8 Tips To Get More Flexible, Even When You Think You Can't
You might think flexibility is fixed—either you're born with flexible limbs, or you're not. However, you can train your body to become more flexible; it just takes a little practice.
If you’re looking to become more flexible in your body, here are eight tips that can make it easier than you ever thought possible. (Plus, a video with some stretching exercises)
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 might do just that, bracing for impact and making you less flexible.
That said, if you push your muscles hard to get in a stretch, and probably won't 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.
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 can 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.
Rather than holding yourself in your "deepest stretch" and waiting for it to be over, try moving around gently.
If you hang out at the end of your range of motion, you can risk micro-tearing your connective tissue. Instead, focus on active stretching, or dynamic stretching, to become more flexible.
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 on the left side.
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.
Remember to breathe deeply.
It might not be obvious at first, but if you want more flexibility, focus more on your breath than on your muscles. Breathing can put your mind at ease and create the right conditions for your muscles to release tension.
Breathe deeply 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 relaxed, every breath can 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. After all, as we mentioned, flexibility begins in the mind.
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 yogis and performance artists (think ballerinas and Cirque du Soleil artists), and can lead to reduced athletic capability and sometimes chronic pain. Instead, you want to reach your middle point, where your body works at its best: a nice balance between stability and mobility.
Drop the goals, get into you.
The problem with visible goals is there's a whole lot of temptation to force our way into them, rather than finding our way there peacefully. We might reach the goal, but the outcome isn't so good or healthy.
Let's try this in the runner's lunge example again: Rather than just aiming to touch your toes, or get your head to your knee every time, forget the goal! 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 a 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. It should be fun, not frustrating.
Move more, rather than pose more.
Take a standing forward bend as an example. Rather than 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 flexibility, the key is moving more. Widen your stance, so your body is more stable and ready to move.
You might 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 should be on moving easily and comfortably all around where you are. If you do this technique across the board, you can become more flexible and mobile at the same time.
Remember: Sometimes where you are is where you need to be.
Balance is a good thing. There’s nothing wrong with you if you can't touch your toes, for instance. It's always best to listen to your body—while becoming more flexible might be uncomfortable at times, nothing should ever be painful. Listen to your body's cues and only push it as far as it can handle, even if it's little by little.
Here's a video tutorial to help you get going. Let's get started together—it's going to be good.
Mike Taylor is the co-founder of Strala Yoga, along with his wife, Tara Stiles. He studied mind-body medicine at Harvard University and complementary medicine at the University of Oxford. Taylor has practiced Eastern movement and healing, including tai chi and qigong, for more than 30 years.
More from the author:
The Complete Guide To Yoga