How many times do I hear people say ‘I can’t do yoga – I’m not flexible enough’. Most yoga teachers will then usually reply with something along the lines of… ‘well that’s why you should come to yoga’.
I’m a firm believer in yoga being accessible to all. No teacher is going to turn you away because you can’t wrap your foot round your head, do the perfect splits or balance on your head. Yoga should be an inclusive space for anyone of any background to come and tune into their body, and listen to what they need that day.
Yoga isn’t even just about flexibility. From the physical perspective of the practice, it is also about building strength. If you are already super bendy or hyper mobile, getting even more flexible might not be the best thing for your body. Unless it is coupled with strength work, you could increase your chances of injury.
The second most frequent comment I hear is how can I become more flexible? With that in mind, I’ve drawn together a couple of tips and hints that have helped me – and might help you.
1) Practice and Consistency. If you spend all day at a desk or run or cycle regularly, a one-hour yoga class a week is unlikely to be enough to see vast improvements in your flexibility. It is obviously 100% better than doing nothing and will benefit you in many different ways, not only related to flexibility. But, what I would suggest is regular consistent practice. This does not mean doing 100 sun salutations before the sun rises. It could just be doing a few poses watching TV in the evening or really making sure you do spend some time stretching after a long run.
2) There is Not One Cure-All Stretch – Just Move. There is not one pose that is going to suddenly increase your flexibility overnight. You need to employ a range of different stretches. And that means not just static seated stretches, but practising more dynamic stretching that engage your muscles as well. A couple of sun salutations and warrior poses can help improve your range of motion. Just moving your body in a variety of ways will help your flexibility.
3) Props: Get a stretch band, a yoga strap and a foam roller. Use these in your practice at home. They will help.
4) No Grimacing: I see many people grimace and push their way through their yoga practice – particularly when it comes to static stretching when we are sitting or lying on the floor. Try to relax the face, give the jaw a wiggle, loosen the shoulders and breathe. This will help you keep the position for longer. Don’t pull your leg to its maximum position, groan and then give up – but gently work with your muscles until they start to soften and yield. I sometimes suggest holding a stretch for 10 to 20 seconds and then see if those muscles have softened and whether you can take it slightly deeper.
4) Monitor Your Progress: If you are on a mission to become more flexible, then it is perhaps a good idea to monitor your progress. Appreciating the small improvements you make will help stop that ‘I’m not flexible and I’m useless at yoga’ mantra going on in your head. You could do this in multiple ways – but perhaps try really tuning into your body in class. How do you feel at the start of class? How do you feel at the end of the session? How does this hamstring feel compared to a month/week ago?
5) Partner Stretches: These are useful and fun too. It is a form of passive stretching where a partner exerts the force on a muscle being stretched. I sometimes incorporate them in class. Do ask if you want me to show you some. Communication with your partner is key in these poses to avoid any potential injury.
4) Flexibility Does Not Equal Enlightenment: Finally you’ve done it – you’ve conquered the splits. Does this make you a better kinder person? Does it make you truly enlightened? Probably not. Flexibility is a fantastic thing with numerous benefits – I love a good stretch – but try not to make it your end goal in yoga. There is so much more that the practice has to offer you.