Being flexible doesn’t mean that you should have the ability to bend into weird shapes. Flexibility defines the range of motion of your joints. Babies have full range of motion. As they grow up they stop doing fancy stuff like putting their foot in their mouth or doing cartwheels or bending over backwards in your arms to just see how the world looks upside down :). As we grow up and stop using the full range of motion of our joints, our flexibility reduces.
Flexibility is not an ability that some people have and others don’t. Everyone was born flexible. You just have forgotten how to use it. Some reasons that will compel you to make stretching a part of your weekly exercise schedule:
1. Get rid of body pains: With lowered flexibility we suffer from stiff joints and shortened muscle fibres (Ref1). A lack of flexibility in the lower half of the body (think your hip flexors, your hamstrings, etc) can cause lower back pain. In this day and age when most of us are engaged in desk jobs which requires sitting for almost 4-5 hours everyday, our lower body suffers from stiff muscles and occasional back pain. You can ease your back pain temporarily by taking a pain killer or applying a muscle soothing balm. But that doesn’t cure the problem. You need to get back your flexibility.
2. De-stress: Stress also causes your muscles to contract. Overtime chronic stress will manifest itself in the form of neck pain, shoulder pain or frequent headaches. By stretching your muscles you are releasing the build up stress and will immediately experience a feeling of relaxation.
3. Recharge your cells: As you stretch to increase your flexibility, you are also improving the circulation of blood to your muscles and joints. With increase in circulation, the blood also brings with it loads of nutrients required by your cells and removes accumulated waste products.
4. Improve posture and organ functioning: By stretching out your stiff muscles you improve your body’s balance and posture. Stretching the chest, back and shoulders can improve your spine’s alignment and will allow you to walk taller and with more confidence. An improper posture also has an adverse affect on the functioning of your internal organs especially the lungs and gastrointestinal tract. Because of this singers and professional athletes are trained to maintain a proper posture.
In increasing your flexibility you are revitalising your body, removing causes of inflammation and increasing your body’s resistance to injury.
HOW to go about increasing your flexibility?
Again when aiming for flexibility your aim is not be to become a ballerina. All you have to do is regularly stretch your major muscle groups. If you sit for more than 4 hours everyday you should focus on your neck, shoulders, hip flexors and hamstrings.
I highly recommend the surya namaskara or sun salutation (a common sequence of asanas) that will work on all your major muscle groups. Do 5-10 Surya Namaskaras every day to awaken these muscles. If you are not familiar with this practice, than this beautiful video from Divya Rolla will take you through the basics.
You can also do your stretches after your workout at the gym or anytime in the day after walking for 5-10 minutes. Warming up is important as your muscles will be more pliable then and you will be able to extend your reach easily. Some stretches that should be a part of your routine if you sit for more than 4 hours everyday:
Triangle Pose (or Trikonasana):
Stand with your legs wide apart. Raise your arms to be horizontal to the ground. To begin exhale as you bend your torso and entire upper body to the right side so that your hands touch the ground beside your right foot. Do not bend forward and keep your knees locked. Maintain a straight line with your hands looking up as you maintain your touch to the ground. After holding this pose for a few seconds, inhale and slowly stand up straight again. Now similarly repeat the bend to the other side and repeat two-three times in succession.
Yoga Mudra: Sit on your heels with your legs folded under you. Keep your hands behind your back with your right hand holding your left wrist. Take a deep breath and exhale as you gently bend forward to touch your forehead to the flour. Hold your breath for a few seconds and inhale as you come up. Repeat two-three times.
Cobra Pose (or Bhujangasana): Lie down on your stomach. Put your hands under your shoulders. Inhaling a deep breathe slowly raise your head and chest off the ground taking light support from the hands. Lean backwards as far as possible without raising the pelvis from the ground. Exhale slowly returning to the starting position. Repeat two-three times. Avoid sudden movements.
Spinal Twist (or Matsayendrasana)
This is a difficult asana and you might not be able to perform the entire range of movement on your first try, so do stop if you feel stretched to your maximum and hold your pose for a few seconds.
To begin, sit on the floor and bring your left heel under your right thigh. Your right leg will cross over your left leg and right foot will be flat on the ground. Now twist your torso so that you can take your left arm goes across your right leg to hold the toe of your right leg. Place your right palm on the ground behind you and maintain this pose for a few seconds. Now reverse your leg and try the other way around.
This is a very beneficial asana not only for your spine but also your gall bladder, spleen and kidneys!
Depending on your flexibility you might not be able to do these asanas (stretches) as perfectly as Mr Yogi is demonstrating, but with regular practice you will be able to.
Besides yoga, other practices that give the body flexibility and balance are tai chi and pilates.
Do remember that stretching is meant to be relaxing and at no point should you feel pain. If you start to feel pain then you should stop immediately. Extend only so far as it is a slight stretch for you and then hold for 30 seconds. (Ref 2) Repeating your stretches more than 4 times is unlikely to bring any added benefit. (Ref 3).
Ref1: Page P. Current concepts in muscle stretching for exercise and rehabilitation. Int J Sports Phys Ther. 2012 Feb; 7(1); 109-119
Ref2: Bandy WD, Irion JM. The effect of time on flexibility of hamstring muscles. Phys. Ther. 1994 Sep; 74(9); 845-50.
Ref3: Taylor DC, Dalton JD, Jr, Saeber AV, Garrett WE., Jr. Viscoelastic properties of muscle-tendon units. The biomechanical effects of stretching. Am J Sports Med. May-Jun 1990; 18(3):300-30