How can I be more flexible is a question that comes up a lot in our Strala Yoga classes in yoga, tai chi, and qigong, as well as in our Strala Yoga teacher trainings. I think it’s because most of us want a little more flexibility in our lives. We’d like a little less feeling of stuck-ness and tension, a little more feeling of relaxed, and even better if I can stay relaxed when things are tough.
This is also a question that comes in many forms. Most recently, “Should I follow the stretching strategies used by dancers and gymnasts? These people work and push massively hard to be flexible, clearly it works, shouldn’t I do the same?” I think this question is double-important.
Always people are wanting to be more flexible. And, always people are wanting to get there with the kind of force that keeps them from getting there. Because it’s kind of programmed into us this way.
If you’re teaching it’s good to explore here, you want to give people what they want. And if you’re practicing it’s also good, because there’s a very different program for how you approach challenges, that will always give more of what you want, and less of what you don’t.
We are programmed to push
If you’re a performance artist like a gymnast or dancer, it’s not only the movement that matters. It’s what it looks like. And it’s also not time or sustainability that matters. It’s just, can you do it right now?
So you’ll probably do things with your body to achieve near-term results, without so much focus on longer-term impacts. Forced lengthening of tendons and ligaments can be useful for creating the right appearance in these arts. But, the longer-term result isn’t so good, including joints that are less stable and capable, more open to injury.
It’s a strategy that gives your fastest path to becoming an X: ex-dancer, ex-gymnast, ex-runner, athlete, climber, ex-anyone whose body still goes along for an easy and pain-free ride, in whatever you want to do. And this isn’t just about sports.
It’s also worth noting that adult bodies don’t work the same as children’s bodies. One of our Strala friends in New York was an olympic gymnastics coach in the 1980s, and regularly remarked on this one. You can force a stretch on a child, and their body will hold the gains over time. Adult muscles don’t work this way. There can be lengthening within a stretching session, but it’s not sustained over time the way it is with a child.
Try less pushing, more moving
Pushing and forcing for flexibility isn’t likely to work. Maybe for a little while but not sustainably, and also not without injury that turns you in the opposite direction from what you want. Does this mean we should just take it easy and never work hard? Not exactly, not even close.
As a start, this isn’t about “not feeling any stretch.” If we sit on a couch and flop a little from side to side, it’s good we won’t get injured this way, but we also might not see much progress with flexibility. Instead, there’s a general guideline for movement and healing practices that works really well:
Move easy, everything you’ve got, in every direction you can.
It’s a guideline followed alongside of many practices like softness so you’re movable, connection so you move as one whole body rather than isolated parts, unweighting so always you’re entering challenge rested rather than depleted. So we’re not avoiding challenge or sensation, but following a way of practice that keeps us safe, and also leads to sustainable progress.
Moving easy is a helpful guideline that protects vulnerable areas like joints, from a harmful practice of using force against resistance. You’ll see this in usual yoga practices, when people try hard to put feet behind their head, or push for the opening of hips or lengthening of hamstrings. It’s why we see so many yoga teachers with a strap around their thigh, to remind them of this problem. I was told in my Jivamukti days that this kind of injury was good, simply karma coming to fruition. That’s one way to see it. Another is, don’t do things that harm, just to get in a pose.
There’s always a better way. And for all kinds of reasons, it’s good for me to learn how to find it. It’s how I each learn to explore around challenge and find my own best solution, rather than go to war with it. Which would mostly mean going to war with myself!
So moving easy, everything you’ve get, in every direction you can move it, is also a guideline that brings you to a really good place: where you want to go. You get to accomplish this in a way achieves more of what you want, and less of what you don’t. More good, less harm.
How to build a new program for flexibility
What does a good practice for flexibility look like? It begins with heading toward a stretch, say a forward fold, without using the muscles of your arms to combat resistance in your hamstrings. Here are a few steps to get you started:
1) Be movable, before you try to move. This means not holding yourself rigidly, by locking knee joints or bracing muscles for battle. Instead, make sure from wherever you are, it’s easy for you to move in every direction you might want to move. First, you can be moved just by breathing. And second by using your center, and allowing the rest of your body to follow.
2) Head for where you want to go, but not as an endpoint. You won’t get to sustained flexibility by going to war with your hamstrings, then retreating when it’s done. Instead, head toward the challenge, while remaining soft enough to be movable. And once you get somewhere near this challenge, rather than hold a stretchy endpoint and wait for it to be over, keep a relationship between your body and breath.
3) Allow your whole body to go along a bit for the ride with your breath. For this, you simply need to be movable, head where you want, and stay movable once you get there. We steer clear of going to war with our own bodies this way, and move instead toward real flexibility and mobility gains.
There are no endpoints this way. Every inhale picks you up out of where you are just a bit. Every exhale takes you someplace that is completely new. It could be right back down, it could be someplace else, maybe a little left or right, forward or back. You don’t need to decide, just breathe deep, listen, and respond through how you move.
Want more? You can learn more practices and teaching approaches for balancing strength and flexibility, stability and mobility, in our online and in-person Strala Yoga Teacher Training Programs.