Fitness Magazine

Techniques for Cultivating Flexibility with Yoga

By Ninazolotow @Yoga4HealthyAge
by Nina

Techniques for Cultivating Flexibility with Yoga

De Jur, Age 57

After delving into strength (see Techniques for Strength Building with Yoga), Baxter and I immediately moved onto flexibility. Now, after our usual time spent on research, discussion, and debate, we’ve come up with a basic set of guidelines for how you can use your yoga practice for improving and maintaining flexibility. An important thing to consider when you move into flexibility practices is how flexible you already are. Overly flexible people should emphasize strength and stability rather than promoting more flexibility. These people should do what they can do protect their joints by activating the muscles that support their joints (see below) and stretch less intensely than people who are naturally tight or even just average. Tighter people can safely move into a noticeable stretching sensation, as long as they are not feeling that sensation at tendon/bone connections near the joints. How Far to Stretch. Be mindful in your stretching not to go beyond the sensation of a healthy stretch into feelings of pain, burning, or compression in your joint. If you experience sensations that seem unhealthy, either back off the stretch or use a prop or different variation of the pose. Overly flexible people should be extra careful, aiming for a lighter feeling of stretch (or even do the pose for strength instead flexibility by actively contracting their muscles instead of allowing them to stretch).How Long to Stretch. To cultivate long-lasting flexibility in your muscles and fascia, aim for at least 90 seconds. If holding for 90 seconds isn’t possible, it might be an indication that you are: stretching your muscle too far or that the opposing muscles are contracting too tightly, that the initial intensity of your stretch set off a strong stretch reflex, or that you are doing a pose or a version of the pose that is too challenging for you. So start by seeing if you can back off the stretch a bit or modify the pose. But if you just can’t get comfortable, hold the pose until you are fatigued, and gradually over time work your way up to longer holds. Static poses held for shorter periods of time will release the overnight tightness that we all experience and bring you temporary flexibility that will enhance the rest of your practice. For example, you could warm up for standing poses by doing leg stretches. Hold these warm-up stretches for 20 seconds or longer to trigger a relaxation in the muscles, allowing a more complete stretch. How Often to Stretch. To cultivate lasting flexibility, stretch a particular muscle or muscle group regularly, at least three times a week and at most every other day. In general, with consistent practice, you can see results after 3 to 8 weeks for muscles. For fascia, however, it takes longer to create lasting changes, from 3 to 6 months.Muscles need a day of rest between stretching sessions or you could develop an overuse injury. So generally you shouldn’t stretch the same muscle group on consecutive days. However, you can do flexibility poses every day if you focus on different areas of your body on each day, for example, alternating between upper body and lower body or between backbends and forward bends. Or, you can alternate intense stretching days with other types of yoga practice, whether that is active strength, balance, or agility practices, a gentle or restorative practice, or pranayama/meditative practice on your “off days.” Static Poses. Entering into static poses slowly will allow elastic muscle lengthening to take place more easily. And, once in the pose, you can add in muscle activation on the opposite side of the joint to enhance the stretch (see below). Dynamic Poses. Slow, dynamic movements in and out of poses allow gradual muscle lengthening without triggering the muscles’ protective stretch reflex. So these are a good way to warm up your joints in an easy fashion and can lead to immediate improvements in muscle flexibility, which you can then further with your static hold of the same pose. For example, you practice Standing Forward Bend (Uttanasana) dynamically to temporarily improve hamstring/hip flexibility, which you then further with a long hold of the pose. In general, we recommend a combination of small dynamic sequences of stretches done for 6-8 repetitions, followed by holding the stretch statically for 90 seconds. Restorative Poses. Poses where you can relax as you gently stretch your body in a supported position are an excellent way to cultivate flexibility. For example, holding Supported Backbend for at least 90 seconds allows you to gently open your front body. Likewise, holding Supported Child’s pose for at least 90 seconds allows you to gently stretch your back body. And because fascial planes run for long distances through your body, using a supported pose that stretches your entire body (front, side, or back) will help address fascial tightness as well as muscular tightness. Balance Your Practice. To balance your flexibility, make sure your practice includes poses of all the basic types: standing poses, seated hip openers, backbends, forward bends, and twists, as long as they are safe for you. Of course you don’t need to do all these basic types within a single practice; just try to get to them sometime each week.Activating Muscles. In static stretches, intentionally contracting the muscles on the opposite side of the joint—known as reciprocal inhibition—allows the muscle group you stretching to lengthen more effectively. So when you are stretching a particular muscle, bring your awareness to the antagonist muscle, which is the opposite muscle to the one you are stretching, and gently activate it. For example, when stretching your front thigh muscles in a Lunge pose, try consciously activating the back of your thigh. If you’re not used to working this way, it may take some practice. Take it in two steps: 
  1. Consciously relax the muscle, allowing it to lengthen. 
  2. Gently firm the muscle toward the bone. 
Protecting Your Joints. For people with joint problems, such as arthritis, consciously firming the muscles that support a problem joint will help protect the joint from strain or wear and tear. For example, if you have knee arthritis and are practicing Reclined Leg Stretch (Supta Padangusthasana), you could firm around your knee joint as you bring your top leg into the pose and try to maintain that firmness as you stretch the back of your thigh. For people who are overly flexible and can bend easily into deep forward bends and backbends, consciously activating the muscles that are supporting you in the pose will prevent you from hyperextending the joints. For example, in Standing Forward Bend (Uttanasana), you can protect your hip joints by activating the muscles around your hip joints before you enter the pose and maintain as much of that as you can while you come into the pose. While the result will be a stretch that is not as deep as usual, your hip joints will benefit. And just as over-stretching can cause joint problems in an active pose, it can also do so in restorative poses. So if you feel any sensations of overstretching, pain, pinching, or compression while you are in a restorative pose, come out and add more support, reducing the stretch you are experiencing. Likewise, if you notice pain in your joints after practicing restorative poses, add in more support the next time you practice.Subscribe to Yoga for Healthy Aging by Email ° Follow Yoga for Healthy Aging on Facebook ° Join this site with Google Friend Connect

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