The 5 Best Yoga Poses For Improving Your Flexibility
Stretching is one of those healthy habits that we know we're supposed to be doing and that feels really great, but we couldn't exactly tell you why. And the problem with not knowing why we're doing something is that we can end up doing it in a way that isn't the most effective route to achieving our goals.
In this article, I'll clarify some of the benefits of working on your flexibility and demonstrate five fun yoga poses you can start practicing today.
How we lose flexibility.
We become less flexible as a natural part of the aging process, but our lifestyle habits can greatly influence to what speed and extent. If you have to spend long hours working at a desk, your muscles can get tight, and if you're active but you practice the same activities over and over, you can also start to stiffen up. And that is why, to stay fit and supple, we have to stretch—because instead of hunting, gathering, and playing in a natural environment, we sit in chairs, drive cars, and ride bicycles.
How to know if you lack flexibility.
You might not actually realize that you're inflexible until you get on a yoga mat. Our bodies are incredibly effective at adapting to make our daily habits as comfortable and energy-efficient as possible. You may, however, experience pain—either on and off or virtually all the time—especially in the lower back, neck, or shoulders. You may feel stiff when you wake up in the morning, and there may be activities that you aren't able to do because of a lack of flexibility.
Fortunately, working on and improving your flexibility, particularly through doing yoga, has a lot of advantages to offer you, making it well worth your time. Some of the potential benefits include:
- Released tension1 in tight muscles
- Increased energy2
- Alleviated pain, especially in the lower back, neck, and shoulders
- Improved range of motion3
- Corrected muscular imbalances4
- Reduced risk of injury
- Improved posture
Why flexibility matters in yoga.
Improving flexibility is one of the primary reasons people start to practice yoga, and it's one of the areas that has the most solid research behind it5. Of course, yoga is so much more than stretching, but it does do that part spectacularly well. And this is because yoga, like the spiritual tradition that it comes from, is holistic and integrative.
In yoga, we:
- Combine static, dynamic, and passive forms of stretching
- Emphasize the role of the breath in releasing tension
- Work with the central nervous system
- Incorporate interoceptive training (your sense of what is going on inside your body)
- Recognize that everything in the body is connected
- Stretch muscles from multiple different angles
- Sequence poses so that we move through progressively deeper stretches
The best time to work on your flexibility is later in the day when your muscles are warm and pliable. If you want to create a habit, it can be helpful to tack your yoga session onto the end of your regular workout. Another great time is in the evening, to take advantage of the down-regulating effects of stretching.
Before you get moving, a few pieces of advice:
- Try to think about releasing tension from tight muscles rather than stretching them into submission.
- As you come into a pose, start to draw out the length of your exhalations and relax into it.
- Make sure that you are warmed up before attempting deeper postures.
- Adapt the poses as necessary, for example, bending your knees in forward bends.
- Stay mindful and present throughout your session.
- Learn to differentiate between sensations of discomfort and those of pain. If you experience pain, back off from the stretch and try to relax a little more.
- Practice patience.
- Be consistent! It makes all the difference!
Without further ado, here are the best yoga poses to improve your flexibility.
Low Lunge Sidebend
Low lunge sidebend releases tension in the hip flexors and stretches the obliques, intercostals, and shoulders. Check that your front knee does not come forward over your ankle, and draw your lower abs in to avoid overarching your lower back. Spend three to five slow breaths in this pose. And switch sides.
Silver surfer is a warrior 2 variation that opens up the hips and improves mobility in the shoulders. Try not to let your upper body rest on your front thigh and press down into the outside edge of your back foot. Hold the pose for two to three slow breaths, in and out through your nose, then switch sides.
Reclining Spinal Twist Eagle Legs
Reclining spinal twist is great for releasing tension in the lower back, stretching the outer hips, and opening up the chest. In this eagle legs variation, we increase the intensity. This is a restorative posture that you can hold for 5 to 10 breaths on each side, or even for a couple of minutes if it's comfortable.
Screaming Toe With Triceps Stretch
Screaming toe pose might be the greatest stretch ever for your feet. Improving flexibility in your feet has a ripple effect up your body—it helps protect the health of your knees, hips, and spine. You can multitask in this pose by incorporating a stretch for the shoulders and triceps. Hold for 3 to 5 slow breaths on each side.
Lastly, grasshopper is a fairly advanced hip-opening backbend that can be awkward to get into when you first try it. You should feel the stretch in your abs, hip flexors, quads, and lower back. It also opens up the chest and the fronts of the shoulders. Hold the pose for 2 to 3 breaths, in and out through your nose. Switch sides, and then relax.
Abi Carver is deeply passionate about sharing the practices and philosophy of yoga. She has completed two 200-Hr Yoga Alliance Teacher Training, is a NASM Qualified Personal Trainer, and lives wherever the winds take her. Her video series, Yoga 15, clarifies and simplifies ancient yogic techniques to make the practice accessible to a new audience of men and women, constantly looking for ways to improve the lives of themselves and those around them. She believes that yoga is one of the most powerful tools to ease the physical aches and pains we encounter in modern life and bring us into a state of calm, clarity and creativity. Follow her on Instagram for yoga tips, inspiration and motivation.