Like many yoga teachers, I’ve been reasonably flexible my whole life. Not flexible in the “tuck both feet behind the head” sense, but I’ve always had to work harder on creating strength and stability than on increasing my range of motion. In fact, I find that deep static stretches at my end range can actually create joint stiffness, even pain, the next day.
For that reason, I’ve essentially stopped “stretching.” Which doesn’t mean that I purely work strength. Instead, the gentler side of my practice focuses, not on flexibility for its own sake, but on these three aims:
1. Maintaining mobility
Like most of us, I wake up in the morning feeling a little stiff. Part of the reason for morning stiffness is that our fascia tends to dehydrate overnight, becoming more solid and less gel-like in its structure. Smooth, gliding movements feel great to encourage these sliding surfaces to move more freely, to break up light adhesions between tissue layers, and to warm and lubricate joints. My morning practice often starts with gentle flow to free up restriction and open up my normal range of motion. I like joint rotation, rippling between Cat and Cow, flowing twists, and side bends.
See also How "Fit" Is Your Fascia?
2. Balancing range of motion
Over years of yoga practice, I’ve noticed that certain areas are easier for me to move into than others. For example, I can fold forward into Wide-Legged Forward Fold (Upavistha Konasana) with little or no preparation, but sitting in Hero Pose (Virasana) is challenging for me no matter where I am in my practice. It’s easy for my hips to externally rotate, so to balance that I ensure that each practice includes poses that require internal hip rotation like Warrior III and Crescent Lunge. My left hamstring is noticeably tighter than my right, so I regularly practice asymmetric poses that only lengthen the left leg like Pyramid Pose (Parsvottanasana) and Head-to-Knee Forward Bend (Janu Sirsasana). We all have these imbalances, so it’s helpful to use our practice time strategically to equalize tension around our joints and to balance left and right sides, rather than trying to deepen into poses that naturally come easy.
3. Releasing tension
When we get stuck in the same position or movement pattern our muscles and fascia tend to tighten up around that shape. Think about how you feel when you stand up after sitting for hours at the computer or after a long drive. The body intends this change to be helpful, to reduce the effort required to hold a position, but the end result is a feeling of stiffness, reduced range of motion, and potentially restricted blood and lymphatic flow. I’ve found gentle, long-held stretches (especially supported on props) and myofascial release with tennis or massage balls very helpful in unraveling postural tension. When I can, I finish the day with a couple of these kind of restorative poses to release the tension of the day, even if it means doing them when I get into bed. For example, lying down with a small pillow or rolled hand towel under my mid-back (at bra strap line) feels great to dissolve tension in the chest and the front of the shoulders. A reclined single-knee twist with a pillow propping my knee is a restful way to unwind muscular habits around the spine. The key here is to look for a feeling of release or relaxation, rather than a stretching sensation.
With this approach, I may never be able to tuck my feet behind my head, but hopefully I will enjoy a healthy and balanced body for many years to come.
About Our Expert
Rachel Land teaches internationally as a Yoga Medicine teacher trainer, 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 on her 1000-hour certification.