More often than not new yoga students come to class “to stretch,” but there are other ways to increase flexibility. In fact, we’re devoting five weeks to exploring them. Ready to really zero in on stubborn tension?
What Is Flexibility?
The dictionary definition of flexibility is “the quality of bending easily without breaking,” implying resilience or pliability rather than sheer depth of range. So while some yoga students aim for contortionist feats, most of us would simply like to move through our lives easily and without pain: rolling smoothly out of bed, bending over to pick something up off the floor, and twisting to reach the backseat of the car. Each body has a different potential range of motion, due to its unique bone and joint structure and proportions, so let’s define flexibility here as:
The ability to move freely, without pain or restriction, through the body’s natural range of motion.
What Gets in the Way of Flexibility?
For most of us, our physical condition is, in many ways, an expression of our habits, lifestyle, and posture. Our bodies tend to “shrink-wrap” around any shape we hold for a long period of time in order to reduce the muscular effort required to stay there. We’ve all felt this resistance getting out of the car after a road trip or standing up after a day stuck behind a desk. Muscles that are asked to contract repeatedly also retain more tension at rest, which explains, for example, why runners tend to have tight hamstrings. In these ways, and more, the body adapts to the demands you place on it. So in simple terms the more you move, the more you are able to move; the less you move, the less you are able to move.
These soft tissue adaptations to your specific lifestyle take time and repetition to occur, so it follows that they don’t always respond to a quick stretch in front of the TV. Fortunately, there are other ways to ease these restrictions. Let’s explore them.
Yoga for Flexibility Challenge
If stretching alone hasn’t created lasting change in your body, it’s worth exploring other techniques for restoring your natural elasticity. We’re challenging you to do just that over the next 5 weeks.
Here’s how: Choose one or two areas of your body from the list below that are habitually tight and restricted, and commit to give them some loving attention 3–5 times a week for the next 5 weeks. Each Monday, we will offer you a different technique to use that week on your chosen tight spots. By the end of the month, you should have a good idea of which methods are most effective for your areas of tension—and hopefully a new kind of freedom in your body!
Common Areas of Tension
Each week we will give you options to target these commonly tight regions. Choose one or two to focus on all month.
- Neck The scalene muscles on the sides of the neck and the upper trapezius lining the back of the neck and the upper shoulders are classic areas of tension.
- Chest & shoulders Our arms and hands are almost always held in front of the body, and especially when we spend hours on the computer our chest (namely the pectorals) and front of the shoulder (anterior deltoid) can feel restricted.
- Side body We rarely move sideways in our daily life, so our lateral body (including the latissimus dorsi, quadratus lumborum, the oblique abdominals, and gluteus medius) runs the risk of losing full and free range of motion.
- Hip flexors & quadriceps Sedentary modern life means that our hip flexors (the iliopsoas and rectus femoris) are almost constantly in the same position, potentially sacrificing their natural elasticity.
- Posterior hip & hamstrings Hours of sitting also impact on the back of the pelvis. The gluteus maximus and piriformis don’t necessarily shorten, but can become inhibited from firing, leaving the Hamstrings to bear the brunt of their inactivity.
Week 1: Active Stretches
Let’s start with the technique most commonly used in yoga: the active stretch. It capitalizes on a reflex that exercise scientists call “reciprocal inhibition,” where muscle contraction on one side of a joint inhibits contraction on the opposite side of the joint, encouraging a deeper stretch. In Paschimottanasana (Seated Forward Fold), for example, we contract the hip flexors and quadriceps on the front of the thighs to create more length for the hamstrings on the back of the thighs.
Less traditional, but sometimes used in modern yoga classes, is a kind of active stretch called an isometric stretch or PNF, which stands for Proprioceptive Neuromuscular Facilitation. In PNF, we lengthen the targeted muscle, briefly contract it in its elongated position, then relax into a slower, deeper stretch. It makes use of another of the body’s reflex actions, Autogenic Inhibition, which encourages a muscle to relax after strong contraction to reduce the likelihood of damage.
In my experience, active stretches are the most potent when our muscles are warm and well lubricated. In fact, if there are one or two areas in which you feel very restricted, incorporate active stretches every time you are warm (like after yoga practice or other exercise). Active stretches are commonly held for around 5–10 breaths, long enough to move us past the initial resistance in the lengthening muscle but not so long that the contracting muscles tire. Practitioners of ashtanga, Bikram, hatha, Iyengar, and vinyasa yoga can all testify to the effectiveness of active stretches, when used consistently.
Active Stretches Challenge
Your challenge this week is to try a couple of these active stretches 3–5 times. Choose a time when your muscles are warm. Make sure that any sensation you feel is in the belly of the targeted muscle (rather than at either end) and move away from sharp sensations or pain.
About Our Expert
Rachel Land works internationally as a Yoga Medicine teaching assistant, and for the rest of the year teaches vinyasa, yin, and one-on-one yoga sessions in Queenstown, New Zealand. Rachel’s interest in anatomy lead her to a 500-hour teacher training with Tiffany Cruikshank and Yoga Medicine. She is currently working toward her 1000-hour certification.