Being flexible is an often overlooked part of fitness. According to the Mayo Clinic, flexibility not only increases athletic performance but it decreases the chance of being injured. (1)
So how can you gain more flexibility? Practicing yoga increases flexibility.
There’s a reason why yogis are notoriously flexible. Regular yoga practice loosens tight muscles. With poses that not only strengthen your muscles but stretches them too, yoga lengthens your muscles, ligaments, and tendons as it loosens your joints to increase your flexibility.
Read on to find out more about how yoga can improve your flexibility. In this article you will discover the following:
Why is Flexibility Important?
Stretching and flexibility often take a backseat to other fitness goals. It shouldn’t though. Increasing your flexibility through practices like yoga has many benefits aside from increased athletic performance and decreased chance of injury including:
- Better range of motion. Increasing your range of motion allows you to not only improve your athletic performance by optimizing your golf or tennis swing or increasing the length of your running stride.
- More freedom of movement. As we age, our muscles naturally shorten leading to a lose of flexibility. While in your 20s it have been no trouble to bend over and tie your shoes, much later in life this task may be nearly impossible. Keeping your muscles limber and loose can prevent this loss of freedom.
- Fewer aches and pains. Not only does stretching decrease muscle soreness and fatigue post workout, it also lessens chronic ache and pains.
A clinical study titled “The Role of Spinal Flexibility in Back Complaints within Industry” performed by physicians at the University of Washington Department of Orthopedics shows that the more flexible you are the less likely you are to suffer from back pain and injury. (2)
- Increased heart health. A study about poor trunk flexibility and stiff arteries that appeared in the American Journal of Physiology showed that poor core and trunk flexibility has been linked to poor heart health. Increasing your flexibility benefits your heart by preventing arterial stiffening. (3)
- Improved moods. As Yoga Journal notes, in yoga flexibility transforms the mind as well as the body. (4) Taking the time to work on your flexibility and range of motion prevents the loss of freedom that comes with losing your ability to move freely.
Keeping that flexibility wards off the feelings of helplessness and depression that come with loss of movement freedom. Plus, stretching itself can help quiet the mind and promote relaxation and stress relief.
- Better balance. Better flexibility leads to better balance. A study done by a team of Spanish researchers about the association of fall risk in older adults concluded adults that do flexibility work are proven to be less likely to fall. (5)
How? Better balance means more core strength. A strong core gives you better range of motion and increases functional fitness.
How Yoga Increases Flexibility?
Yoga is a perfect way to increase your flexibility. Yoga’s combination of flowing movement (vinyasas) combined with poses and postures that stretch your muscles work together to make it a powerful flexibility builder.
The vinyasas in yoga gently warm up your body. When your body is warm, your muscles are more pliable and able to stretch further.
Just moving through most yoga vinyasas stretch multiple muscle groups while increasing body temperature. For example, the Sun Salutation done at nearly the beginning of every yoga class stretches the front and back of the body. Watch this video of a sun salutation and then let’s break it down.
- The Sun Salutation begins with hands in prayer. With an inhale reach your arms overhead. Gently arch back. The arch back not only warms up your back but also gently stretches your core.
- After the arch back, exhale and reach your arms forward and fold at the waist. Reach for your toes. This forward bend stretches your lower back and your hamstrings.
- Step back into a lunge position, which stretches the hip flexors, and push up into a folded V position, known as Downward Facing Dog. Exhale in Downward Facing Dog. Downward Facing Dog not only engages your core and upper body building strength but it also stretches your calves and shoulders.
- Inhale as you push through Downward Dog into plank, the top of a push up position. Exhale and bend your elbows into Chaturanga, the bottom of a push up. Inhale and press up to Cobra. This sequence strengthened your core, warming up those muscles before Cobra stretches these muscles in your abdomen.
- Exhale pushing back into Downward Dog, stretching out your calves and shoulders again. Inhale as you bring the opposite leg through to a lunge, hitting your hip flexors again.
- Exhale and step forward into a forward bend again, hitting the hamstrings once more. Roll up through your spine, one vertebrae at a time before returning to a standing position. Slowly rolling through your spine actively stretches your back muscles.
As you can see, this one yoga sequence alone does wonders for total body flexibility. Imagine repeating this sequence up to 5 times in the beginning of a yoga class and it’s not hard to see why regular yoga practitioners are notoriously flexible.
Increasing Your Flexibility through Yoga: Muscle Group by Muscle Group
While yoga can increase your flexibility throughout your whole body, perhaps you have a certain muscle group or body part that is particularly tight.
Check out this guide to find out how yoga can help you loosen up your trouble spots, release tension from your body, and get supple muscles that can stretch further than they could before.
# Shoulders and Arms
Perhaps the most overlooked body part in terms of stretching, your shoulders and arms deserve some tender love and care to help them stay supple. The following muscles are the major muscles in the shoulders and arms:
- Deltoids - shoulder muscles that are used to rotate the arm and bring it in and out from the body.
- Biceps - the muscles on the front of the upper arm that helps control the shoulder and elbow joint.
- Triceps - the muscles on the back of the upper arm that extends the elbow joint.
We demand a lot of these muscles. Because of the demands and strain of daily life, these muscles can carry a lot of tension. Stretching them helps release the tension and maintain the flexibility needed for the best range of motion possible.
Many of these poses relieve neck and shoulder pain. Yoga poses that help stretch the arms and shoulders include:
Kneel on your knees with both arms overhead. On an exhale, round your low back sliding your glutes back until they rest on your heels. Sweep your arms behind your back.
Gently rest your hands behind your back with the backs of your hands on your lower back. Bring your chest toward your thighs, and forehead toward the floor.
On an inhale, lead with your chest and sweep your arms wide unhinging and returning to the starting position. This pose releases tension from your shoulders and upper back.
To perform reverse plank, begin seated with your legs extended. Bring your palms slightly behind your hips, fingers facing your toes.
Keeping your body in a straight line at a 45 degree angle, lean backwards supporting your upper body on your palms and your lower body with your heels. Don’t let your hips dip.
To end the pose, gently lower your body down to return to your seated position. This position stretches the entire body but emphasizes the shoulders and arms by actively engaging them during this stretch.
# The Trunk
Also known as the core, the trunk muscles include the muscles in the back and abdomen. These muscles move the spinal column. They are primarily responsible for balance and stability throughout the body. Major muscles in the trunk include:
- Transverse Abdominis - a deep muscle that runs under the other abdominal muscles and protects the spine.
- Rectus Abdominis - the 6 pack muscles on the outside of the abdominal wall.
- Oblique - the muscles on the side of the abdomen that pull the chest down towards the pelvis and help rotate and flex the spine.
- Latissimus Dorsi - the biggest muscle of the back that helps move the shoulder joint and flex and extend the spine.
- Erector Spinae - the muscles along the spinal column directly responsible for supporting the spine and provides side to side rotation.
Taking care of these muscles is crucial. According to the University of Maryland Medical Center, 13 million people each year go to the doctor for back pain. (6) Keeping the trunk muscles strong and flexible can help prevent this type of chronic back pain that is the leading cause of disability in people under 45.
Yoga can help keep these muscles not only strong but also flexible. Yoga poses to do to increase your trunk flexibility include:
This gentle pose promotes suppleness in the spinal column as it releases tension. To perform this exercise, start on all fours with your palms flat on the floor under your shoulders and your knees on the floor under your hips.
Place your shins and knees hip width apart and keep your spine neutral. Inhale and lift your sit bones and chest towards the ceiling, arching your back and pulling your bellybutton in towards your spine.
Exhale and release the arch, passing through neutral spine and rounding your spine towards the ceiling.
This backbend strengthens the spinal column as it stretches the transverse and rectus abdominis.
To do it, kneel on youryour hands behind you trying to rest them gently on your heels. Release your head between your shoulder blades while pressing your pelvis forward.
To make it easier, do one side at a time, reaching just your right hand to your right heel, switching sides after a few breaths.
# Glutes and Hips
The muscles at the bottom of the trunk include the muscles of the backside or the glutes and the muscles that control the hip joints. These muscles include:
- Gluteus maximus, medius, and minimus. These are the three muscles that move the thighs.
- Psoas. This deep muscle in the hip is the main hip flexor muscle.
- Iliacus. This muscle sits next to the psoas and assists it.
Many of us have tight hips and glutes because daily life requires our hips and glutes to be strong but not flexible. Certain exercises like running tighten the fibers in these muscles. When these muscles get too tight, it can cause pain and pull your pelvis out of alignment.
Yoga is very helpful for tight glutes and hips. In fact, many runners work yoga into their training schedule to counteract the tightness that running causes. To reap the benefits of yoga for flexible hips and glutes try these poses:
Perhaps the best hip stretch in yoga, pigeon is both an effective stress reliever and hip opener. It stretches the hip flexors and the outside of the glutes.
To do this relaxing stretch, start in Downward Dog.
Raise your right leg off the floor and slide your right knee forward between your hands and rest on the outside of your right shin. Your right foot should be in front of your left hip.
Slide your left leg out behind you, straightening it and rotating it inward. Try to roll your right glute towards the floor. Inhale and lift your torso up with your hands on either side of your hip.
Exhale and slide your hands forward as you fold your torso over your right leg. Hold the pose for several breaths before lifting your torso up and pushing back up into Downward Dog. Repeat the sequence on your left side.
Bound Angle Pose
Another very effect hip opener, this stretch counteracts the tightness you may feel from spending all day in an office chair or after intense cardio.
Another very relaxing pose, Bound Angle Pose relieves stress as it opens up your hips. To do it, start seated with your legs out in front of you.
Take a breath and bend your knees, pulling your heels together and in towards your pelvis. Try to get your heels as close to your pelvis as possible, releasing your knees towards the floor.
Grasp the big toe on each foot with the first and second finger and the thumb. Hold the pose for several breaths.
With the largest muscles in the body, the leg muscles are work horses and can get very tight. The major muscle groups in the legs include:
- Quadriceps - The quadriceps are the muscles along the front of the thighs. The body uses these muscles to extend the knee joint, which is crucial for walking.
- Hamstrings - Found on the back of the thighs under the glutes, the hamstrings bends the knee joint. These muscles again are very important for walking.
- Calves. The muscle located on the back of the lower leg, the calf muscles help flex and stretch the ankle joint.
These muscles carry the weight of the body during daily tasks and are responsible for walking, running, jumping and standing. Because of the burden the body places on them, these muscles get strong through daily activity but aren’t stretched often.
While there are many ways to stretch these muscles, yoga provides a great option for really increasing your leg flexibility. Aside from Downward Dog, Pigeon, and Bound Angle Pose, perfect yoga poses to promote leg flexibility include:
Wide Legged Forward Bend
This simple pose offers an effective hamstring stretch. To do the pose, begin standing in Mountain Pose.
Jump or step your feet 3 to 4 feet apart, keeping your feet parallel. Exhale and hinge forward from the hips, keeping your spine long.
When your torso is parallel to the floor reach your hands to the floor, pressing your palms on the floor.
Draw the tops of the thighs up and away from the floor. Stay in the pose for several breaths before unfolding and returning to Mountain Pose.
This upright pose stretches the hamstrings and spine. To perform this pose start from a kneeling pose with your knees hip width apart.
Step the right leg straight out to the side with the foot flat on the floor, toes facing the side wall. Place your right hand on your right thigh. Inhale and lift the left arm up towards the ceiling with the palm facing the floor.
Exhale and stretch the left arm over your right leg, sliding the right arm down the leg towards your right foot. Press through your left hip into your foot and knee, reaching out through the fingers.
Hold for several breaths before returning to the starting position and repeating on the other side.
Pose of the Dancer
This standing pose targets the quadriceps, hip flexors, and core while challenging balance. To try this intermediate pose, start standing in Mountain Pose.
Shift your weight forward onto your left foot. Bend your right knee and bring your right heel towards your right glute. Reach your right hand behind you and try to grab your right foot or use a strap to help you make contact with your right foot.
Reach your left arm up towards the ceiling. Focus on finding your balance and once you have it try to reach your right foot further away from your body.
Hold the stretch for several breaths before letting go of your foot and returning to mountain pose. Repeat on the other side.
Conclusions: Can Yoga Help Improve Your Flexibility?
All types of yoga can help improve your flexibility and mobility. Flexibility is an important part of a healthy fitness and wellness routine that gets overlooked too often.
Flexibility increases movement and muscle performance while decreasing chronic pain. Anyone looking to improve flexibility can benefit from practicing yoga.