Although being about to stretch and contort like a pretzel doesn’t make you a better yogi, feeling like you’re making progress in your practice is important in all areas of life! So, whether you’re trying to master Kurmasana, or simply want to be able to reach past your knees in a forward bend, here are 7 tips to get you there!
When I first started practicing yoga, I was shocked at the gains in flexibility I experienced. I had to strain to reach past my knees in my first class, so it was a huge shock when a few months later my fingers brushed my toes during a forward bend.
However, after about a year of practice, my flexibility plateaued, and I started to wonder if my body had reached the limits of its flexibility. I tried pushing myself, and practiced with teachers who would give me strong, forceful, adjustments. But I never saw any real changes in how far I could go in the postures. If anything my attempts to force it only made me tighter. My body appeared to be ‘stuck.’
One day, I just decided to stop trying. If my flexibility had reached its fullest extent—so be it. Surprisingly, it was only when I stopped worrying about how flexible I was that I started seeing real gains in flexibility again. It was through relaxation, practicing for practice’s sake and without the goal of becoming more flexible, and letting go (so simple!), that my body slowly began to start opening up again.
Here are 7 things I’ve since learned about flexibility from researching, speaking to other yogis, and simply by observing and staying in tune with my body.
1. Don’t Force It
Traditional ideas about stretching and flexibility assume that stretching should be forceful and perhaps even painful. While it’s true that some force is required to stretch the muscles (Hatha Yoga is actually sometimes translated as ‘forceful’ or ‘willful’), flexibility is as much mental as it is physical.
One of the reasons for tight muscles is that the mind thinks it needs to protect you from pain and injury, so it instructs your muscles to tense up when you try to go deeper into stretches and postures. This is actually good—we want our bodies to protect us from injury! But for most of us, especially if we’ve only been practicing yoga for a few years, we still have plenty of flexibility to gain, we just need to teach our body and mind that it’s safe to do so.
That’s why it’s important NOT to be tense or forceful in your practice. If you stretch in a way that’s too forceful and uncomfortable, your body/mind complex will never learn that it’s safe to go deeper into postures. Instead of forcing, stay calm and relaxed. Your body will remember this feeling of comfort and relaxation, and in the future you’ll be able to find the same degree of flexibility more easily.
2. Focus on Specific Areas
Everyone has at least one of them, those naturally tight areas on the body that feel like they will never open up. Common ones are the hips, shoulders, and hamstrings. When we feel super tight in certain areas, we tend to want to avoid the poses that require flexibility in these areas and focus instead on the poses we can do with ease. The result is that our fears and insecurities about our lack of flexibility is actually what keep our stiffest areas stiff!
Instead of avoiding these areas, focus on them. If you’re already flexible in your hamstrings, but not your hips, spend twice as long practicing postures that open your hips like Rajakapotasana (Pigeon) or Baddha Kohasana (Butterfly). If backbends are no problem for you but you tend to avoid forward bends, then spend more time on postures like Paschimottanasana and Janu-sirsasana.
3. Balance the Body
Likewise, many people find that one side of the body is more flexible than the other, and then spend more time in poses on that side because they’re easier or more comfortable. The next time you practice, pay attention to your body and see which side is more flexible. Then, modify your practice so that you’re spending longer in poses targeting the less flexible side. Do this until the flexibility in your body becomes balanced.
4. Use the Breath
This ties into the idea of ‘not forcing it’ we talked about earlier. Breathing slowly and deeply—yet naturally, relaxes the body, which allows your body to feel more comfortable and safe going into deeper stretches and postures.
At the same time, pairing your inhalations and exhalations with your movements will aid in how deeply you can enter yoga postures. You may find that inhalations allow you to more easily enter into backbends like Urdhva Danurasana or Ustrasana, which require wide, open chest and shoulders, while exhalations allow you to move further into forward bends like Upavista Konasana.
5. Try Yin Yoga
If you’ve been practicing a yoga style like Power Yoga or Vinyasa Yoga that emphasize holding poses for a short time, you might want to consider incorporating a slower style of yoga, like Yin Yoga, into your practice.
Unlike yoga styles that mainly develop muscular flexibility, Yin Yoga, with its long (5-20 minute) holds of static postures, allows you to slowly release tension in your fascia and connective tissue—your ‘yin tissue.’ This kind of practice is not only important for flexibility, but also for healthy joints. You can have the most flexible muscles in the world, but if the there’s too much tension in the connective tissue surrounding your joints, you still won’t be able to do certain yoga poses.
6. Change Your Diet
Many people find that switching to a more ‘alkaline diet’ increases their flexibility without even making any other changes. For a more flexible (and healthy) body, increase your intake of vegetables, especially dark, leafy and wild greens, fruits, herbal teas, nuts and seeds, and spices like turmeric and ginger. Reduce or eliminate: caffeine, alcohol, sugar and processed foods, and animal-based products.
7. Be Patient
Even if you practice all of these methods, don’t expect your flexibility to improve overnight! It took time for our bodies to become stiff, and it will take time for them to open up again. Remember that in the end, yoga’s not about flexibility! It’s about being in the moment, practicing for practice’s sake, and accepting yourself as you are.