I like being flexible and it's taken me a long time to get flexible. I'm still working on improving it. From someone who's spent a lot of time stretching (and teaching others to stretch) here are some of the do's and don'ts I'd recommend.
1. Do stretch from cold and do work toward reducing preparation stretches.
When I first started doing yoga and stretching, it was easier to stretch when warm. I worked toward stretching from a cold start, moving slowly and gradually, coming out and taking a rest and then moving back into the stretch again.
I also used to sequence stretches, but I wanted to be flexible enough to be able to do a hamstring stretch, for example, without having to warm up. So I worked toward doing hamstring stretches without the prelude stretches. One of the ways that I did that was to remember the feel of a stretch while stretching. What was active? What was inactive?
2. Do move into and out of a stretch slowly.
Even if you're doing a stretch "wrong," moving slowly gives you a chance to feel your body and make changes when you feel pain.
3. Do move into a stretch smoothly.
Moving smoothly means that you have control. You're more likely to move deeper into a stretch without hurting yourself if you move into it smoothly instead of suddenly forcing your way into it.
4. Do learn to differentiate the different types of pain.
This one takes time, and practice. The two main categories are joint pain and muscle pain. Joint pain is the main one to watch out for. It can feel sharp and originates near or from the joint. If you get joint pain, stop moving deeper into the stretch (easier if moving slowly and smoothly), vary your position, or vary the tension in your body to see if you can find a position and a way of varying the tension while so that there is no pain while still retaining the intent of the stretch.
Ligament tension is another sensation to watch out for. Be vary careful if you experience ligament tension around the knee. Around the hip it might be tightness that with practice you can loosen up. Explore slowly over the course of weeks and months.
5. Do vary both type of stretching technique and positions you use.
As an example, you can stretch the hip extensors in a low lunge or happy baby pose, the latter being done while lying on the back. One may be easier than the other, or you may just enjoy the change.
If you're working toward flexibility employ a flexible mindset and look for different ways to stretch the same muscles.
6. Do make adjustments.
If you start of slowly you can make adjustments to the way you do a stretch. This can start of as a way to prevent pain. But it can also be used as a way to make getting into the stretch easier. Does your body have the support it needs? If not, give it that support. Add tension where it's required so that other parts of your body can relax and let go, and get stretched.
7. Do be aware.
As you stretch, stay aware so that you can make adjustments on the fly.
8. Do take rests.
Andrey Lappa was the teacher who introduced me to the idea of taking rests within a yoga class. Why? My own explanation is that it can feel wonderful. If you've just finished a very intense stretch then rest afterwards to enjoy the feeling afterwards. It makes the pain worthwhile.
9. Do smile.
If you can't smile on the outside then at least smile on the inside while you are stretching. Difficulty is just a state of mind. Change your mind and you change your experience.
Now that you know what to DO, here are a few simple don'ts to keep in mind as you maintain a stretching practice:
10. Don't be afraid to stretch.
11. Don't be afraid to stretch on a full stomach.
I've done it, it doesn't feel great but it can be done.
12. Don't be afraid to stretch while hungry.
You may find that your hunger pangs disappear while you stretch.
13. Don't be afraid to stop and think if you feel pain when you stretch.
14. Don't be afraid of doing it wrong.
Just stay open to changing the way you are doing the stretch. It's how you become an expert at stretching.
15. Don't be afraid to stretch cold.
16. Don't force yourself.
17. Don't assume you are flexible.
Even though I'm more flexible now than I was, I do still move into some poses carefully initially. I still pay attention so that I can notice any signals my body is sending me to say that something isn't right.
What do you think? Are you ready to get your stretch on? Let me know some of your own stretching tips!