What do I need to do while stretching to improve flexibility?
Perhaps one of the most basic actions that you can do, no matter what position you are stretching in, is to create a stable foundation or anchor point for the muscle you are trying to stretch. That is perhaps the most "basic" requirement for improving flexibility. That being said, you may need a bit more than that to get more flexible. That's where muscle control comes in.
What can I do while holding a stretch?
While you are holding a stretch, rather than just wondering about how much time has passed, focus on feeling and controlling the muscles you are trying to stretch.
Muscle control is the act of controlling your muscles, either activating them or relaxing them so that you can get deeper into whatever stretch that you are doing. You can work at controlling the muscle you are stretching. You can work at controlling the muscles that oppose the muscle being stretched.
Or you can work at controlling both.
What does it mean to be flexible?
Being flexible is more than being able to flop into the splits.
Being flexible means that you can relax into the splits, or you can slowly lower into the splits using the same muscles that you are stretching. Flexibility is really just the ability to control your muscles through a large range of motion. The more control you have of your muscles and the larger the range of motion you can control them through, the more flexible you are.
Can you get more flexible without stretching?
If flexibility is muscle control through a greater range of motion, one way to get more flexible is to increase your control within your current "flexibility limits." Instead of stretching, your simply improving your ability to control your body. If you can do that, you may find that pushing beyond your current limits becomes a little bit easier.
A Stretching routine for beginners
Do you need a stretching routine suitable for beginners? Stretching for beginners includes a sequence of stretches with detailed instructions for each pose.
You can always leave out any of the stretches that cause pain. Plus there are options if your flexibility is really limited.
When using opposing muscle activation to stretch a muscle it helps to understand reciprocal inhibition. It's more than just tensing an opposing muscle.
To improve flexibility a little more easily it can help to understand 10 Muscle Control Principles.
For a sequence of basic yoga stretches read:
Stretching Techniques explains the principles behind different stretching techniques.
For more tips on stretching to improve flexibility, read flexibility tips.
Also check out Stretching for flexibility
Why should I get more flexible?
A good question to ask about stretching and getting more flexible is why? Why bother getting more flexible (or trying to)? Here are Three reasons why you should improve flexibility. This isn't to say that you should. Just why you might want to.
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.
If you've got tight shoulders these shoulder stretches and arm stretches can help.
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.
Side stretches are perhaps one of the most overlooked stretches. These simple stretches can offer a lot of back for the buck if for no other reason than we tend to neglect side bending actions.
Note that the section on side stretches has a lot of overlap with lower back stretches, below. That's because side stretches stretch the lower back, as well as the side of the ribcage. If the hips are included in a side stretch like standing side bend, then side stretches can also be used to stretch the inner and outer hip and thigh muscles.
When side bending the torso, you can make your side stretches active in two ways. You can work at actively lengthening the long side of the stretch. You can also work at actively shortening the short side of the stretch.
As an example, Bending to the right you can focus on lengthening the right side of the torso or on shortening the left side of the torso. You could also work at doing both actions at the same time.
A focus on either lengthening or shortening (or both) causes muscles to activate. These muscles in turn help to generate sensation, both muscle activation sensation and connective tissue tension. Both of these types of sensation allow you to feel your body. They also help to keep your joints safe by keeping them lubricated. You may find that although it can be hard work, focusing on either of these actions can make whichever stretch you are doing feel more comfortable.
If you choose to relax while stretching, do make sure that you create stability. So for example if you want a relaxed spine while bending to the side, and you are standing, the stabilize your feet, or your knees or your hips, or your entire leg so that the muscles you are stretching have a firm or fixed foundation from which to lengthen away from.
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 you have low back pain, check out the low back section in sensational yoga anatomy:
Sensational Yoga Anatomy: Low Back Pain
If have low back pain, you may actually be suffering from weak or imbalanced or ill functioning hip or leg muscles. So if you low back pain is chronic look, at exercises to strengthen and stabilize your hips. Some of those are listed in the section linked to above.
You may find some of the shoulder stretches (below) also helpful for tight upper backs.
When you stretch your back you are actually stretching a part of your spine. Here's a comprehensive list of spinal movements that you can use as spine stretches.
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.
Yoga for flexibility stretches for lateral glutes and piriformis include pigeon pose variations as well as low lunge variations.
You could consider these stretches as an extension of the side stretches in the previous section.
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.
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.
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.
Inner thigh hip stretches include Half side split and full side split.
In full side splits you can focus on keeping one leg still and then move the other leg away from this stationary reference point.
Hip flexor stretches work on the front of the hip. These may be useful as warm ups or compliments for quadriceps 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.
Yoga for flexibility exercises that stretch the quadriceps all involve "closing" the back of the knee joint.
Easier quad stretches are those where the hip joint is bent forwards (flexed hip stretches) while more challenging quadriceps stretches are those where the hip is bent backwards (extended hip stretches) such as in reclining hero pose.
If you have tight ankles, then prior to any kneeling poses, you may find these yoga ankle stretches helpful. These can also be helpful for if you have difficulty kneeling with toes tucked under.
If you have difficulty stretching your hamstrings 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.
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!
Related are the ankles and the toes. Find out about stretching them in toe and ankle stretches.
If you have tight hamstrings you may find it easier to start with these stretches for tight hamstrings. As hamstring flexibility improves you may find seated hamstring stretches easier, particularly when you learn how to add weight to your stretch.
For more on how the hamstrings and glutes work together in different yoga poses you may find the hamstring anatomy article useful.
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.
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.
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.
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".