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.
See also "Why I Don't 'Stretch' Anymore"
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.
See also How "Fit" Is Your Fascia?
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, the hip flexors and quadriceps on the front of the thighs contract 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.
How to Use Active Stretches in Your Practice
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.
See also 12 Poses to Bring Flexibility Home
Week 2: Passive Stretches
Active stretches are the most commonly employed in yoga, but they aren’t the only way to increase our pliability. Passive stretches use little or no muscular contraction. Instead, we find a position the body can relax into, often on or close to the floor, and stay there until tension dissolves.
You may have experienced passive stretches used, very subtly, in restorative yoga. In this style of yoga, the body is fully supported by props and the stretch may even be imperceptible. While flexibility is not the primary focus of restorative yoga, its understated benefits are sometimes overlooked in the busy modern world. Restorative yoga triggers the relaxation response, a function of the parasympathetic nervous system that slows the heart rate, enhances digestion, supports natural healing processes, and releases muscle tension. Sometimes common areas of strain, like the chest, neck, and shoulders, are simply symptoms of your stress levels rather than overuse. Tension of this kind often responds better to a more subtle and soothing approach than to a heavy hand.
Passive stretches can also be used more acutely, as in yin yoga, to slowly lengthen muscles and, perhaps more importantly, their surrounding fascia. Again, suppleness is not necessarily the intention of yin yoga, but many students experience increased range of motion in their soft tissue from its sustained holds. Fascia is much slower than muscle tissue to respond to a stretch, and the Yin practice encourages you to stay long enough to move past muscle stretching into a place where the fascia is able to slowly release.
How to Use Passive Stretches in Your Practice
The key to passive stretching is patience, finding a position that is comfortable enough that you can rest there, without strain, for up to 10 minutes. You may maintain the same position as in restorative yoga, or you may allow a profound stretch to slowly develop as in yin yoga. Either way, the focus is on cultivating a relaxed and meditative state and allowing tension to dissolve gradually.
Passive Stretches Challenge
Your challenge this week is to try one or two of these passive stretches 3–5 times. Use props if needed to ensure you’re comfortable enough to relax for at least 3 minutes without strain. Because you have so much time in the pose, allow the stretch to unfold slowly and subtly rather than trying to push to your maximum. Take a few breaths between sides to notice the differences you have created.
See also Solar-Powered Yin Practice
Week 3: Dynamic Stretches (aka Flow)
Every vinyasa class includes flow: smooth, fluid movements in multiple directions. In my opinion, the flexibility benefits of this kind of work are often underestimated. Flow lubricates the body’s gliding layers of fascia, helps to separate light adhesions between tissue planes (more on this next week), and stimulates warmth and circulation. Imagine taking a dry sponge, immersing it in water, then bending and squeezing it until it becomes soft and supple again.
It’s the perfect practice first thing in the morning, after a long day of work, or early in a yoga sequence to prepare for more powerful stretches. Flow offers an approachable opportunity to move in ways outside our habitual patterns. It also encourages proprioception (feeling connected to our bodies) and breath awareness, both of which can help reduce pain and anxiety and the muscle tension that often accompanies them.
You’ve heard the “move it or lose it” principle. While they might not be the first things you think of to increase your range of motion, simple practices like Cat and Cow, flowing twists and side bends, joint rotation and Sun Salutations maintain healthy mobility in all directions. The key: Move smoothly with your breath rather than trying to force depth.
Dynamic Stretches Challenge
Your challenge this week is to try a couple of these dynamic stretches at least 3–5 times. Remember that flow is all about creating lubrication and tissue elasticity rather than depth.
Week 4: Myofascial Release
Some tension can’t be stretched away, such as adhesions between layers of fascia. Fascia is densely woven connective tissue that surrounds, separates, and interconnects almost every structure in the body, including our muscles. Fascia changes slowly over time, adapting (for better or for worse) to our posture and movement patterns. Fascia can also become tight or restricted by inflammation, injury, surgery, or scar tissue. Serious restriction requires the help of manual body work (like massage, Bowen Technique, Fascial Kinetics, Rolfing, or Active Release Techniques) but we may be able to release light adhesion ourselves through myofascial release.
Myofascial release is a broad term for various methods (commonly involving targeted pressure on massage balls, foam rollers, or yoga blocks) used to restore normal malleability in muscles and fascia. In my experience, it is especially helpful on areas that become congested from holding postural patterns, like looking down at a cellphone, lifting our hands to a computer keyboard, or sitting. Our muscles, and the fascia surrounding them, can become so accustomed to holding a shape that we may no longer even recognize the feeling as “tight.” Myofascial release seems particularly helpful in triggering areas like this to recognize, then release, chronic tension.
Regardless of the prop you use, be it massage balls or a foam roller, look for a trigger point in your soft tissue (i.e., not on nerve or on bone) where you feel dull or achy sensation, and lean into it until you notice the feeling change. It may only take a couple of breaths, and you can then move the prop to a slightly different location. It’s important that the feeling is gentle enough that you can relax into it, so avoid any sharp or radiating sensation, and don’t overstay your welcome. There’s a real temptation to push into the prop or to target the most painful area of tissue, but I’ve found it helpful to take a more compassionate approach. Think of myofascial release as acting on your nervous system as well as your fascia; less is definitely more.
Myofascial Release Challenge
This week, target one or two of your areas of tension with myofascial release 3–4 times. All you’ll need is two tennis balls (or massage balls), a block, towel or blanket, and a commitment to be gentle with yourself.
Week 5: Strength Work
Chronic tension in one area of the body doesn’t always stretch out or release. There’s a myth that a strong muscle is a tight one, and a flexible muscle is weak but the truth is actually the opposite; a healthy muscle is both strong and supple. Sometimes a muscle is tight simply because it is weak and is working inefficiently, or because there is weakness elsewhere and our tight muscle is having to do double duty. It seems counterintuitive, but identifying and strengthening weak areas can actually help tight areas release their grip.
Typical culprits include:
- Tight hamstrings that are either weak themselves or compensating for a weak gluteus maximus (or both).
- Tight or irritated iliotibial (IT) band being pulled on by an imbalance between gluteus maximus, gluteus medius and the tensor fascia latae (TFL).
- Tight upper trapezius, which can be weak itself, or compensating for weakness in the mid and lower trapezius (and other posterior shoulder muscles).
So if you have habitual tension that just won’t stretch away, or respond to myofascial release, it might pay to consider whether there’s underlying weakness to be addressed. Notice which actions are challenging for you, which muscles seem weaker or more difficult to activate, or visit a physical therapist to get their advice.
Strength Work Challenge
Your challenge for this week is to address one or two of your dormant areas with targeted strength work.
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.