Stretching for Flexibility
When stretching for flexibility, some different ways you can work while in a stretch include:
- activating and then relaxing the muscle being stretched.
- activating the driver muscle (the muscles that stretch the muscle being stretched)
- activating both driver and target muscle (so that muscle being stretched, muscle that drives the stretch are both active) but activating the driver muscle with greater force so that general movement is deeper into the stretch.
- relaxing the target muscle.
This page includes suggestions for how to sequence stretches as well as what you can do to stretch more effectively. It's suitable for people with a modicum of flexibility (so not really for beginners or people just getting into stretching, though you are welcome to try.)
Many of the stretches included below include binding or grabbing part of the body. In cases like these you can try resisting the bind. Notice the affect this has on the stretch in question.
If you can't bind work an alternative is to use your muscles to work towards the binding position. Work slowly and smoothly (not forcefully or with jerkiness). You could think of this as a way of actively stretching.
One Possible Yoga for Flexibility Routine
A very simple way to begin a flexibility workout is to start with something both simple and straight forwards like stretching the neck. I usually like to twist, then side bend, then bend backwards and forwards, holding each stretch while focusing on feeling the vertebrae of the neck.
Rather than just holding a stretch, focus on feeling your neck so that you can look for ways to deepen the movement.
Neck Stretching for flexibility
Stretching the neck in a twist of the head try to feel each vertebrae and turn each one slightly deeper compared to the vertebrae below.
You may find it helps to activate the muscles that resist the stretch as well as the ones that assist it. This can be difficult in a twist but if the general direction of twist is to the right, then maintain the right twist and activate your neck muscles as it to twist the neck left. Make the activation of the muscles that twist the neck to the right slightly stronger.
In a side bending neck stretch this "resisted-assisted" stretching technique is slightly easier. First bend the neck to the side (say to the right.) Then activate the muscles on the right side of the neck to try to deepen the stretch. Activate the muscles on the left side of the neck to resist the stretch.
Likewise bending backwards you could activate the muscles at the back of the neck to deepen the stretch and then the muscles at the front of the neck to resist. (Do the opposite when bending the neck forwards.)
When stretching the neck you may find it helpful to move your ribcage in the same direction your are stretching your neck. Bending the neck forwards pull down on your front ribs. Bending the neck backwards pull down on your back ribs etc.
Another way that to start of a stretching for flexibility workout is to start with with ankle stretches and wrist stretches. Ankle stretches can lead to quad, hip and hamstring stretches while wrist stretches can lead to shoulder stretches.
Grouping Similiar Stretches Together
You can do stretches for the same body part together. Or you can stretch one side of the body in different ways, using poses that are easy to move between.
As an example, the stretching for flexibility mini routine below starts off with an easy bharadvajasana side bend. You can use this as a w ay to stretch the front of the ankle and the quadriceps of the "kneeling leg."
(I often refer to this leg as the hero leg. The other leg is the janu sirsasana leg.)
It also stretches the side of the body.
Keeping the same leg position it's relatively easy to change the spinal stretch from a side bend to a twist.
You could twist towards the hero leg or towards the non-hero leg.
Twisting towards the non-hero leg you may find this causes the hip of that leg to sink adding a stretch to the quadriceps.
Afterwards it's a relatively easy to stand the foot of the kneeling leg on the floor and move into a position called "Easy Marichyasana B."
(Note both poses, the "non-easy" version has a leg in lotus position. The pose is made "easy" by placing foot of the erstwhile lotus leg against the inner thigh of the other leg.)
If you have trouble binding in easy marichyasana b, then work into this shoulder stretching position in stages.
- First reaching the arm forwards while lengthening the side of the body as well as the arm.
- Then I reach the arm to the side pulling the knee inwards to do so.
- The next step is to rotate the arm inwards prior to bending the elbow and grabbing the other hand behind the back.
- (The last picture shows my hips lifted. You can lower the butt to the floor once you've grabbed your hand.)
When binding the hands this pose stretches the front of the shoulders as well as exercising the internal rotators of the shoulder. It's also a good way to exercise grip.
You could turn this into a twist by twistin away from the upright knee. Or you can deepen the shoulder stretch by bending forwards while at the same time moving the shoulder backwards on the down leg side.
Another simple repositioning of the legs is to step the upright leg across the thigh of the opposite leg for a twisting pose called ardha matsyendrasana.
This can be used to improve spinal flexibility as well as to strengthen the outer thigh and arms.
Note that I've used a non-binding version here.
The non-binding version can be used as a warm up for the binding version.
The binding version can be used as both a shoulder stretch and a hip stretch.
(Check out this link for more on binding poses.)
The final pose in this sequence is a simple seated hamstring stretch.
Check out this page for both standing and seated hamstring stretching yoga poses.
Note that you could do these yoga for flexibility poses in the order given first on one side and then the other.
You could also juggle them around a bit.
You could also do each stretching posture on both sides prior to moving on to the next stretch.
Doing a sequence of poses only on one side, and then repeating the whole sequence on the other side can sometimes make it easier to feel like you are in the flow. (Unless you are thinking: "Oh god, I've got to do this on the other side too!")
Building Counterposes Into Your Yoga for Flexibility Routine
Since the last pose of the mini sequence above ended with a hamstring stretch one idea for a follow up pose is a hip flexor stretch like upright pigeon.
I like to bend the spine backwards in this stretch so that the front of the spine is stretched. I find this stretch feels better if I lift the knee but press the foot down into the floor while at the same time working to sink the pelvis. Check out yoga pigeon pose for more on stabilizing the front leg in this hip flexor stretch.
Balancing Outer Thigh "Glute Stretches" with Inner Thigh Adductor Stretches
One of my favorite areas to work on when doing yoga for flexibility is the inner thighs. No less fun is stretching the outer hips, which can include the glutes and piriformis as well as stretches for the outer thigh or IT band.
Sometimes I find that stretching the outer thighs first makes it easier to stretch the inner thighs.
In the sequence below I start with outer thigh stretches and then move to inner thigh stretches, doing both sides of a pose (for asymmetrical stretches) before moving on to the next stretch.
Note that the first stretch in both cases in bound angle pose or "butterfly".
This stretching posture can be used to stretch the outer thighs if the feet are further forwards (away from the pelvis) and to stretch the inner thighs with the feet closer to the pelvis.
pigeon pose glute stretch (top row right) is one of the most effective yoga flexibility stretches that I've found for stretching the outer hip.
Double pigeon can also be quite intense.
Note that reaching the arms forwards (bottom row middle) can be used to "add weight" to the stretch.
When stretching the inner thighs with bound angle, try pressing the feet into the floor as well as turning the soles of the feet upwards. When bending forwards you could add weight to the stretch by lifting the arms. Or deepen the stretch by pulling upwards on the fee with the arms.
I used to like using wide leg seated forward fold as a hamstring stretch but it is also a good way to prepare the inner thighs for stretching. Here too the arms can reach forward to add weight to the stretch.
Half side splits was one of my favorite substitute stretch for full side splits.
Ending a Yoga for Flexibility Session
Doing yoga for flexibility can leave the body in a fragile state unless you reactivate muscles that have just been stretched. I find this especially true after deep hip flexor stretches. (It's also true for shoulder stretches.)
And so one way to end the above set of stretches, especially if you are feeling fragile, is to do standing yoga poses to reactivate those muscles.
As a prelude you can practice activating your inner and outer thighs while standing. Try spreading the thighs to activate the outer thighs. Then draw the thigh bones inwards to activate the inner thighs.
Then try the same thing while doing a standing forward bend.
In half moon you can try activating inner and outer thighs both at the same time.
If this routine had included a lot of shoulder stretching then I would include some arm exercising poses like yoga push ups, chaturanga, plank, reverse plank, table top, bridge pose or even wheel pose to re-integrate arm strength.