Yoga for Flexibility
The main focus of this page and the articles that it links to is on improving flexibility through muscle control. That means learning to activate muscle as well as relax it. It also means being able to feel the difference.
Perhaps one of the most basic aspects of muscle control with respect to improving flexibility is to give the muscles you are controlling a stable foundation. That way they can resist effectively and to whatever degree required.
Flexibility is the ability to resist being stretched. The greater the range through which you can resist being stretched, the more flexible you are.
That may sound kind of strange but if you stretch an elastic band, does it not resist being stretched?
Floppiness isn't flexibility. Floppiness is the equivalent to being like a piece of string. You can bend it any which way, and it doesn't resist.
A broader definition of flexibility is that it is the ability to turn muscles on and off at will through a wide range of positions. The better this ability, and the greater the range through which you can apply it, the more flexible you are.
What this can mean is that if you have the ability to switch between being floppy and resisting, then that fits into this broader definition of flexibility.
Hip flexor stretches work on the front of the hip. These may be useful as warm ups or compliments for quadriceps stretches. (When done with knees bent, hip flexor stretches can also be used as quad stretches).
Front to back splits is both a hip flexor stretch and a hamstring stretch though with the torso upright the focus is more on stretching the hip flexors (and psoas) of the rear most leg.
For strengthening and stretching the hip flexors (and understanding why they might be tight in the first place and just as importantly, what you can do about it), read Hip flexor stretching and strengthening.
The sartorius is also a hip flexor, but it also bends the knee. Here's how you can stretch the sartorius using warrior 1: Sartorius stretch, warrior 1
The rectus femoris is a hip flexor that works on both the hip and the knee. While sartorius and tensor fascia latae are also hip flexors that work on both the hip and the knee, the rectus femoris is different in that it crosses the front of the knee joint while sartorius and tensor fascia latae cross the inside and outside of the knee joint respectively. As a result, to stretch the rectus femoris you'll have to do hip flexor stretches where the knee is bent as explained in the next section.
For a youtube video look at using sitting bone control to improve hip flexor stretching effectiveness check out this video youtube: using sitting bone control for more effective hip flexor stretching
Improving quadriceps flexibility (or simply, stretching the quads) generally involves closing the back of the knee joint.
Since the quadriceps also includes the rectus femoris, a hip flexor muscle, deeper quadriceps stretches generally involve bending the hip backwards with the knee bent. And so one way to think of these deeper quadriceps stretches is as Bent knee hip flexor stretches.
One of the simplest ways to stretch the quadriceps is to kneel. (From there you can deepen the quadriceps stretch by leaning back.) If you have difficulty kneeling you may find it helpful to work on these ankle stretches. These can also be helpful for if you have difficulty kneeling with toes tucked under.
When working to stretch your quads it can help to anchor the quadriceps from above or below. For more on how to do that read sensational quad stretches.
When you stretch the toes you are generally stretching muscles that cross the ankle and that attach from the toes to the lower leg bones (the tibia and fibula). If you actively stretch these muscles (i.e. activate and strengthen them in a lengthened or shortened position) you practice stabilizing the feet and ankles. You may find that activating your toes while you stretch them can help improve ankle flexibility and control. It may also, have a positive affect on your knees.
Find out about stretching them in toe and ankle stretches.
You may be surprised to find that the calves affect the hamstrings and vice versa.
What is really interesting is how these two sets of muscles affect each other in straight leg positions. Often times the stretch you feel in a forward bend (or the discomfort) isn't so much the hamstrings but the calves.
The calf stretches article includes both passive calf stretches (like the ones shown above, and active calf stretches. Be prepared for some discomfort!
If you have difficulty with hamstring stretching yoga poses, you may find it helpful to stretch the back of the hips by doing bent knee hip extensor stretches first.
Glute stretches like low lunge, modified marichyasana e and Happy Baby Hip Stretch) can be used to increase flexibility at the back of the hip when the knee is bent. This can mean muscles like the adductor magnus long head are affected (since it can extend the hip), as well as some fibers of the gluteus maximus.
If you want to stretch your hamstrings in order to work towards splits, then these hamstring stretches can help. (You'll have to work on your hip flexors also!)
For a set of yoga poses that can be used to stretch the hamstrings, also check out hamstring stretching yoga poses.
And for a simple seated hamstring stretch check out seated hamstring stretch.
For a set of simple (and relatively easy) postures for stretching your hamstrings, check out Simple postures for stretching your hamstrings.
For more on how the hamstrings and glutes work together in different yoga poses you may find the hamstring anatomy article useful.
You could consider these stretches as an extension of the side stretches in the spine stretches section on this page.
In general these glute and piriformis stretches include an external rotation of the thigh relative to the pelvis with a forward bend.
One of my favorite glute stretches is pigeon pose glute stretch.
I often use this version of pigeon as a prep for foot behind the head because the leg positions are quite similiar.
Another hip stretch, which is also a shoulder stretch, is armpit pose.
Note that these hip stretches can be fairly intense and afterwards you may find it helpful to either counter pose them or do poses that reactivate the hips, or both. For more on all of that read counter poses for hip openers.
While it may not be possible to stretch the actual Iliotibial band (also called the fascae latae), you can stretch some of the muscles that work on it (fibers of the gluteus maximus, tensor fascae latae and vastus lateralis) with shoelace pose (Iliotibial band stretch ).
These yoga for flexibility poses mainly stretch the inner thighs but also include poses where one or both legs are internally rotated.
Where the previous two sections focused on side bends and stretching the outer hips or abductors, here the focus is on the inner thighs or adductors.
Inner thigh stretches work on the adductors, the muscles that pull the legs inwards. This includes the adductors brevis, longus and magnus, pectineus, gracilis and perhaps also the psoas and iliacus.
A useful reference for stretching the adductors (and for feeling and controlling the hips in general) is the hip crease.
You may find the action of opening the hip crease handy in bound angle pose. But don't forget to counter pose (or counter stretch) by closing the hip crease wide leg forward fold.
Read about both in opening the hip creases, bound angle pose.
Another way you can use the hip crease opening action is in seated straddle splits.
The psoas is a hip flexor (and a lumbar stabilizer).
One way to stretch the psoas is with a Reclining Psoas Stretch. Part of what makes this stretch interesting is that it is based on the understanding that the psoas connects to the 12th set of ribs. You can also stretch the psoas with a Standing Psoas Stretch as well as these Standing psoas stretch variations. Other stretches include some Active Psoas Stretches.
One method for stretching the psoas includes learning to add "inner tension" to the lumbar spine. This is covered in psoas stretches. Another technique is to keep the abs engaged, in particular the obliques. This is covered in psoas stretches-1.
Lower back stretches include a variety of standing and seated yoga exercises for increasing the flexibility and control of the lower back muscles and hip muscles.
If have low back pain, you may actually be suffering from weak or imbalanced or ill functioning hip or leg muscles. So if you have chronic low back pain, look at hip strengthening exercises and/or standing hip exercises.
You may find some of the shoulder stretches (below) also helpful for tight upper backs.
Some of the spine stretching (and strengthening) exercises in the next section may also help.
The spine is meant to be flexible. But it's also meant to be strong. You can stretch your spine by taking its parts through simple movement ranges as shown in these spine stretches.
One way to stretch the spine while strengthening it is to side bend it. Another way is to twist it.
The advantage is that these can be self-balancing, i.e. they are their own counterposes (you side bend or twist to one side and then the other).
A simple tip for these spine stretches and all other stretches:
Move slowly and smoothly.
If you do that, you'll be focusing on what you are doing. You'll also be less likely to hurt yourself. And you'll be more likely to find optimal movement that then allows you to improve your flexibility.
For more on stretching the spine check, including the front and back of the spine in isolation as well as in combination with the hips and/or shoulders, check out the meridian stretches in the next section.
One way to improve shoulder flexibility is to focus on your shoulder blades. For tips on how to use and control your shoulder blades read Shoulder flexibility stretches.
The muscle assisted shoulder stretches are if you want to work while stretching. The gravity assisted arm stretches are for a more relaxed stretching experience. Both types can be used to help improve shoulder flexibility
Yoga shoulder stretches includes traditional yoga shoulder stretching positions like reverse prayer, eagle pose and the shoulder stretch used in prasarita padottanasana C. Hip and Shoulder Stretches are poses which stretch the hips and shoulders at the same time.
Meridian stretches are stretches which are designed to stretch the meridians. The meridians run up and down the sides of the body, arms and legs and correspond to organs.
Because these stretches can be a good way to relax or re-energize, they've been grouped under the yoga for stress category (de-stressing).
The meridians lie within connective tissue and to stretch them the main stretching technique to use is relaxed gravity assisted stretching.
For a particularly refreshing stretching session you can use the meridians to guide the sequence in which you do your stretches. To do that, follow the "flow of the meridians".