“I am tired of stretching” my supposedly very fit husband announced late one evening. This got me thinking, of how, inspite of being a regular gym goer he has always struggled with flexibility. Not just him, many of my friends who are Marathon runners, triathletes, good with regular excercise always complain of stiffness and inflexibility.
What is flexibility and What causes inflexiblity?
Flexibility is based on the degree to which a joint or a group of joints, moves through a full range of motion, hopefully without any pain. Flexibility is also related to muscle strength.
There are various reasons for inflexibility. We have always known that age, gender, sedentary lifestyle and also excessive exercise of a certain type can contribute to inflexibility. It is a well known fact that women are more flexible than men because of joint and bone structures. Increasing age makes joints resistant to movement and deterioration in muscles, tendons, ligaments and cartilage can also cause hinderance in range of motion in joints. If you work in an office and are stuck at a desk all day, your hamstrings will become short and tight without regular stretching and lengthening.
More recently studies have shown that genetics also play a part in flexibility. A gene called COL5A1 is linked to your hereditary level of flexibility. One version of the gene means you are inflexible and and the other version means you are flexible and will continue to remain so as you age! This same gene that makes you inflexible also makes you run fast. The old assumption, then, that running makes you inflexible may be turned on its head!
Muscle fibres are like rubber bands, some are tight and others are loose. The tight ones store energy and provide economy of speed for runners. The loose ones provide flexibility and can stretch. Neither too tight nor too loose muscle fibers are preferable. Too tight, inflexible muscles increase potential for injury, muscle spasms and strains in the lower back. Too loose muscle fibers, do not provide muscle strength.
Yoga can get the right balance of muscle composition by targeting the main components of fitness: Cardio, muscle strength and flexibility. Yoga through regular practice can improve flexibility and range of motion. There are many forward bending asanas that work on increasing flexibility of hamstrings, opening up the hips, pelvis and lower back. The backward bending asanas work on strengthening the back, stretching the navel and rib cage. The twists work on cutting off blood supply to organs and muscles and then providing them with a fresh supply of blood, enabling detoxification and regeneration of any scar tissue that may be causing stiffness.
During Yoga practice, the use of Ujjayi breathing, will also affect flexibility. Ujjayi breathing allows the mind to focus on breath and the body to relax into the asana, enabling further stretching! Deep Ujjayi breathing whilst holding an asana, through inahlation provides fresh oxygen to the muscles and organs allowing it to become more supple and elastic. Through deep exhalation allows the toxins and carbon dioxide to expel out. Contracting the throat when practicing Ujjayi breath causes the body to heat up increasing flexibility.
There are many asanas that focus on flexiblity and target various parts of the body. I have only listed 2 examples of what I think are easy to do, for the most common, inflexible parts of the body. All of these exercises must be done when the body has been warmed up adequately.
The easiest asana to target stretching the hamstrings is parvat asana.
On all fours, palms flat, just below the shoulder. Tuck the toes in and gently exhale and push the hips up, head in looking between the knees. Keep pressing the heels and palms down, and stay for a minute. This is a relaxing inverted posture, which stretches the hamstring, calves, relaxes the neck, lower back, pelvic, abdominal and lumbar regions, straightening and strengthening the spine and shoulders.
2. Padahastasana or Uttanasana:
The asana consists of standing with feet together, then hinging forward from the hips, letting the head hang, with palms placed flat on the floor near the feet. Another variation is to place your forearms on your calves and holding your ankles from the back for a deeper stretch. People with lower back issues must make sure that the knees are soft/bent.
Start by sitting cross legged. Then move the soles of your feet so they are touching each other. Place your palms on the feet and keep your back straight and tall. Move your knees up and down so that the knees touch the floor. This helps opening up the hips and thighs and also relieves stress and tightness in the legs.
Start in a lunge position (Aswasanchalana) then place your extended knee and foot flat on the floor. Your hands are in pranam and above your head arching and looking up to get a curvature in your back. Care must be taken to keep the bent knee at a right angle to the body. The thigh and hip joint on the extended leg will get the stretch and make it more flexible. Do this asana for both the legs.
c. Lower back
Sitting down with your legs in front of you, extend your arms above your head, opening and pulling up the rib cage. Inhale and exhale whilst moving your arms towards your feet and bend your upper body to get your forehead to touch the knees. Anyone with lower back issues must do this with care.
Start in a lunge position (Aswasanchalan) then place your knees between your palms, back leg is flat and knee is on the floor. Walk your hands away from the body and then walk them back all the way towards your body opening up your lower back. Raise the opposite arm to the extended leg, and if your back is feeling strong bring your other hand to make a namaste above your head. Looking up. Then you can lower your body on to the floor placing the weight of your body on your bent leg. Do this asana for both the legs.
Sitting in Vajrasana, bring the right knee on top of the left such that the right foot is touching the left buttock. Make sure you are sitting on your buttocks rather than your feet. Raise the right arm and bend it behind the head so the elbow points up. Bring the left arm behind the back from below and clasp the fingers of both hands together. The head remains upright and straight and rests on the right forearm. Close your eyes and breathe into the posture. This works on opening up the shoulders, triceps and also works on opening up the lungs and facilitates deeper breathing.
Do both the sides.
Lying down on your stomach, forehead is on the floor. Clasp or interlock your hands behind your back at the level of your hips. Then raise your head and upper body up to look up, opening up your shoulders and chest. This is very good for extending rounded shoulders and for lower back strengthening.
There are indeed many asanas that target various parts of the body to build strength and flexibility. Please visit the asana directory for more information http://total-yoga.org/asana-directory/
Yoga certainly works on the flexiblity of the body, through practice of asanas. But with the practice of Pranayama and meditation, it also makes the mind supple and open to change, flexible and stronger to accept what life has to offer you! Namaste!
Slavica Gokul is a certified Vinyasa, Hatha and Power yoga teacher through Total Yoga in Bangalore, India. She has been an aspiring yogi for more than 20 years. She dedicated herself to consistent practice 9 years ago and while residing in India from 2012-14 underwent teacher training.