Yoga for Flexibility (and Strength)

Body Part Stretches For Increasing Flexibility
by: Neil Keleher
Published: 2014 06 28
Updated: 2019 12 02
Categories/Tags: Flexibility
yoga for flexiblity, seated forward bend hamstring stretch. Neil Keleher. Sensational Yoga Poses.

The intent of this yoga for flexibility page is to help you stretch in such a way that you improve the flexibility of the body part being stretched.

A list of yoga stretches to help you improve your flexibility

Following is a list of stretches roughly divided by body part. Get comfortable with the various stretching positions. Rather than holding each position, to begin with, work at repeatedly activating and relaxing the muscle you are trying to stretch. And just as importantly, do both the activation and relaxation slowly and smoothly. Focus on feeling the sensations that are generated as the muscle you are working on activates and relaxes. The better you can feel and control your body, the easier it will be for you to improve your flexibility.

Yoga for Flexibility, TOC

Flexibility
Basics

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.

Arm Stretches

Arm Stretches: Dragonfly arm stretch, stretch for the back of the shoulder. Neil Keleher. Sensational Yoga Poses.
Arm stretches: Clasped half dragonfly arm stretch. For this bent arm stretch, one arm is across the throat with the hand reaching over the shoulder. The other arm is reaching up the back so that both hands can clasp. Neil Keleher. Sensational Yoga Poses.
Arm stretches: Lotus for the arm external rotation arm stretch. Lying prone, arm being stretched is bent at the elbow with elbow pointing to the opposite side. Chin rests on the hand so that the weight of the head can be used to stretch that arms external rotators. Neil Keleher. Sensational Yoga Poses.
Arm stretches: Dragonfly arm stretch. With body positioned belly down, both arms are positioned across the chest, one in front of the other with elbows straight. The weight of the body is then used to stretch the shoulders of both arms. Neil Keleher. Sensational Yoga Poses.
Arm stretchs: Bent Elbow arm stretch for the front of the shoulder and chest. aka bennittasana. Starting prone, one arm is placed out to the side with elbow at shoulder height and bent 90 degrees. Opposite side of body rolls up to stretch the front of the shoulder of that arm. Top leg reaches back to add weight to the stretch.Neil Keleher. Sensational Yoga Poses.
Arm stretches: Straight elbow arm stretch for the front of the shoulder aka lappasana. Starting in a prone position, one arm reaches to the side with elbow straight. Opposite side of the body is rolled off of the floor to stretch the front of the shoulder. Knees are bent with feet on the floor and weight of the opposide leg and hip can be used to drive the stretch. Neil Keleher. Sensational Yoga Poses.
Arm stretches: Puppy dog arm stretch for front of shoulders and chest. Starting on all fours, hands reach forwards along the floor so that the chest can sink to the floor. Spine is actively bent backwards. Shoulders stay active also. Chin is on the floor with gaze directed forwards. Neil Keleher. Sensational Yoga Poses.
Arm stretches: Spiderman arm stretch for the front of the shoulders and chest. Kneeling in front of a wall, hands reach up the wall as high as possible. Chest is leaned forwards towards the wall. Spine is actively bent backwards. Shoulders are also active. Gaze is forwards, towards the wall. Neil Keleher. Sensational Yoga Poses.
Arm stretches: Prone spiderman arm stretch for front of shoulders and chest. Lying with head towards a wall, arms are reached up the wall while lifting the chest. Spine is actively bent backwards. Shoulders are stretched by sinking the chest down while resisting the hands being pulled down the wall. Neil Keleher. Sensational Yoga Poses.
Arm stretches: rack arm stretch. Sitting with hands on the floor behind the hips, hands are reached back with fingers pointing backwards. Legs are straigth and abs are used to pull the chest forwards, out of the shoulders. Palms can face up or down to vary the stretch. Neil Keleher. Sensational Yoga Poses.
Arm stretches: Seated penguin arm stretch for the shoulders. Hands are placed against the sides of the waist with elbows bent and pointing forwards. Elbows are positioned to the inside of the knees which are bent with the feet on the floor. Knees can then be used to push the elbows towards each otehr. At the same time, the arms resist by pushing outwards against the knees. Neil Keleher. Sensational Yoga Poses.
Arm stretches: Pull back arm stretch for the back of the shoulders and upper back. Sit with feet hip width apart and knees slightly bent. Arms are crossed in front of the body with hands grabbing the opposite foot. Ribcage pulls back, away from the feet to stretch the shoulders.  Torso can be adjusted by lifting or lowering the chest  vary the stretch. Stretch one arm at a time by letting go of one foot. as shown. Neil Keleher. Sensational Yoga Poses.Neil Keleher. Sensational Yoga Poses.

Active Shoulder Stretches

Arm overhead shoulder stretch, reaching one arm up, neil keleher, sensational yoga poses.
Arm overhead shoulder stretch, hands clasped and palms pressing upwards, neil keleher, sensational yoga poses.
Arm overhead shoulder stretch, pulling one arm to the side, neil keleher, sensational yoga poses.
Arm overhead shoulder stretch, pulling one arm to the inside, neil keleher, sensational yoga poses.
Arm overhead shoulder stretch, triceps stretch,  neil keleher, sensational yoga poses.
Arm overhead shoulder stretch, pulling hands apart to add tension, neil keleher, sensational yoga poses.
Arm to the side active shoulder stretch, pulling one arm back while holding on to upper arm with other hand, neil keleher, sensational yoga poses.
Outer shoulder stretch, crossing arms in front of chest with elbows bent, neil keleher, sensational yoga poses.
Outer shoulder stretch, crossing arms in front of chest with elbows straihgt,neil keleher, sensational yoga poses.
Eagle arm position shoulder stretch, forearms tipped to one side.  neil keleher, sensational yoga poses.
Arm overhead external rotation stretching exercise, neil keleher, sensational yoga poses.
Penguin shoulder stretching exercise for internal rotation,  neil keleher, sensational yoga poses.
From down position pulling one arm to the side against resistance to stretch outer shoulder of resisting arm, neil keleher, sensational yoga poses.
From down position pulling one arm to the opposite side behind the back  against resistance to stretch outer shoulder of resisting arm,  neil keleher, sensational yoga poses.
Arm overhead shoulder stretch, neil keleher, sensational yoga poses.
Reaching arms back from down position to stretch shoulders, hands not clasped,  neil keleher, sensational yoga poses.
Hands clasped and arms stretching back from down position, neil keleher, sensational yoga poses.
Reverse prayer shoulder stretching exercise,  neil keleher, sensational yoga poses.
High penguin shoulder stretch, wrist to chin external rotation shoulder stretching exercise, neil keleher, sensational yoga poses.

Arm and Shoulder
Stretches

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

Side stretch, sensational yoga poses, Neil Keleher
Side stretch, sensational yoga poses, Neil Keleher
Side stretch, sensational yoga poses, Neil Keleher
Side stretch, sensational yoga poses, Neil Keleher
Side stretch, sensational yoga poses, Neil Keleher
Side stretch, sensational yoga poses, Neil Keleher
Side stretch, sensational yoga poses, Neil Keleher
Side stretch, sensational yoga poses, Neil Keleher
Side stretch, sensational yoga poses, Neil Keleher

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
For Stretching and exercising Sore Lower Backs

Low back stretches: standing side bend. Neil Keleher, sensational Yoga poses.
Low back stretches: half moon pose. Neil Keleher, sensational Yoga poses.
Low back stretches: triangle pose. Neil Keleher, sensational Yoga poses.
Low back stretches: Standing slouch, pelvis rolled back, lumbar spine flattened, ribcage and thoracic spine bent forwards, head forwards. Neil Keleher, sensational yoga poses.
Low back stretches: triangle forward bend aka pyramid pose. Neil Keleher, sensational Yoga poses.
Low back stretches: seated forward bending side bend. Neil Keleher, sensational Yoga poses.
Low back stretches: pigeon pose variation. Neil Keleher, sensational Yoga poses.
Low back stretches: cross legged easy twist using the arms. Neil Keleher, sensational Yoga poses.
Low back stretches: bound angle pose with legs wide. Neil Keleher, sensational Yoga poses.
Low back stretches: bent back kneeling position. Neil Keleher, sensational Yoga poses.
Low back stretches: bharadvajasana or seated twist with a behind the back attempted foot grab using the free hand as an intermediary. Neil Keleher, sensational Yoga poses.
Low back stretches: head supported strap augmented seated forward bend. Neil Keleher, sensational Yoga poses.

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.

Psoas 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.

Hip Stretches for
the Glutes and Piriformis

Yoga for flexibility, pigeon hip stretch variation with front leg hip on the ground and torso stretching towards the back leg side. Neil Keleher. Sensational Yoga Poses
Yoga for flexibility, low lunge glute stretch variation with front foot turned out and front knee pointing slightly outwards and pressing backwards and downards towards the floor. In this stretch the focus is on lowering the chest to the floor while pressing the front leg sideways and backwards. Neil Keleher. Sensational Yoga Poses

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.

Iliotibial Band Stretch

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.

Adductor Stretches
(inner thigh stretches)

Adductor Streches: Supine wide leg adductor stretch with feet against a wall. Wide splits while reclining with feet against the wall. Neil Keleher. Sensational Yoga Poses
Adductor stretches: Bound angle adductor stretch with hands against a wall. Bound angle using a wall for leverage. Neil Keleher. Sensational Yoga Poses.
Adductors stretches: hurdlers adductor stretch. Hurdlers stretch inner thigh stretch bending forwards between the legs with hands on the floor to help support the weight of the upper body. Spine is slightly rounded. Neil Keleher. Sensational Yoga Poses.
Adductor stretches: prone big toe pose adductor stretch. Lying prone with one leg reaching out to the side with knee pointing forwards. Same side hand is grabbing the blade of the foot. Chin is on the floor with gaze directed forwards and slightly downwards. Neil Keleher. Sensational Yoga Poses.
Adductor stretches. Half split adductor stretch. One knee is bent with shin on the floor. Other knee  is straight. Straight knee foot is moving away from bent knee. Forearms are on the floor and supporting the weight of the upper body. Head is inline with the torso with gaze directed downwards. Focus is on the adductors of the straight leg. Neil Keleher. Sensational Yoga Poses.
Adductor stretches: Frog pose adductor stretch. Both knees are bent with both shins and both forearms on the floor supporting the weight of the body. Shins move slowly outwards, away from each other, to stretch the adductors. Head is inline with the torso with gaze directed downwards. Neil keleher, sensational yoga poses.

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

Hip flexor stretches: Cat pose active hip flexor stretch. On all fours, with elbows straight and knees bent and positioned under the hips, spine is actively bent backwards. Shoulders are also actively lifting the chest away from the floor. One leg reaches rearwards and upwards with the knee pointing downwards. The gluteus maximus of this leg is being used to stretch the hip flexors of that leg. Neil keleher, sensational yoga poses.
Hip flexor stretches: Single side bow pose hip flexor stretch on all fours. Starting on all fours, one arm reaches back to grab the foot of the same side leg. Knee is bent and hip is extended backwards to stretch the hip flexors. So that the hip flexors are active while being stretched, the arm and leg work against each other. Neil keleher, sensational yoga poses.
Hip flexor stretches: Upright lunge hip flexor stretch with knee straight. In a lunge position with torso upright, hands rest on the front knee. Back knee is straight. To stretch the hip flexors of the straight leg, pelvis sinks downwards. Hip flexors being stretched are active, working against the weight of the body making this an active or resisted hip flexor stretch. Neil Keleher. Sensational Yoga Poses.
Hip flexor stretches: Upright pigeon pose hip flexor stretch with back knee straight. In pigeon pose with both hips lifted and level from leg to right, torso is upright with hands on the floor helping to support the weight of the upper body. Back knee is straight with toes tucked under. To stretch the hip flexors of the straight back leg, pelvis sinks downwards. Hip flexors being stretched are active, working against the weight of the body making this an active or resisted hip flexor stretch. Additionally, front knee can press down so that front leg is active and helping to support the weight of the body. Neil Keleher. Sensational Yoga Poses.
HIp flexor stretches: upright pigeon hip flexor stretch variation with back knee bent and same side hand grabbing the back ankle. This hip flexor stretch targets rectus femoris which crosses both hip and knee joint.
Hip flexor stretches: upward facing dog hip flexor stretch with tops of feet flat on the floor. Spine is actively bent backwards.
Hip flexor stretches. Bow yoga pose hip flexor stretch with both ankles grabbed and eyes looking straight ahead. Legs work against the arms so that this is an active and resisted hip flexor stretch.Neil Keleher, sensational yoga poses.
Hip flexor stretches: Half table top half camel hip flexor stretch. One shin is on the floor, other foot is on the floor with shin vertical. Pelvis is lifted using both legs to do the lifting. This may target rectus femoris of the kneeling leg.
Hip flexor stretches: Camel pose hip stretch with both hands on the floor. Hips are actively pushed forwards so that gluteus maximus is active. Neil keleher, sensational yoga poses.
Hip flexor stretches: Quad and hip flexor stretch with shin against a wall, Neil Keleher, Sensational Yoga Poses.
Hip flexor stretches: Splits with back knee bent and shin against a wall. Torso is upright with hands on yoga blocks. Hips sink down to stretch hip flexors and quads of back leg. Neil Keleher, Sensational Yoga Poses.
Hip flexor stretches: upright splits with hands on blocks. Both knees are bent. Hips sink down to stretch the hip flexors of the back leg. Neil Keleher. Sensational Yoga poses

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.

Quadriceps Stretching

Squatting with heels lifted, an option for stretching your quadriceps. Neil Keleher. Sensational Yoga Poses.
Standing quadriceps stretching pose. Neil Keleher. Sensational Yoga Poses.
Standing quadriceps stretching pose, bending forwards.  Neil Keleher. Sensational Yoga Poses.
Lunging quadriceps stretching yoga pose, pushing the foot forwards with the hand (as opposed to pulling it). Neil Keleher. Sensational Yoga Poses.
Hip flexor and quadriceps stretching pose, twisting lunge. Neil Keleher. Sensational Yoga Poses.
Pigeon pose quadriceps stretching variation. Neil Keleher. Sensational Yoga Poses.
Front to back splits, quadriceps stretching variation. Neil Keleher. Sensational Yoga Poses.
Frog pose quadriceps stretching variation. Neil Keleher. Sensational Yoga Poses.
Frog pose quadriceps stretching variation. Neil Keleher. Sensational Yoga Poses.

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.

Hip Stretches for
the Back of the Hip
A Good Preparation for Hamstring Stretching

Yoga hip stretch for flexibility, marichyasana e position (non-marichyasana leg in hero position), sinking chest to the floor with hands in push up position (as a possible preparation for binding). Neil Keleher. Sensational Yoga Poses.
Yoga for flexiblity, hip extensor stretching with happy baby pose. Neil Keleher, sensational yoga poses.

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.

Calf, Toe and Ankle Stretches

Standing calf stretch, fronts of feet elevated, sensational yoga poses.
Standing calf stretch while bending forwards, fronts of feet elevated with yoga block. Hips back to reduce stretch.
Standing calf stretch while bending forwards, fronts of feet elevated with yoga block. Hips forwards to reduce stretch.

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.

Hamstring
Stretches

yoga for flexiblity, standing hamstring stretch, triangle forward fold while grabbing front shin and using arm strength to stretch front leg hamstring. Neil Keleher, sensational yoga poses.
Yoga for flexiblity, wide leg seated front fold with torso close to the floor, hands off of the floor and arms reaching forwards. Knees are pointing straight up. Neil Keleher. Sensational Yoga Poses.

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.

Spine
Stretches

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

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".