In these chilly winter months, it’s good to remember that the root of flexible is FLEX. When you’re tugging away in a yoga pose, remember to support whatever you’re stretching by FLEXING the opposing muscles. This creates heat, which is essential for safe stretching. For example, in a Forward Bend, the more you flex the front of the legs (the quads), the more the back of the legs (the hamstrings) can release. You should feel a burning heat, not a pulling tweak, when you’re stretching.
Flexing also creates a safe boundary. If you pull and pull and pull with no resistance, you will eventually overstretch or dislocate something. Ligaments and tendons receive very little blood flow, so they are slow or impossible to heal once you’ve overdone it. In Warrior II, for example, you are stretching the hands away from each other at about 80% effort — not 100 or 110% — and pulling the shoulder joint BACK into its socket with about 20% effort.
If flexibility is one of your goals, I think Extended Side Angles (all the many variations) are the best poses ever. You get deep stretching in the hips, thighs, and hamstrings, as well as the chest, shoulders and neck. BUT to get there you must:
- keep pressing the outside edge of the back foot firmly down
- keep flexing the back quad strongly
- keep dropping the hips
- keep rotating the front hip under and the back hip over
- keep the front knee directly over the ankle, in line with your second toe
- keep pressing 1/3 of your weight into the bottom hand
- keep pressing your bottom arm into the front knee
(unlike the picture, I prefer the hand inside the foot)
- keep lifting the navel up and in
- keep spiraling the heart towards the sky
- keep spiraling the neck towards the sky (gently)
- keep straightening the top arm
- breathe calmly and slowly!
Just try doing all that at once, and imagine a yoga practice with that much engagement in every pose. You’ll break a sweat in the first five minutes.
Happy New Year’s Resolutions!
Images courtesy of Yoga Art & Science, Creative Commons license