Flexibility is a key component of physical fitness and has a wide range of positive effects on our overall wellbeing. Flexibility and mobility work together, to have good mobility, you need to have good flexibility as well. So it is important for us to understand our musculoskeletal system, how it functions, the causes of stiffness or inflexibility in the body, and how yoga can help us to maintain a healthy musculoskeletal system in order to be flexible.
Anatomy of the Musculoskeletal System
There are over 640 muscles in the body and the majority of the muscles in the body are skeletal muscles. The skeletal muscles make up about 30-40% of our total body mass. A tough band of connective tissue called the tendons attaches the skeletal muscle tissue to the bones throughout the body that helps us to move.
The skeletal muscle is present throughout the body and is located between the bones. It plays a major role in the musculoskeletal system as they serve various functions that include; moving the bones in different parts of our body, Protecting joints and holding them in place, maintaining a good body posture, expanding and contracting of the chest cavity, that helps us breathe seamlessly.
Increased flexibility directly relates to muscular balance and posture by realigning tissues and therefore the effort it takes to maintain posture. Flexibility also increases productivity and efficiency in the muscles which will reduce the risk of injury.
What is the difference between flexibility & mobility
We often hear flexibility and mobility of a joint used interchangeably. Is there a difference? Let's find out.
Flexibility is the ability of the muscle to stretch and lengthen and the range of motion available to a person. On the other hand, mobility is the strength to hold this flexibility, it is the range of motion a person has control over. Flexibility is passive whereas mobility is active. To be able to live injury-free, one should have mobility in the joints. Flexibility and mobility work together. To have good mobility, you need to have good flexibility as well. Some asanas work on flexibility and some on mobility. A good yoga asana class should include asanas that develop both flexibility and mobility of all major joints. This articles will include asanas that improve both mobility and flexibility of some important joints in the body.
What causes stiffness/inflexibility in the muscles?
When we tend to use or exercise only the main muscle groups like your quadriceps, calves, biceps, triceps, abs, obliques, etc, the connecting muscle groups are often completely ignored and that causes stiffness and inflexibility.
Workouts like running, cycling, aerobics, and strength training lead to overuse of just a few muscle groups which get strained, and the rest of the body remains stiff. Over a period of time of following the same routine, we end up injuring the body more than maintaining overall fitness.
Also, leading a sedentary lifestyle, taking stress, improper posture and lack of movement can also cause major stiffness in the body and that will eventually lead to back pain, knee pain, shoulder pain, and the risk of injury, spasms, and muscle tension becomes higher.
How does yoga help with flexibility?
There are over 1000 poses in yoga and most yoga poses work on multiple muscle groups together. The twists, bends, and turns will ensure that your muscles learn to work together as a single unit. The poses activate and work on the main as well as connecting muscles which help your muscles to be strong and flexible at the same time. This will result in a balanced and healthy skeletal muscle system even during the later years of life.
It is also important to remember that flexibility and strength are not just of the body but of the mind as well. Establishing a disciplined routine for life will ensure that your mind gets stronger and your focus on what's important and let go of the unnecessary. A strong and flexible muscle system also reduces fatigue, increases energy, and brings a positive impact on your overall well-being.
The best way to retain or gain flexibility is to practice yoga every day. In a study, it was found that people improved flexibility by 35% by practicing yoga for 8 weeks! The beauty of yoga is that it can be practiced by anybody across all age groups.
What are the best yoga poses to become flexible?
We have listed down a few yoga poses for you that can improve your overall body flexibility. However, the result will only show when you practice these poses regularly. Yoga poses usually dont work in one area in isolation, you will also get the benefit of strengthening and stretching of different parts of the body as well.
Dancers Pose or Natarajasana
The dancer pose or Natarajasana is a static balancing pose that develops flexibility, strength, and agility. This pose is great for stretching multiple muscle groups like hamstrings, hips, triceps, biceps, quadriceps, chest, lower back, shoulder, and psoas. Practicing this asana also improves balance and focus.
How to do Dancers Pose
- Stand with the feet together and gaze at a fixed point. Bend the right knee and grasp the right big toe.
- As the right leg is raised, swivel the shoulder, so that the elbow of the arm holding the big toe points upward.
- This position of the hand and arm will allow the foot to be raised nearer to the back of the head.
- Make sure the right hip does not twist and the leg is raised directly behind the body.
- Reach upward and forward with the left arm, bringing the tip of the index finger and thumb of the left hand together to form jnana mudra.
- This is the final position, Focus the gaze on the left hand.
- Hold the position for as long as comfortable.
- Lower the left arm to the side. Lower the right leg, releasing the right foot to the floor and the right arm to the side. Relax, then repeat on the other side.
Downward Facing Dog or Adho Mukha Svanasana
Downward facing dog activates and stretches specific muscles like the shoulder, spine, calves, and hamstrings. Regular practice of this pose will improve both strength and flexibility in the whole body.
How to do it Downward Dog
- Inhale, Look Up, take the right leg back, and the left leg back
- Exhale, push the hips back towards the ceiling, trying to place the heels on the ground.
- Inhale, press into the palms, pushing shoulders away, exhale, push the chest towards the thighs, keep the spine straight, not rounding the back.
- Keep the neck and head relaxed, and position the head between the hands.
Seated Twist Pose or Ardha Matsyendrasana
The seated twist pose will wake up small muscles along your spine and stimulate digestion. It stretches the muscles of the back and abdomen and, opens up the shoulders and chest.
How to do Seated Twist Pose
- From Dandasana, bend the right leg, and place the right foot flat on the floor outside of the left knee.
- Bend the left leg and bring the foot around the right buttock.
- Hold the right foot or ankle with the left hand so that the right knee is close to the armpit.
- Look over the twisted shoulder.
Bound Angle Pose or Baddhakona
The bound angle pose is a seated hip opener and gives a good stretch to the groin region. This pose also improves ankle flexibility and awareness which come in handy for all the balancing poses.
How to do Bound Angle Pose:
- Sit with the spine straight and legs wide apart.
- Now bend the legs and bring the feet as close to the groin as you can. Join the soles of the feet together.
- Grab the feet or the toes tightly with the hands. You can place the hands on the mat, below the feet, if you need more support. Ensure your back remains straight.
- Now slowly try to bring the feet closer to the groin if you can.
- If you are comfortable, you can also try to slowly push the thighs and knees towards the mat. Remember to be gentle and do as much as possible.
- Engage the core so you are able to hold the posture. Keep your attention on the stretch in the groin, inner thighs, and back.
- Stay here for a few slow, deep breaths. This will help you relax in the posture.
Seated Forward Bend Pose or Paschimottasana
The Seated forward bend pose works on stretching the entire back of the body and improves flexibility in the lower back, spine, and hips.
How to do it
- From Dandasana, inhale, move forward, and hold your feet from the outside
- Inhale, straighten the back and push the chest forward
- Exhale, fold forward, bringing the chest closer to the thighs
- Inhale and exhale, stretch the lower back, and go down further with the exhale, engaging the core.
- Look up towards the toes.
Pigeon Pose or Eka Pada Rajkapotasana
The Pigeon pose is an excellent posture that increases hip flexibility and also increases blood circulation in the hip region. This pose gives a good stretch to the chest, shoulders, abdomen, neck, groin, and thigh region.
How to do Pigeon Pose
- Keep the knees hip-distance apart and keep the spine tall.
- Take one leg out to the side heel on the mat.
- Toes pointing up, Take opposite hand up and cross over to the other side in a side bend
- Slide the other hand down towards the ankle.
Camel Pose or Ustrasana
The camel pose stretches the front of the body including the chest, abdomen, and quadriceps. The posture also strengthens the shoulders, thighs and hips, spine, and spinal nerves.
How to do Camel Pose
- Kneel on the mat and place your hands on the hips.
- Your knees should be in line with the shoulders and the sole of your feet should be facing the ceiling. Keep the knees hip-width apart.
- As you inhale, gently lengthen the spine and bring the pelvis in line with the thighs.
- Now slowly, arch your back and bend backward. Now place the right hand on the right heel and as you exhale, drop your head back, circle the left hand from forward, up, and back to the left heel.
- Gently drop your neck. Do not strain it. You can also keep it in a neutral position.
- Your toes can either be tucked or softened based on your flexibility.
- Stay here for a few deep, slow breaths.
Revolved Head to Knee Pose or Parivritta Janu Sirsasana
This seated, lateral side stretch helps to mobilize the spine, and also benefits the intervertebral discs, nervous system, and fascia. It is an excellent pose to stretch the hamstrings, shoulders, and spine. Practicing this asana also helps in stimulating the kidney, liver, and other vital organs.
How to do Revolved Head to Knee Pose
- Sit with the legs outstretched.
- Bend the left leg and place the foot near the groin.
- Extend the right arm forward and twist it toward the leg. Grab hold of the inside of the right foot.
- Inhale, and reach the left arm up and over. Grab hold of the foot.
- Bend the elbows and twist deeper, turning the torso toward the sky.
- Breathe while holding the pose.
- Exhale, and release. Untwist and change sides.
Crescent Lunge Pose or Ardha Chandrasana 2
The crescent lunge pose opens up the front of the shoulders, chest, and torso Practicing this pose gives a deep stretch to the hip flexors, legs, and groin. Consistent practice of the lunge pose will strengthen and tone the hips, butt, and thigh muscles.
How to do Crescent Lunge Pose
- Sit in vajrasana.
- Stand up on the knees with the knees and ankles slightly apart and the arms by the sides.
- Starting with the right side, take a big step forward, placing the right foot firmly on the floor so that the thigh is horizontal and the ankle is before or directly under the knee.
- This is the starting position. Center yourself and inhale deeply.
- Exhale and lunge forward smoothly, transferring the body weight onto the right foot.
- The left leg becomes stretched back fully as the trunk comes forward, the back knee on the floor, and the back ankle extended backward.
- Now, Inhale and stretch your hands up, exhale, and bend back.
Wide-Angle Seated Forward Bend or Upavista Konasana
The wide-angle seated forward bend gives a deep stretch to the legs, hips, hamstring, shoulder, and arms. This pose also lengthens the lumbar spine which enhances the flexibility of the muscles and ligaments.
How to do Wide Angle Seated Bend
- Sit in Dandasana.
- Open your legs out to the sides as wide as you can and point your toes up.
- Inhale and Lengthen your spine
- Exhale and Hinge from the hips, walk your hands forward
- Bring the torso to the floor between your legs
- Avoid curving the back and keep the spine straight.
Wheel Pose or Chakrasana
Chakrasana is an advanced-level pose, which helps to improve spinal flexibility and muscular strength. Practicing the wheel pose also opens the chest and facilitates deep breathing. It serves as an excellent asana for the reproductive and excretory systems.
How to do Wheel Pose
- Lie on the back, bend your knees and bring your feet closer to the hips.
- Flip your palms, and place them closer to the shoulders, fingers pointing to the shoulders.
- Inhale and press your palms firmly into the floor, rolling the top of the head to the ground, and lifting the hip, and back off the ground.
- Press the feet into the ground using the strength of the legs, tightening the thigh muscles.
- Keep the top of the head on the ground, getting an understanding of the inversion/orientation.
- Lift the head off the floor and rest on the feet and palms.
Revolved Side Angle Pose or Parivritta Parsvakonasana
The revolved Side angle pose is an intense twist. This pose strengthens and stretches the spine, shoulder, chest, groin, and leg muscles that promote strength and flexibility throughout the body.
How to do Revolved Side Angle Pose
- Start in a lunge with your right foot forward, your back foot on the floor, and at an outward angle.
- Exhale and rotate to the right, bringing your left hand to the floor outside of your right foot.
- Inhale and reach your right arm up and then alongside your ear.
- Breathe while holding the pose.
A word of caution
While a certain degree of flexibility is important for accomplishing many poses and daily activities, It is also crucial to understand your body and know your limits so that you can avoid any sort of injury and look after your joints.
Yoga is a great workout and transformative tool. However, if you have any injuries or medical conditions, you must check with a medical professional before starting with yoga asanas. We always suggest you to practice yoga under expert supervision.