How you approach your body is important, because you'll probably approach the rest of your life in the same way. Want freedom? Practice moving free. Want to do hard things without a struggle? Practice moving easily, even when things get hard. The same goes for flexibility. If you’re looking to become more flexible in your body and your life, here are eight tips that will make it easier than you ever thought possible.
1. Let go of the idea that stretching makes you flexible.
Most people assume that stretching — in a way that uses muscle to force other muscles to lengthen — leads to flexibility. It doesn’t! The old-fashioned approach of static stretching (holding still while pushing hard into a stretch) has been part of most athletic training regimes for decades.
What scientists and athletes now understand is that flexibility begins in your mind. If your mind thinks it needs to defend against injury (or against you!) it will do that, bracing for impact, making you less flexible.
Push your muscles hard to get a stretch, and you won't see lasting gains. Instead, stay easy and calm, no force required. You might be thinking, I can't touch my toes! But it’s actually great that you have these good strong muscles and ligaments that hold your body together and keep things working properly.
2. If you’re going to stretch, find a position in which you could sit and comfortably watch TV.
If your muscles are working hard to hold you up or keep you balanced while you're trying to open those hamstrings, your body will remain strained and inflexible. If things are going to open up, your brain needs to believe everything is safe and easygoing, so put yourself in a position where you'd be happy sitting and watching TV for a while.
Take a runner's lunge for example. If you're having a tough time balancing with your hands on the ground, or it's hard for you to sit on your back heel, find another way! Just sit down on the ground, left heel tucked in like you're sitting cross-legged, and extend your right leg straight. Now, lean back, with your hands behind you. Get comfortable. Once you're happy where you are, you have a good starting point.
3. Rather than hold yourself in your "deepest stretch" and wait for it to be over, try moving around gently.
Let's use the modified runner's lunge example again, where you sit down with one heel tucked in, and one leg straight forward. Start by leaning back. Take a moment and get used to things here. Next try walking your hands to the right, and leaning into them, maybe even bringing a forearm down to the ground. Do the same thing off to the left.
Keep a slight bend in your knee and stay relaxed in your leg, so as you roll from right to left, your leg can roll around too. Sometimes your knee will face straight up, sometimes to the right, sometimes to the left. That's OK! You want to let your body move naturally and do its own thing. If you find a good spot to linger and breathe, that's your spot. Linger and breathe as long as you like.
4. Breathe deep.
It might not be obvious at first, but if you want more flexibility, focus more on your breath than on your muscles. This will put your mind at ease, and create the right conditions for your muscles to release tension.
Breathe deep enough that every inhale lifts you a little out of wherever you are, and every exhale eases you back wherever you body feels like going. When your body is really relaxed, every breath will move you. If your breath isn't moving you, try scanning through your body, and see where you might be holding tension or working harder than needed. Let the stress go, and breathe deep.
5. Avoid extreme positions.
Bending over backward to put your head in your behind isn't likely to help you with much! A healthy body holds a balance between stability and mobility, strength and flexibility. Hyper-mobility in joints is a common affliction of yoga posers and performance artists (think ballerinas and Cirque du Soleil artists), and leads to reduced athletic capability, as well as all kinds of chronic pain and need for surgery later in life. Instead, you want to reach your middle point, where your body works at its best: nicely balanced between stability and mobility.
6. Drop the goals, get into you.
Let's try this in the runner's lunge again. Rather than just aim to touch your toes, or get your head to your knee every time, forget the goal! The problem with visible goals is there's a whole lot of temptation to force our way into them, rather than find our way there peacefully. So we might get to the goal, but the outcome isn't so good.
There's so much more to you than just a pose, so many more directions you can take than just straight ahead. So explore! Move gently in every imaginable direction all around this forward fold. See what you find. It will probably be different every day, and every day you'll get to know more and more of you. That's going to be fun!
7. Move more, rather than pose more.
Take a standing forward bend as an example. Rather than hold straight forward, and trying to get deeper and deeper into the bend, relax and move! Put a little bend in your knees, and sway gently side to side. If you're looking for more, move more. Widen your stance, so your body is more stable and ready to move.
Now lean so far off to the right that your left leg lengthens, and the foot might even leave the ground! Same thing on the other side. Your focus is on moving easily and comfortably all around where you are. Do this across the board, and you'll be getting flexibility and mobility at the same time, without worrying about your flexibility.
8. Remember: sometimes where you are is where you need to be.
Balance is good. Right there in the middle, nowhere to go but here! There’s nothing wrong with you, and you don’t need to chase that old feeling of your first shoulder opener. Now you can get into a whole new world: the one that's exactly right where you are. Let's get started together. It's going to be good.
Here's a video tutorial to help you get going: