For fans of yoga and those new to the practice, it is common knowledge that flexibility is a core ingredient to a good yoga session. When starting out, yoga may seem difficult if one lacks a decent level of flexibility, begging the question of how to improve this aspect.
Flexibility is a core part of yoga. Through consistent practice, a person can greatly improve their overall flexibility and strength. Understanding why the body is inflexible is crucial to preventing injury and properly increasing one’s level of flexibility.
In this article, we will discuss why people are often not inherently flexible and how to improve through yoga. Plus, we will cover the relationship of flexibility and strength, the health benefits of improved flexibility and consistent yoga practice, and the best types of yoga and poses for beginners.
Understanding Inflexibility and Its Affects on the Body
Many of us are familiar with the term flexibility but understanding what it truly means in terms of our body and health is crucial when beginning a yoga practice, especially if one lacks a good starting level of flexibility.
According to Very Well Fit: “Flexibility is the range of motion in a joint or group of joints or the ability to move joints effectively through a complete range of motion.”
As such, it becomes a major factor and component of yoga. This is because yoga pushes the body through a wide range of motions and poses that build up the mobility and strength of the limbs and joints. Starting out as a beginner in yoga can be intimidating to those who lack a base line level of flexibility.
In truth, it is highly important to be aware of what your body is capable of in order to avoid injury. This is especially true for beginners, who may lack not only flexibility but strength and balance as well.
Understanding why your body is inflexible and the risks of inflexibility are crucial components when training your body to perform a yoga practice on a regular basis.
Risks of Inflexibility
The major risk posed by an inflexible body when practicing yoga or performing other means of exercise is the potential for injury. Inflexibility is often seen in the form of stiffness or rigidity of the body, making certain motions difficult to achieve. UC Davis Health states that there are three main negative side effects of an inflexible body:
- Inflexible joints are unable to properly maintain the health of cartilage and other structures, with this often being most noticeable in the hips and knees.
- Inflexible muscles cause other muscle groups to work harder, causing muscle fatigue and potentially leading to injuries such as ACL tears.
- Inflexibility can cause unwanted stress on other areas of the body – for instance, inflexible calves can in turn cause knee problems.
Measuring Your Range of Motion
When starting the journey to increase your flexibility, it is important to take note of how much your body is currently capable of. To do this, one must take a measurement of their own range of motion in each of their joints.
Measuring range of motion can be achieved through both professional devices and functional tests. Often times, measuring the range of motion falls into the hands of professionals to determine, such as physical therapists, chiropractors, or certified yoga instructors. In cases of severe inflexibility, it is recommended to visit such professionals in order to get a clear prognosis of the capabilities of the body.
It is possible to determine your own range of motion without visiting some kind of professional, though the results you determine will not have the same exactness. In fact, by practicing yoga it may become apparent which areas of your body clearly do not demonstrate a wide range of motion.
The key is to be aware of your tight spots and not to push your body to the point of injury. If even slight stretching causing pain or severe discomfort, visiting a medical professional should be considered.
Genetic Causes of Inflexibility
In some cases, inflexibility may actually have genetic reasons behind it. Breaking Muscle states that age, sex, bone size and structure, femur length, connective tissue, and body bulk can all contribute to a person’s inherent level of flexibility.
Luckily, the majority of people can train their bodies to be much more flexible than they initially start out, with the exceptions being those with severe and genetic mobility issues or conditions. Even then, those with medical conditions can sometimes also train their bodies through modified yoga and stretching that fits their specific needs, though in this case a medical professional should be consulted before beginning.
Learning to Increase Your Flexibility
Once you have determined what the baseline is for what your body is capable of, you are ready to begin your journey towards practicing yoga and increasing your overall flexibility. As mentioned, it is highly important to have a thorough assessment of what abilities you naturally possess and what your weak spots are in order to avoid and prevent injury.
When starting a regimen to increase flexibility, one good way to test out your limits is to attend, either in person or virtually, a beginner yoga class. This will in turn provide you with a large amount of information about not only your flexibility but your overall strength and balance as well.
Three important considerations to keep in mind are the pace at which you train your body, the consistency with which you practice, and your openness to seeking help or guidance. Each of these is incredibly important to not only improving your body’s flexibility but also building a routine and practice that is long-lasting and easy to follow through with.
Build Up Flexibility Gradually
The body is not going to magically become flexible overnight. Every person’s body is different, and thus different people will see results in varying lengths of time. Expecting change to come quickly can be dangerous, as a lack of patience can lead to one pushing their body too far and causing strain or injury.
According to an article on Harvard Health Publishing, there should be a total of 60 seconds spent on each stretch per day. This can be broken up into 15 or 20 second segments for those who are not yet capable of holding stretches for a long period of time. Additionally, the article states that stretches should be done for all of the major tendon groups including the neck, shoulders, chest, trunk, lower back, hips, legs, and ankles.
The change in your body’s flexibility should be gradual if done properly. This will also help you to build up a sense of patience that will later aid with your overall mindfulness. In fact, mindfulness is a key component of yoga practice.
Learning to have patience with your body will not only help your physical wellbeing but your mental wellbeing as well.
Consistency is Key
Starting out, it may be difficult to maintain a consistent routine if you are not used to having to incorporate stretching and yoga into your daily schedule. Nonetheless, building up consistency is crucial to improving your flexibility and showing your commitment to yoga. In truth, yoga is most beneficial when it is practiced regularly.
When beginning a new routine, do not feel pressured to practice every stretch every single day. While stretching every day is certainly recommended, making sure to stretch each of your tendon or muscle groups at least two to three times per week is a good starting point.
It can be helpful to craft out a stretching schedule, setting aside specific time every day that you plan on dedicating to your stretching and yoga practice. Part of getting used to consistency is changing your mindset to expect a certain activity at a certain time of day.
Don’t Be Afraid to Seek Guidance
There are all sorts of resources available to those starting out in yoga. It is important not to be afraid of seeking out help or guidance when you are starting – yoga instructors are professionals for a reason. Most instructors will want to help you and will have much better and personalized advice to offer than a simple google search can provide.
It is also crucial to be aware of your body and take note of any pain or discomfort you may experience. While yoga and stretching can help improve your physical health, they can also help to alert you of problems in your body that need medical attention. If you notice pain or severe tightness, consider scheduling an appointment with someone in the realm of physical therapy to have a look at your body and symptoms.
The Relationship of Flexibility and Strength
It is sometimes misunderstood that a person must choose between flexibility and strength when in actuality the two can enhance and improve each other. Both flexibility and strength affect the mobility of the human body, and co-training both is essential to having a well-functioning range of motion.
There is certainly some truth to the idea that stretching can inhibit strength training or that muscle recovery from strength training can in turn inhibit flexibility. According to a scientifically-reviewed article posted on Legion, stretching does not help inherently to prevent injury but instead helps to warm up the body when done as a repetitive and comprehensive warm-up routine before exercising, which allows the body to perform better.
The reality of flexibility and strength training is that they must be done in balance for those who wish to pursue both. Flexibility training does ultimately builds up joint strength but does not necessarily contribute to muscular growth. When considering both types of training, each person must assess their individual goals and fitness desires.
Muscle Fatigue and Stamina
One of the greatest benefits of improved flexibility is a longer period of stamina and lack of muscle fatigue. Stretching helps the body to withstand discomfort for longer periods of time, meaning that the body can go for longer in a workout before becoming fatigued.
In terms of yoga practice, this means that a practitioner will likely be able to hold a pose for a much longer period of time and maintain their posture and proper positioning for longer as well. Stamina is a major element of yoga that is often overlooked but holding yoga poses can be quite taxing if the body is not prepared or used to that kind of movement.
This is one of the key reasons why a person should focus on building a stretching routine and improving their flexibility as the first steps in starting a yoga practice. Focusing on these things and improving your stamina will ultimately make your poses much stronger and easier to hold, allowing you to move on to harder and more complex sequences.
Different Kinds of Stretching and Flexibility
When thinking about stretching and flexibility outside of just the realm of yoga, there are actually three different types of stretching. They are dynamic, static-active, and static-passive.
Dynamic is the ability to bring a limb or joint through a full range of movement through the use of kinetic poses or stretches. Static-active is the ability to assume and maintain a position without external support, while static-passive maintains position through the use of body weight, limbs, or other apparatus. According to an MIT webpage on flexibility:
“Research has shown that active flexibility is more closely related to the level of sports achievement than is passive flexibility. Active flexibility is harder to develop than passive flexibility not only does active flexibility require passive flexibility in order to assume an initial extended position, it also requires muscle strength to be able to hold and maintain that position.”
Benefits of Yoga and Flexibility
If you ask any fan or frequent practitioner of yoga why they are so attracted to the activity, they will undoubtedly cite the health benefits as being one of the main motivators for them to partake in the art of yoga. It is very true that yoga and improving your flexibility offer a wide range of benefits that make the activity appealing to so many.
There are, of course, the obvious benefits of improved mobility and stamina which we have already covered. However, yoga and flexibility offer even more benefits that can be extremely helpful for people to maintain a high-functioning physicality and healthy mindset.
Naturally, to enjoy the full breadth of these benefits one must be consistent with their practice and not expect to see life-changing results overnight. Like with any form of exercise, training is essential to building up even more strength and stamina, as well as being essential for preventing injury.
As mentioned, there is a large element of patience involved when starting a yoga practice from a beginner level.
Health Benefits of Flexibility
We have already covered many of the benefits of improved flexibility. These include better mobility of the joints, promotion of better and longer stamina, and improved strength. According to Healthline, the six main benefits of flexibility are:
- fewer injuries
- less pain
- improved posture and balance
- more positive state of mind
- greater strength
- improved physical performance
The improvement of mindset and mentality is certainly nothing to be scoffed at. Stretching and improving your flexibility help to relieve stress trapped within the body. This stress, when left unaddressed, can cause a person to experience heightened levels of anxiety. In turn, this anxiety can feed into depressive episodes that many find difficult to overcome.
By relieving this built-up stress through stretching a person may experience heightened mental clarity and motivation. Additionally, they may find that through improving their flexibility and practicing consistently they are not experiencing as frequent build-ups of stress, as the practice of stretching will help to keep physical stress levels to a minimum.
Health Benefits of a Complete Yoga Practice
Yoga is beneficial in a myriad of ways that are critical for a person’s health and wellbeing. No only do you get the benefits of improved flexibility, which helps to lower stress as we have covered, but you also open yourself up to experiencing all the other great and impactful benefits offered by yoga.
According to the American Osteopathic Association, yoga offers both physical and mental benefits. Of the physical benefits, these include:
- increased flexibility
- increased muscle strength and tone,
- improved respiration
- improved vitality
- improved energy
- better functioning metabolism
- weight reduction
- cardio and circulatory health
The AOA cites stress and anxiety as being the greatest mental struggle that yoga helps to alleviate, much like flexibility. While other forms of exercise focus mainly on the physical aspects of health, yoga encompasses the importance of finding mental balance and harmony alongside taking care of your physical wellbeing.
Different Types of Yoga
Once you have developed the basics of flexibility and yoga, you may discover there are actually several different types of practice to choose from, each with their own purposes and relative benefits. While some forms of yoga are more complex and better for intermediate or expert practitioners, many types are beginner-friendly.
Finding a type of yoga that fits your needs is important, as it can be a point of guidance when searching for a class or sequence to follow. Rather than simply searching for “yoga for beginners,” you can instead seek out specific forms and types of sequences that will best help you to achieve your individual goals.
In this section, we will discuss the best types of yoga for beginners looking to improve their overall flexibility, flow, and balance. These types are the most beginner-friendly and will be the most likely for those searching for beginner classes to find in their local areas or online.
Most general and beginner-friendly yoga classes fall under the category of Hatha yoga. Hatha involves focusing on and learning how to unite the breath, body, and mind. These types of classes generally run from between 30 – 90 minutes.
According to the Yoga Nomads: “Most of the yoga taught in the United States is hatha yoga, but when you see this on the schedule it typically refers to a class where you will explore holding postures and working with the breath to help you leave class feeling longer, looser, and more centered in your mind, body, and spirit.”
Hatha yoga is known for being slower-paced, with much more intention being placed on achieving proper form and posture. This makes it a great option for those new to yoga, who may not yet have the natural intuition of how to properly pose and hold their forms.
Additionally, hatha yoga is a form that can be modified to be suited for both beginners and advanced practitioners. This makes it a type of yoga that you can continue to practice throughout your yoga journey to help maintain your foundation of the basics.
Vinyasa yoga is typically a bit more complex and requires a greater sense of balance and stability than hatha yoga. This is because vinyasa focuses on a specific sequence of poses that move fluidly into each other. This type has been described as more dynamic and dance-like in its flow.
According to One Flow Yoga: “Vinyasa is a breath initiated practice, that connects every action of our life with the intention of moving towards what is sacred, or most important to us.”
Vinyasa can be quite difficult or it can be modified to be beginner-friendly, depending on the class and instructor. Participating in vinyasa early on in your yoga journey is a good way to start improving your balance and identifying which areas of your body are the most inflexible.
This type of yoga can be tricky for beginners, but those new to yoga should not be intimidated by this form as it can greatly improve many aspects of the body and mind that will in turn help a person’s overall sense of balance and comfort within their practice.
Restorative yoga focuses on slow and passive stretches that open up the body and alleviate stress. This type is much lower impact and, instead of focusing on athleticism, focuses on bringing an awareness of the body and uniting the body and mind.
According to Yoga Journal: “A restorative yoga sequence typically involves only five or six poses, supported by props that allow you to completely relax and rest. Held for 5 minutes or more, restorative poses include light twists, seated forward folds, and gentle backbends.”
In restorative yoga, there is often heavy reliance on props. Props are used to supplement a person’s strength and support the body so that poses may be held for a longer period of time. Unlike other forms of yoga, restorative will focus deeply on relaxation and holding poses for prolonged periods of time, sometimes upwards of 10 – 20 minutes.
While this type of yoga may not vastly improve overall flexibility or balance, it is a good way for beginners to learn about tuning out external stimuli and focusing on centering their mind with their bodies.
Good Poses for Beginner Flexibility Training
When beginning your flexibility training through yoga, there are a few poses you should immediately familiarize yourself with. In many forms of yoga, there are some basic poses that are likely to be seen across the board, such as downward dog. Knowing basic poses and practicing these poses regularly and often at the beginning of your yoga journey will vastly help in achieving flexibility, balance, and flow.
Downward dog is arguably the most well-known yoga pose and a staple for many yoga practices. This pose utilizes the strength of both the arms and legs and promotes increased flexibility, especially through the calves and hamstrings.
Additionally, this pose also stretches out your hips and ankles, opens your chest, and tones your abs and arms. Many yoga experts even recommend doing downward dog daily, even if you are unable to complete an entire sequence that day. For days when you only practice this pose, it is ideal to hold it between one to two minutes.
Pyramid pose often follows downward dog in a sequence. It is a standing pose that involves forward or backward bending and balance and is also known as “intense side stretch” or “intense flank stretch.” This pose, like downward dog, greatly stretches the hamstrings. The stretch also focuses on the shoulders, spine, hips, and chest.
For beginners, this pose may prove difficult as it requires a good deal of balance and focus. However, it is still relatively low on the difficulty spectrum, making it a good pose to use to work up to more difficult sequences and improve flexibility and balance.
Though not regarded as a particularly difficult pose, child’s pose is one that all beginners should familiarize themselves with immediately. This is because this pose can be a great stress reliever during practice. Often times, yoga instructors will advise students to enter child’s pose if the practice becomes too difficult or taxing on them.
This is because child’s pose still provides a good and deep stretch, while also alleviating any dizziness or fatigue that the practitioner may be experiencing. Being a low impact pose, child’s pose offers a gentle stretch of the hips, thighs, and ankles. In addition, it can help with proper circulation and result in a calming effect.
Flexibility and yoga go hand in hand. For anyone new to the practice, do not feel discouraged if you are not highly flexible or well-balanced. These skills take time to build-up and strengthen, and taking the time and patience to improve them will vastly improve not only your practice but your overall mental and physical wellbeing.