGA FOR FLEXIBILITY
- Improves suppleness.
- Reduces aches and pains.
- Increase range of motion.
- Corrects muscular imbalances.
- Reduces your risk of injury.
- Improves posture.
- Calms the central nervous system.
- Post-workout—to stretch out tight muscles.
- Later in the day—to relax the central nervous system.
- Beneficial for all athletes.
DO YOU NEED YOGA FOR FLEXIBILITY?
“All you flexible people should go bang some iron and all you big weightlifters should go do some yoga.” Laird Hamilton, big wave surfer
Improving flexibility is one of the most commonly reported benefits of a consistent yoga practice. However, by flexibility, I’m not referring to the ability to perform spectacular feats of contortion. Because as much as putting both feet behind your head might be an impressive party trick, it’s probably not going to get you much closer to your athletic goals.
For most athletes, it’s not necessary to pursue flexibility as an end in itself, but rather as a means for mitigating against the performance-damaging effects of a lack of flexibility. Namely, uncomfortably tight muscles, reduced range of motion, muscular imbalances, pain and injury.
Essentially, it comes down to balance. As athletes who specialise in just one or more sports, we contract a specific set of muscles to go fast, hit hard and maintain asymmetric postures for long periods of time but rarely do we spend a comparable amount of time allowing that tension to fully release.
Unlike our hunter-gatherer ancestors and animal cousins, we no longer move, bend and stretch sufficiently throughout the day to keep our bodies supple and healthy. In fact, our tendency is to sit for long periods of time with poor posture, exacerbating existing imbalances and reducing our athleticism. So if you’re training hard and committed to your sport, it’s essential to incorporate flexibility sessions into your schedule to continue to move well and stay pain-free.
FACTORS THAT AFFECT FLEXIBILITY
- Temperature—muscles are more supple and responsive to stretching when they are warmed up.
- Time of day—people are generally more flexible later in the day (when the muscles are warm).
- Injury—injuries and the resulting compensations and complications can reduce flexibility.
- Age—we lose flexibility over time as a result of the normal and natural ageing process.
- Gender—at all ages, females are generally more flexible than males.
- Early training—gymnasts, dancers and martial artists set a high baseline for flexibility early on.
- Individual musculoskeletal differences—some bodies are better suited to flexibility than others.
DIFFERENT TYPES OF YOGA FOR FLEXIBILITY POSES
- Backbends improve flexibility in the front of the body—the tops of the feet, ankles, knees, quads, hip flexors, abs, chest and shoulders.
- Forward Bends improve flexibility in the back of the body—the ankles, calves, hamstrings, back and backs of the shoulders.
- Sidebends improve flexibility in the sides of the body—the outer hips, obliques, intercostals, lats and shoulders.
- Twists improve flexibility in muscles from the base of the spine up—the hips, back, abs and obliques, chest, shoulders and neck.
- Hip Openers improve flexibility in the hips—inner (groin and adductors), outer (TFL, piriformis and glutes) and front (hip flexors and quads).
BEST TIME OF DAY TO WORK ON YOGA FOR FLEXIBILITY
- After a workout. This is the ideal time to schedule your flexibility training—to release tension from tight and contracted muscles, reduce stiffness and assist your body in cooling down effectively.
- In the evening. If you practice these sequences later in the day, you can take advantage of the down-regulating and relaxation effects of static stretching.
WHEN TO AVOID STATIC STRETCHING
There is significant evidence demonstrating that static stretching temporarily weakens muscles. Therefore, I don’t recommend practicing these sessions before you exercise (unless it is an activity that requires significant range of motion) as this could decrease your performance and increase your susceptibility to injury.
THE ROLE OF THE CENTRAL NERVOUS SYSTEM IN FLEXIBILITY
There are two components to flexibility—physical (including the length of the muscle) and mental (which includes your stretch tolerance). If you apply too much force to a stretch or move too quickly, your involuntary stretch reflex will prevent the muscle from lengthening. Sensors within the muscle send a message to your brain to contract the muscle and protect it from injury. If you are a dancer or a gymnast, your brain knows that it is safe for you to move into that range of motion but as an athlete, your central nervous system may not have the same reassurances.
This is where focusing on your breath is key to increasing flexibility. When you slow down your breathing, your central nervous system relaxes and allows the muscle to lengthen. This explains why practicing static stretching before exercise is not recommended. If you inhibit the stretch reflex, your risk of injury goes up.
DIFFERENCES BETWEEN YOGA FOR FLEXIBILITY AND STRETCHING
One of the reasons that yoga is so effective at improving flexibility is that it tackles the issue from a number of different angles. Yoga:
- Combines static, dynamic, active and passive stretching.
- Emphasises the role of the breath.
- Calms the central nervous system.
- Enhances body awareness.
- Works with the body as a whole, rather than on isolated muscles.
- Aims to build a balanced and functional flexibility.
- Yoga poses stretch muscles from multiple different angles.
- In yoga, we move through a series of increasingly deeper poses. (This is called sequencing.)
REFINE YOUR APPROACH
Improving flexibility is not a product of effort. If you approach your practice in a spirit of competitiveness, you could cause yourself a nasty injury. The trick is to integrate body, mind and breath to work together. Here are some pointers to help you do that:
- Never rush into your practice.
- Make sure that you are warmed up before attempting deeper postures.
- As you come into a pose, slow down your breathing and relax into it. Focus on extending your exhalations.
- Bring your attention to the muscle that you are stretching, to consciously allow it to relax.
- Adapt the poses as necessary, for example, bending your knees in forward bends.
- Stay mindful and present throughout.
- Learn to differentiate between sensations of discomfort and those of pain. If you experience pain, back off from the stretch and try to relax a little more.
- Remember that it has taken a lifetime for tightness to build up in your muscles so you may have to be patient.
THE POWER OF CONSISTENCY
Consistency is the key to safely and effectively improving your flexibility. Flexibility training is a slow and systematic process of gradually unlocking areas of tightness and tension that have built up over time. Commit to incorporating yoga into your daily routine and you’ll see significant progress over time.
WHO SHOULD PRACTICE THE YOGA FOR FLEXIBILITY SEQUENCES?
If you struggle with tight muscles, a lack of flexibility or chronic muscular pain, you’ll find these routines beneficial.
Photography: Nala Rinaldo