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Yoga for Flexibility Challenge Week 5: Strength Work

There’s a myth that a strong muscle is a tight one, and a flexible muscle is weak. It seems counterintuitive, but identifying and strengthening weak areas can actually help tight areas release their grip. Your challenge for this week is to address one or two of your dormant areas with targeted strength work. Share your progress on social media with #YJflexichallenge for a chance to be featured on our @YogaJournal Instagram page!

strength flexibility challenge shoulders

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.

See also A Healing Yoga Sequence to Ease Neck + Shoulder Pain

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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. 

Neck

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“Photos by Leigh” (Leigh Jeffery)
  1. Take a comfortable upright seat. Drop your left ear toward your left shoulder and drape your left arm over your head so that your hand is on your temple. Take 3–4 slow breaths letting the weight of the arm passively lengthen the right side of the neck.
  2. Contract the right side of the neck against the resistance of the left hand for up to 15 seconds, then gradually release the muscle contraction and use your left arm to slowly deepen the stretch.
  3. You can also try this exercise with the chin tucked toward the left shoulder and the left hand on the back of the head. Relax for at least 20 seconds before the next phase of resistance. Switch sides.

“Photos by Leigh” (Leigh Jeffery)

See also 4 Yoga Poses for Better Posture, Less Neck Pain

Chest & shoulders

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“Photos by Leigh” (Leigh Jeffery)

In any standing pose, bend your elbows into a cactus or goalpost shape to open your chest. Actively draw your elbows back and feel your shoulder blades scooping up toward back of the heart to broaden your collarbones. Stay here for 3–5 breaths.

“Photos by Leigh” (Leigh Jeffery)

See also A Yogi’s Guide to the Shoulder Girdle + Its Actions

Side body

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From Tadasana, step your right foot behind your left, crossing your inner thighs. Keeping your hips and chest facing forward, lean your hips to the right and sweep your right arm overhead. Spin your pinky finger toward the floor to feel a stretch down the entire right side of the body. Stay here for 3–5 breaths. Switch sides.

“Photos by Leigh” (Leigh Jeffery)

See also 5 Things Shiva Rea Teaches That Take Sun Salutes to the Next Level

Hip flexors & quadriceps

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  1. Come into a Low Lunge with your left leg forward. Bend your right knee and reach back with your left hand (or a strap) to catch your right foot. Take 3–4 slow breaths guiding your right heel toward your buttock, reaching your frontal hip bones toward your navel to add to the stretch.
  2. Kick your foot into your hand for up to 15 seconds, before melting deeper into the stretch. Relax for at least 20 seconds between repetitions of the active phases.

“Photos by Leigh” (Leigh Jeffery)

See also Yoga Anatomy: Learn How to Stretch + Strengthen the Psoas

Posterior hips

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Lie down with your knees bent and feet on the floor. Cross your right ankle over your left knee and open your right knee out wide. If you already feel a stretch in your right buttock and outer hip, stay there. Otherwise draw your left knee into your chest and catch hold of the thigh or shin. Flexing your right foot should help protect the knee joint, but if you do feel any knee pain, move out of the stretch and try a similar version with your inner thighs closely crossed like Gomukhasana (Cow Face Pose). Stay in the position that feels right for you for 5–10 breaths.

“Photos by Leigh” (Leigh Jeffery)

See also Not ALL Hips Need Opening: 3 Moves for Hip Stability

Hamstrings

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  1. This one is easier with a partner, but you can replicate their help, to some extent, by lying in a doorway with your right leg at a 90-degree angle up the doorframe and your left leg extended flat on the floor through the doorway. With your right leg extended toward the ceiling. Hook the ball of your right foot in a belt or strap and take 3–4 slow breaths, allowing the weight of your arms to draw your foot closer to the space above your head, lengthening the hamstrings at the back of the right thigh.
  2. For up to 15 seconds, resist against your helper or the doorframe, as if you’re trying to bring your leg back down to the floor, then gradually release the muscle contraction and soften into the stretch. Relax for at least 20 seconds between active phases of the stretch.

“Photos by Leigh” (Leigh Jeffery)

See also Anatomy 101: Understand + Prevent Hamstring Injury

See also 12 Poses to Bring Flexibility Home

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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.

See also Free Your Back Body Like Never Before: A Flow for Your Fascia

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.

Neck

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  1. Take a comfortable seat, then bend your torso to the left, propping your left elbow on the arm of a chair, your thigh, or a prop so that you can relax. Allow your left ear to fall toward your left shoulder, opening up a gentle stretch down the right side of your neck. If it feels too intense, tuck a rolled towel between your shoulder and ear and lean into it. Ensure your right arm is heavy, shoulder girdle resting on the ribcage. Breathe into your right upper torso, aware of the relaxed weight of your head with each out-breath.
  2. Feel free to explore a slightly different sensation by tucking your chin in toward your left collarbone.
  3. Stay for 3 minutes or so, then use your left hand to guide your head back to center before moving to the second side.

See also “Why I Don’t ‘Stretch’ Anymore”

Chest & shoulders

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Lie facedown, with your right arm straight out at shoulder height, palm down and your left hand under your left shoulder. Press into your left hand to turn your chest toward the left, opening up a gentle stretch across the right side of the chest and front of the shoulder. To intensify the feeling, you can turn your hips to the left as well, finding a position the legs can rest in with little effort. Let your head rest on the floor to relax your neck, and feel the breath moving slowly into the right lung. Stay for 10–15 leisurely breaths before rolling down to your belly to switch sides.

See also Free Your Front Body: A Flow for Your Fascia

Side body

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Lie on your back, with your legs straight and your arms extended overhead. Walk your arms, head, shoulders, legs, and feet toward the right side of your mat, bending at the waist, until from above you take a Crescent Moon shape. Lengthen the entire left side of your body, intensifying the stretch if desired by crossing one ankle over the other. If your arms don’t rest on the floor you can prop them on a cushion or blanket, bend your elbows to let your arms open, or even release your arms down by your sides. Stay for 3–5 minutes before gradually inching back to center to swap sides.

See also Free Your Side Body: A Flow for Your Fascia

Hip flexors

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Lie on your back with a block under your sacrum at its lowest height (try a firmly folded blanket if the block feels too hard). Extend your legs, and let your low back drape off the prop. You shouldn’t feel a “pull” here; the stretch over the front of your hips should be subtle enough that you can stay here completely at ease. If you feel compression in your lower back, adjust the position of the prop or move to something lower. If after a minute or so, however, you want more, bend your left knee and catch hold with your hands, feeling the pelvis tilt backward and the front of the right hip open. Stay for 10–15 slow breaths before changing legs.

See also 8 Keys to Take Your Yoga Teaching Beyond Standardized Alignment Cues

Quadriceps

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From sitting, roll to your left hip, bend your right knee and tuck your heel close to the outside of your right hip in Half Saddle Pose. Position the left leg wherever feels comfortable: extended out straight or bent with the knee dropping to the left. Lean back on your hands, lift your hips and tuck your tail, lengthening the front of the right hip and thigh. Make sure there’s no pressure in your right knee or lower back. After 3–4 minutes, exit slowly by rolling to your left side and making your way back to sitting. Switch legs.

To move away from sensation: Roll more weight onto your left hip. You can even lie on your left side and hold your right foot with your hand.

To move deeper: Lower back to your left elbow or prop your spine lengthwise on a bolster. 

See also 10 Reasons to Make Time for Yin Yoga When You’re Too Busy

Hamstrings

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Sit down and extend your legs in front of you. Make sure your pelvis is upright, even tilted slightly forward; sit on the edge of a folded blanket or rolled mat if necessary. Hinge forward at your hips until you feel length down the backs of your legs. If you feel a pull at the back of your knees, prop them on a rolled towel or mat. You can lean forward onto your hands with a neutral spine or tuck a bolster against your belly and drape your chest over it to add a stretch for the muscles of your back. Provided you remain comfortable and relaxed, stay for 4–5 minutes. To exit, place your hands under your shoulders, using your arms to lift out slowly.

See also The Anatomy of Fascia—& What It Can Tell Us About How to Practice

Posterior hip

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Come to all fours, sliding your right knee forward to your right wrist, pointing your foot toward your left hip. Feel free to prop your right hip up on a small cushion or blanket if it feels unsupported. Lean forward onto your elbows or a bolster, inching your left toes back until you start to feel a stretch in your right buttock or outer hip. Allow the feeling to be gentle. If you feel pressure in your right knee, come out; roll onto your back and cross your right ankle over your left knee, propping your left foot on the wall so you can relax. Otherwise, stay for up to 5 minutes before easing out to change sides.

See also 9 Yin Yoga Poses to Summon the Joy of Summer

 

See also Solar-Powered Yin Practice

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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.

Neck

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Find a comfortable seat, then bend your torso to the left, using a prop or your left thigh as a base you can lean into. From here, you will flow through two positions:

  1. Inhale to drop your left ear toward your left shoulder and drape your right arm behind your back in a loose half bind.
  2. Exhale to tuck your chin toward your left shoulder, taking your right arm out at shoulder height into a cactus shape.

Flow between those two shapes, feeling as if you are “flossing” the tissue layers in the neck and upper shoulder. After a minute or two, move on to the other side.

See also Work It: Neck & Shoulder Release

Chest & shoulders

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Take an upright stance or seat with a long strap or belt between your hands. Start with a length of strap that runs from one shoulder to the tip of the opposite hand, and widen your grip if required to encourage both shoulders to circle through simultaneously. Inhale to circle the strap in front of you and overhead. Exhale to glide the strap behind your back, knitting your front ribs back so your chest and shoulders are moving rather than your back arching. Inhale to lift the strap back and up, then exhale to float it down in front of you. Continue to circle the strap this way for 8–10 breaths, melting tension from your chest and shoulders.

See also 15 Anti-Aging Health Benefits of Yoga That Will Make You Want to Start Practicing Now

Side body

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Sit or stand tall with your arms by your sides. With your breath in, sweep your right arm overhead and arc your torso to the left; feel the right side body fan open. With your breath out, lift back to center and swap arms. Shift from side to side for 8–10 breaths, noticing the growing pliability in your outer hip, side waist, and side ribs. 

See also Practice Embodying the Prana Vayus to Cultivate Greater Clarity & Authenticity

Hips & hamstrings

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Come into a Low Lunge with your right foot forward and your left knee on the floor behind your hips. Lift your torso and arms, drawing your right frontal hip bone away from the thigh bone and firming your left buttock to open the front of the left hip. Inhale here. As you exhale, straighten your right leg and hinge forward at your hips to elongate the back of your right thigh. Frame your right foot with your hands, placing blocks under your hands or bending your right knee to reduce the intensity if needed. Ripple forward and back with your breath 8–10 times, feeling the hips and hamstrings become more free and fluid.

See also “Why I Don’t ‘Stretch’ Anymore”

See also The Anatomy of Safe, Effective Stretching

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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.

See also 8 Self-Bodywork Exercises for Tight Hip Flexors

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.

Neck

myofascial neck release

Lie on your back with the block or a firmly folded blanket under your sacrum. Place the tennis balls on either side of your neck, partially under the flesh of upper trapezius, your upper shoulders. Look for an area that feels achy or tender without generating any sharp sensation. Feel free to rest still, rest your arms overhead (not pictured), or try rolling your head side to side to feel the muscle fibers move against the tennis balls. When the sensation changes, shift the balls further away from the neck or down your upper back. After a minute or two, remove the tennis balls completely and notice how your neck and upper shoulders feel.

See also 16 Poses to Ease Back Pain

Chest & shoulders

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Lie belly down, with your right arm out at shoulder height and your elbow bent to 90 degrees. Set one of the balls in the hollow underneath your outer right collarbone on the edge of the Pectoral muscles, turn your head to the left and rest it on the blanket. If the sensation is too strong, put a layer of blanket between the ball and your upper chest. If your breast tissue feels uncomfortable, try propping the ball on top of a block and your head higher on the folded blanket to create more space. When the feeling alters, move the ball slightly or change to the other side. After a minute or two on each side, remove the tennis balls completely. Roll onto your back and notice how your chest and anterior shoulders feel.

See also 3 Foolproof Chest and Shoulder Openers

Side body

side body myofascial release

Lie on your right side, resting on your right elbow. Place a ball under your right outer hip, in the soft tissue of your gluteus medius just below the rim of your pelvis. If you want less sensation, lean back, bend your left knee and set your foot down behind your right leg; if you want more sensation, lean forward and drape your left leg on top of your right. Either rest still or roll slightly forward and back. When you’re ready, move the ball lower and try again, or swap sides. After a minute or two on each side, remove the tennis ball, roll onto your back, and notice how your outer hips and side waist feel.

See also Free Your Side Body: A Flow for Your Fascia

Hip flexors & quadriceps

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From all fours, bring your left knee to your left wrist with your foot pointing straight back to your left hip. Set the balls side by side under your right thigh, just above the knee, then lower to your forearms. You can keep the right leg heavy and still, rock your leg slightly from side to side, or try bending and straightening the knee to feel the muscles fibers move in relation to the tennis balls. Once the feeling changes, move the balls higher an inch or so at a time, until they are a little above the midpoint of the thigh, then remove the balls. Lean into your right elbow, re-positioning the tennis balls toward the outer right thigh just above the knee (midway between the front and side seam of the leg). Use the same technique to make your way gradually up the outer right thigh until just above the midway point then change sides and start again. If you experience discomfort in your front knee, try lying belly down with both legs straight and the balls under one thigh (though you might need help putting the tennis balls in place). Allow 3–4 minutes per side, then remove the tennis balls completely, roll onto your back, and notice how your thighs feel. 

See also Yoga Anatomy 101: Hip Adductor Need-to-Know

Posterior hip

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Lie on your back with your knees bent and feet on the floor. Lift your hips to place the massage balls underneath your pelvis, on either side of your sacrum a couple of inches away from the bone in the flesh of gluteus maximus. Either rest still with your hips heavy, rock lightly side to side, or try straightening one leg at a time to rest more heavily on the ball on that side. If you need more sensation, you can prop yourself up on your elbows and forearms to add more weight onto the balls. Move the balls higher, lower, or wider for a minute or two, then reset with knees bent, feet on the floor, and tennis balls in the dead center of the buttocks. Cross your right ankle over your left knee, trying to relax your right buttock so the ball melts into your Piriformis. For more intensity, lean to the right, allowing your right knee to move closer to the floor. Allow 3–4 minutes per side, then remove the tennis balls completely, lie on your back and notice how your hips feel.

See also 4 Ways to Build Hip Stability + Prevent Injury

Hamstrings

hamstrings myofascial

Sit with your legs extended front of you in a narrow V-shape. Set a tennis ball under the back of each thigh, just below the sitting bone in the flesh of the hamstrings, then lean back on your hands and allow your legs to be heavy and relaxed. Rest still for a few deep breaths or roll your legs side to side until you feel ready to inch the balls further down your legs. You can lean slightly forward, but focus on releasing the weight of the legs down rather than trying to stretch. If you’re uncomfortable with your legs straight, you can try the same technique seated on a chair with a firm seat. After 2–3 minutes remove the tennis balls completely, lie on your back, and notice how your legs feel.

See also Tight Hamstrings? Maybe Not

See also Free Your Back Body Like Never Before: A Flow for Your Fascia

flexibility challenge hip flexors quads strength

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.

See also Anatomy 101: Understand Your Hips to Build Stability

Strength Work Challenge

Your challenge for this week is to address one or two of your dormant areas with targeted strength work. 

Neck

strength flexibility challenge neck

Weakness in the mid and lower Trapezius can contribute to tension in the neck and upper shoulders. Lie facedown, forehead on the floor, arms by your sides, and feet hip-width apart. Press down into your forehead, legs, and pubic bone, then squeeze your shoulder blades toward your spine to lift the heads of your shoulders away from the floor. Keep that engagement, then draw your shoulder blades down your back. Hold for 2–3 breaths, then release down. Repeat 10–15 times, rest, then do another 10–15 times.

See also Save Your Neck: Practice Wisely to Prevent Pain

Chest & shoulders

strength flexibility challenge shoulders

The back of the shoulder is often weaker and trickier to activate than the front of the shoulder and chest; strengthening infraspinatus on the back of the shoulder blades can help address this imbalance. Start on all fours, drawing your ribs toward your spine. Set your elbows down shoulder-width apart, bring your palms together and hover the little finger edge of your hands just above the floor. Draw your hands apart and hold them there for a breath or two, feeling the posterior shoulder engage but keeping your neck soft, then bring them back together. Repeat 10–15 times, moving your forearms like windshield wipers, then rest before repeating.

See also Yoga to Improve Posture: Self-Assess Your Spine + Learn How to Protect It

Side body

strength flexibility challenge side body

Most of our lives are spent in the sagittal plane—reaching and moving forward and, less often, backward. Muscles that create lateral movement (like the oblique abdominals, quadratus lumborum, and gluteus medius) can benefit from activities that revive their strength and elasticity. For this exercise, you’ll need to lie on top of a blanket on a smooth or polished floor that will allow the blanket to slide. Bend your knees to stack the weight of your legs above your pelvis and bring your hands to the back of your head. Inhale, and as you exhale squeeze your right side body to bring your elbow toward your hip. Inhale back to center, and exhale to the left. Take 12–15 rounds side to side, then rest before repeating.

See also On Your Side: A Sequence for the Side Body

Hip flexors & quadriceps

flexibility challenge hip flexors quads strength

Hours of sitting can shorten our hip flexors, and many hip flexor exercises work the muscles in the same position, so it’s useful to teach them to be strong when long too. Lie on your back with a block or firmly folded blanket under your sacrum. Take your legs to stack above your hips, bending your knees if necessary, and tilt your pubic bone toward your navel to keep your lumbar spine close to the floor. Descend your right leg toward the floor, stopping before you reach full range of motion, or if your back arches. Then lift the right foot an inch or two, and lower back down to just above your starting point. The key is to keep the front of your right hip open, so that the hip flexors are doing the work from a lengthened position. Hover the right leg for a minute or two, then change sides. Rest, and then perform a second set.

See also Hip Flexor Anatomy 101: Counterposes for Sit-Asana

Posterior hips & hamstrings

strength flexibility challenge posterior hip

The lower part of gluteus maximus, right under the sitting bones, can become latent as we sit on it, placing greater workload on the hamstrings. So exercises that pinpoint the lower portion of the gluteus maximus, instead of the more dominant upper portion, can be useful. Come to your hands and knees, wrists under shoulders and knees a little closer than hip-width apart. Tilt your pubic bone slightly toward your navel to take the dip out of your lumbar spine and extend your right leg straight out behind you with your toes on the floor. Keep your lower back broad, contracting the muscle of your right sitting bone to lift your foot off the floor. Keep your hips level and your right kneecap pointing straight down to the floor. Hold for a breath or two, then lower your foot. Lift your right leg 10–15 times, then swap to the left. Repeat both legs.

See also Get to Know Your Glutes

 

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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.