We often think of muscles like a rubber band; pull them harder and they will stretch longer. The problem is that most of our muscles are old, rigid rubber bands that will snap the minute you pull them too far. Another problem is that our muscles don’t work exactly like rubber bands. So how do our muscles function and how do they stretch longer? Enter flexibility: range of body motion that loosens us up.
What flexibility is… and what it is not
Before we can pull our muscles every which way, we have to loosen them up.
Believe it or not, our flexibility is not determined by our muscles; the nervous system determines our flexibility. Take tight hamstrings as an example. Say you have tight hamstrings and you do a deep forward fold. Your brain will send the flashing red “danger” signal to your hamstrings (via your nervous system) and your hamstrings will respond by contracting. They do this as a survival mechanism; when they contract they may lose flexibility, but they gain strength, which they use to protect you.
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Your first instinct might be to push past this feeling. But pulling yourself deeper won’t improve your flexibility and could actually cause you to get injured. Flexibility is not about pulling on our muscles until they grow longer, it’s about teaching our muscles to relax when we hit our limits. A relaxed muscle is a loose muscle, and that is where you find flexibility.
How to improve your flexibility
I constantly remind my students that flexibility does not come from pushing past your limits, but from reaching your edge and staying there. The number one way to improve your flexibility is to keep practicing. Keep these flexibility tips in mind during your next yoga practice.
- Play with your limits—While you do not want to force yourself beyond your limit, you also do not want to stay too far on the other side. The only way to learn (and expand) your body’s limits is to play along the edge.
- Use your breath—With every inhale, focus on alignment and check on the integrity of your posture. With every exhale, think about letting go and sinking a little deeper into the posture.
- Remain calm—A lot of our muscle tension comes from a fearful brain. This turns on the sympathetic nervous system, which triggers muscle contraction. Keep your breath long and smooth and remind yourself that you are safe so your brain and nervous system can relax. This will inevitably lead to your muscles relaxing.
- Stay awhile—Maybe yin yoga is not your thing, but there is quite a bit of science that supports the argument that your muscles need time to relax. Staying in a pose for five breaths is good for your muscles, but stay for five minutes and you might be amazed by how much deeper your muscles relaxed at the end compared to when you started.
Whether your regular practice consists of intense vinyasa classes or relaxing yin classes, if you follow these tips you will see shifts in your flexibility. Just remember—stop worrying about lengthening and focus on relaxing!