Week 8: How to boost flexibility
Flexibility is important for fitness, mobility and posture, among other things. However, it is equally important to not push yourself, especially in order to reach a level of flexibility that is probably seen on Instagram or glamourised by the fitness industry. You only need to be flexible enough to support our lifestyle and goals.
When it comes to yoga, the term flexibility refers to the attitude that can transform both the body and mind. It allows one to reach a deeper state of relaxation that helps in releasing tension in both. In Western physiology, flexibility is the ability to move the body through its complete range. As humans, we are born with that complete range but lose it as our lives start getting sedentary, resulting in the muscles and joints settling into a limited range.
Here are 5 steps that can help boost your flexibility!
Step 1: Understanding the role of muscles when it comes to flexibility
Essentially, the main function of the muscles is the movement of the muscle fibers. They work together in harmony, either by contracting or stretching to produce the wide range of movements that our bodies are capable of.
When it comes to movement of the bones, the supporting muscles that contract to allow the movement are called ‘agonists’. The opposing group of muscles that must release and lengthen to also help movement are called the ‘antagonists’. The coordinated play of the agonist and antagonist muscles occur with every movement of ours.
Step 2: Active Stretching
Understanding the agonist and antagonist muscles can be a useful tool in boosting flexibility. The contraction of the agonist muscles and release of the antagonist muscles is known as ‘reciprocal inhibition’ - this is what happens during an active stretch allowing us to go deeper into it.
These scientific words may be rather confusing, but trying out this quick exercise to experience reciprocal inhibition may help:
Sit in front of a table and press the edge of your hand (karate chop point) onto the table. Keeping that resistance, if you feel the tricep muscle, it will be contracting and therefore - engaged. If you then touch the opposing muscles, in this case the biceps, it will feel relaxed.
This method can be implemented in each stretch that is done. For example, if you are working on improving your hamstring flexibility, working on engaging and strengthening the quadriceps will help relax the hamstrings to help reach a deeper stretch. Therefore, it is extremely important to work on strengthening the muscles through active stretching to ensure you have control over them, preventing serious joint or muscle injuries.
Step 3: Passive Stretching
Passive stretching is when you hold a stretch for an extended period of time. If done correctly, prolonged stretches can produce changes in the connective tissue to reach a new level of flexibility each time. Physical therapist and certified Iyengar yoga instructor Julie Gudmestad says that, “If we hold the poses for shorter periods, we get a nice sense of release, but we aren’t necessarily going to get the structural changes that add up to a permanent increase in flexibility”. To be able to start generating change in the tissues, stretches should be held for 90 - 120 seconds. This will allow the muscle to develop a memory of that stretch, making it easier to return to that position faster the next time. Stretching is all about consistency!
Step 4: Breathe
Consciously using breath during your practice can help you go deeper into stretches.
Inhaling causes the body to expand and tighten, reducing the ability to stretch. Exhaling allows the abdomen and organs to contract, causing lengthening in the muscles (i.e. lower back) for a stretch to feel more comfortable.
Using inhalation to grow and deep exhalation to sink into the stretch will help you reach your desired level of flexibility.
Step 5: Practice Yoga
Practicing yoga regularly will increase your body’s flexibility as well as strength (which we now know is an important to boost flexibility). Yoga helps connect your body to your breath, creating a calm and relaxed mind that will facilitate deeper stretches. The yoga asanas/poses are designed to move the body through the full range of motion, and having to stay in those poses for a while will increase the comfort level of being able to remain in them. It might be a slow process, but it will definitely result in transformations when it comes to reaching new levels of flexibility.