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Despite images of ultra-bendy yogis that you see splashed across social media and on marketing materials, you don’t need to be a contortionist to have a robust yoga practice. In fact, science has shown that flexibility might have as much to do with genetics as it does about the health of your tissues, muscles, and joints. Still, if you are looking to increase your mobility, work toward more advanced postures, and feel better in your body overall, try yoga for flexibility.
The benefits of flexibility
There are many reasons why it’s important to build and maintain flexibility—and not just for your physical health. Here are just a few benefits:
- Reduces your risk of injury
- Increases your mobility and balance
- Decreases pain and discomfort throughout your body
- Improves your posture and alignment
- Releases tension and encourages deeper relaxation
- Improves your overall physical performance
How yoga improves your flexibility
Yoga is for everyone, regardless of body type and ability, so it’s a myth that you must be flexible to do yoga. But many yoga practitioners notice that a continued practice improves their flexibility over time. There are a number of reasons for that. First, yoga helps increase the elasticity of connective tissues, such as tendons, ligaments, and muscle fascia, which connect all parts of the body and bind it into a whole. When you move through yoga asana, you’re lubricating and loosening these tissues so they move can more freely.
Yoga also has the ability to work with the body’s “stretch reflex,” a neurological response in which a muscle contracts in response to a stretch, to increase flexibility over time. Deliberate, static stretching (do not bounce), like through yoga poses, triggers the stretch reflex—that’s why you might feel tightness in your hamstrings when you fold forward in Uttanasana (Standing Forward Bend). Repeating the movement can help condition your muscles to tolerate more tension before contracting, so you can find yourself folding deeper as you continue your asana practice.
Flexibility won’t improve overnight. But a consistent yoga practice can help you build flexibility over time so you can move more efficiently both on the mat and off.
Yoga poses to help increase flexibility
The stretches included in this yoga sequence are designed to release tight muscles in the major areas of the body, such as the legs, shoulders, and back. Stretching the full body by hitting these major areas will improve your flexibility over time. These stretches can be done when you first wake up, before you hop into bed, or as a warm up for a different set of exercises.
Release tension in your shoulders, hips, and low back with this classic pose. It’s excellent for centering yourself to reduce anxiety before bed, or to prepare the back, legs, and hips for a strenuous run or weight-bearing exercise.
To practice it:
- Kneel on the floor. Touch your big toes together and sit on your heels, then separate your knees about as wide as your hips.
- Exhale and lay your torso down between your thighs. Broaden your sacrum across the back of your pelvis and narrow your hips toward the navel, so that they nestle down onto the inner thighs. Lengthen your tailbone away from the back of the pelvis while you lift the base of your skull away from the back of your neck.
- Lay your hands on the floor alongside your torso, palms up, and release the fronts of your shoulders toward the floor. Feel how the weight of the front shoulders pulls the shoulder blades wide across your back.
- Hold anywhere from 30 seconds to a few minutes.
Many people judge their flexibility off whether they can touch the floor with their hands while in this posture. This is only one marker of flexibility (and certainly not the only indicator), but it is an effective measurement since it targets the hamstrings, hips, and low back—all of which affect posture, gait, and maneuverability.
- Stand up straight with your hands on your hips. Exhale and bend forward from the hip joints, not from the waist. As you descend, draw your chest out from the groin and open the space between the pubis and the top of your sternum. The emphasis is on lengthening the front torso as you move more fully into the position.
- If possible, with your knees straight, bring your palms or finger tips to the floor slightly in front of or beside your feet, or bring your palms to the backs of your ankles. If this isn’t possible, cross your forearms and hold your elbows. Press the heels firmly into the floor and lift the sitting bones toward the ceiling. Turn the top thighs slightly inward.
- With each inhalation, lift and lengthen the front torso just slightly; with each exhalation release a little more fully into the forward bend. In this way the torso oscillates almost imperceptibly with the breath. Let your head hang from the root of the neck, which is deep in the upper back, between the shoulder blades.
- Stay in the pose for 30 seconds to 1 minute.
- Don’t roll the spine to come up. Instead, bring your hands back onto your hips and reaffirm the length of the front torso. Then press your tailbone down and into the pelvis and come up on an inhalation with a long front torso.
Twisting improves the flexibility of your side body, or obliques, which will help your spine and torso move through their full ranges of motion. Plus, the positioning of your arms in this posture opens up the chest, shoulder blades, and back.
- Sit on the floor with your legs straight out in front of you, buttocks supported on a folded blanket. Bend your knees, put your feet on the floor, then slide your left foot under your right leg to the outside of your right hip. Lay the outside of the left leg on the floor. Step the right foot over the left leg and stand it on the floor outside your left hip. The right knee will point directly up at the ceiling.
- Exhale and twist toward the inside of the right thigh. Press the right hand against the floor just behind your right buttock, and set your left upper arm on the outside of your right thigh near the knee. Pull your front torso and inner right thigh snugly together.
- Press the inner right foot very actively into the floor, release the right groin, and lengthen the front torso. Lean the upper torso back slightly, against the shoulder blades, and continue to lengthen the tailbone into the floor.
- You can turn your head in one of two directions: Continue the twist of the torso by turning it to the right; or counter the twist of the torso by turning it left and looking over the left shoulder at the right foot.
- With every inhalation lift a little more through the sternum, pushing the fingers against the floor to help. Twist a little more with every exhalation. Be sure to distribute the twist evenly throughout the entire length of the spine; don’t concentrate it in the lower back.
- Stay for 30 seconds to 1 minute, then release with an exhalation, return to the starting position, and repeat to the left for the same length of time.
Even though this pose is seen more in yoga sequences than general pre-workout stretches, it might just be the stretch that you’re missing for full-body flexibility. While practicing it can feel intense to some, the deep stretch through the quadriceps, pecs, shoulders, and back will have you instantly feeling relief.
- Lie on your belly with your hands alongside your torso, palms up. (You can lie on a folded blanket to pad the front of your torso and legs.) Exhale and bend your knees, bringing your heels as close as you can to your buttocks. Reach back with your hands and take hold of your ankles (but not the tops of the feet). Make sure your knees aren’t wider than the width of your hips, and keep your knees hip width for the duration of the pose.
- Inhale and strongly lift your heels away from your buttocks and, at the same time, lift your thighs away from the floor. This will have the effect of pulling your upper torso and head off the floor. Burrow the tailbone down toward the floor, and keep your back muscles soft. As you continue lifting the heels and thighs higher, press your shoulder blades firmly against your back to open your heart. Draw the tops of the shoulders away from your ears. Gaze forward.
- With the belly pressed against the floor, breathing will be difficult. Breathe more into the back of your torso, and be sure not to stop breathing.
- Stay in this pose anywhere from 20 to 30 seconds. Release as you exhale, and lie quietly for a few breaths. You can repeat the pose once or twice more.
For a deep quad stretch, add a variation to the classic low lunge. This pose can feel very intense, so listen to your body and don’t go any deeper than what feels comfortable.
- From Downward-Facing Dog (Adho Mukha Svanasana), exhale and step your right foot forward between your hands, aligning the right knee over the heel. Then lower your left knee to the floor and, keeping the right knee fixed in place, slide the left back until you feel a comfortable stretch in the left front thigh and groin. Turn the top of your left foot to the floor.
- Inhale and lift your torso to upright. As you do, sweep your arms out to the sides and up, perpendicular to the floor. Draw the tailbone down toward the floor and lift your pubic bone toward your navel. Lift your chest from the firmness of your shoulder blades against the back torso.
- Take your head back and look up, being careful not to jam the back of your neck. Reach your pinkies toward the ceiling. Hold for a minute, then hinge your back leg up toward your buttocks. In a sweeping motion, reach back with your left arm and grab the outside of your left foot, slowly bringing it in toward your body.
- On an exhalation, release your left leg, bring your torso back to the right thigh, and place your hands on the floor.
- With another exhale, lift your left knee off the floor and step back to Adho Mukha Svanasana. Repeat with the left foot forward for the same length of time.
This pose stretches the toes, quads, abdominals, hips, chest, and shoulders, preparing your body for a vigorous workout. While the pose itself isn’t physically strenuous, it can feel uncomfortable. Take it slow and move out of the stretch if it gets too intense.
- Begin by kneeling with your thighs perpendicular to the floor and your knees and feet hip-distance apart. Maintain a neutral pelvis throughout the posture.
- Extend your big toes straight back, pressing down with all 10 toes and firming your outer ankles into your midline.
- Spin your inner thighs back, and gently release the flesh of your buttocks toward the backs of your knees.
- Root down from the tops of your feet to your knees; rebound up with your chest.
- Bring your palms together in front of your sternum, and drop your chin toward your sternum.
- Take an inhalation to emphasize the lift of your chest, then create Savasana (Corpse Pose) arms (palms facing forward).
- With the next exhalation, keeping your chin dropping and your pelvis over your knees, take your hands to your heels.
- Immediately press your shoulder blades forward and up, and coil your thoracic spine to lift your chest any amount more.
- Having created more space/extension in your upper back, your head can now drop back and hang freely.
- Continue pressing down with your feet and lower legs in order to lift up with your thoracic spine and chest.
- Hold for 5–10 breaths, then, leading with your sternum, use an inhalation to come up (head is the last part of the body to exit).