Yoga for Flexibility
Stretching to improve flexibility, muscle control and body awareness
Published: 2014 06 28
Updated: 2020 04 22
This Yoga for flexibility page is divided into two main sections. For the basics of stretching (i.e. general principles) check out the Stretch basics section.
For stretches categorized according to body part check out the Stretching section
For stretches categorized by body part click : Stretching by body part
For an overview of how to stretch (and what to do while stretching) take a peak at a quick guide to stretching.
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?
Note that being able to flop into the splits isn't so much flexibility as it is being able to relax muscles even when they are lengthened. It's like being a piece of string. You can bend it any which way, and it doesn't resist.
Now this isn't to say that being able to flop into the splits is a bad thing. If you can flop into the splits, and also resist going into the splits, I'd say that then you have the best of both worlds.
And so one way to think of flexibility is that it is the ability to both resist being stretched and to relax across a large range of motion.
The more control you have of your muscles (which, remember, is both the ability to relax muscles and activate them) and the larger the range of motion you can control them through, the more flexible you are.
To find out more about what flexibility is, and why your brain might limit it, read what is flexibility?
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, you're simply improving your ability to control your body. While you may not be able to get more flexible without actually "stretching", if you focus on feeling and controlling your muscles, you may find that get more flexible is a little bit easier (and a lot less uncomfortable).
Do you need a stretching routine suitable for beginners? Stretching for beginners includes a sequence of stretches with detailed instructions for each pose.
Stretching for beginners includes also some simple muscle control techniques that can make it easier to feel (and control) your body.
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.
A lot of people assume that because of reciprocal inhibition, when one muscle activates, the opposing muscles automatically relax. In reciprocal inhibition it's explained why this isn't always the case.
Understanding this one simple thing is one of the keys to understanding muscle control in general!
To improve flexibility a little more easily it can help to understand 10 Muscle Control Principles.
Why understand these muscle control principles? It makes it easier to feel and control your muscles in general! And if you have problems, it gives you some general tools to help solve those problems.
For a sequence of basic yoga stretches read:
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.
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
Stretches by body part TOC
For stretching basics click: Stretching basics
Below are links to all pages indexed from this page.
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 pain section under the lower back category:
Lower back: 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 have chronic low back pain, 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.
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
Bent knee hip flexor stretches are a special group of hip flexor stretches that work on the rectus femoris and may also work on the tensor fascia latae. Because the rectus femoris crosses the front of the hip and the front of the knee, it can only be stretched when both the knee and the hip are bent backwards.
While some of these stretches are included as quadriceps stretches, I'd say that they'd be better labeled as stretches for the rectus femoris. You can read more about these stretches in couch stretch. This article does cover more than just the couch stretch. But it also does show you how to make the couch stretch more effective.
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). And actually, these would be better considered as hip flexor stretches.
Note that if you have difficulty kneeling you may find it helpful to work on these yoga ankle stretches. These can also be helpful for if you have difficulty kneeling with toes tucked under.
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 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.
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!)
Standing forward bend
Standing f-bend using arms
Standing f-bend on one leg
Pyramid pose hamstring stretch
Spine long TA engaged
Pulling lifted leg fwd
Bending down to standing leg
Semi-kneeling w/ hips lifted
hamstring and hip flexor splits
If you have tight hamstrings you may find it easier to start with these stretches for tight hamstrings.
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.
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".