Want to be more flexible? Do yoga!
But I can't do yoga - I'm not flexible enough!
One of the curious things about yoga is the tendency for people to recommend or write-off yoga due to the issue of flexibility.
On the one hand, people might recommend that you try yoga "to become more flexible." At the same time, you may feel you can't do yoga because you aren't flexible enough!
Which is it? Well, the truth is, while you can do some yoga no matter how flexible you are, you can't do all yoga if you aren't flexible enough. If you have bad knees, you probably can't get into full lotus pose, nor should you even try.
The type of yoga poses you can do are indeed limited by your flexibility. Now, over time, as you practice more yoga, you will increase your strength and flexibility, and you might be able to do poses that were impossible for you in the past.
Here is the reality, however. While you will become more flexible by doing yoga, yoga isn't a magic cure-all for chronically tight muscles or genetic tendencies, despite the hype.
Nor does it need to be. Yoga is a full mind-body system that is about much more than mastering a gymnastic yoga pose. The ultimate goal of yoga asana is to help you meditate better, not impress your yoga pals with flashy Instagram selfies.
That said, the average person is often looking to yoga as a way to get fit or more flexible, and having realistic goals will help.
A Realistic Approach to Improving Flexibility in Yoga
Yoga can absolutely help you become more flexible. It cannot, however, change your underlying physiology or miraculously fix years of bad posture from computer work.
Unfortunately, some people give the impression that doing yoga will make you be able to fold yourself in half someday, even though you could barely touch your toes when you started out. After all, the person next to you is folded in half in that seated forward bend! Shouldn't that be your goal?
Not really. That person sitting next to you who can fold themselves in half is possibly a young woman in her 20s who took gymnastics or dance as a child. She may just be genetically geared towards flexibility. She's one of those people who got attracted to yoga precisely because she is flexible, and many yoga poses come easy to her.
Her challenge is building strength - and protecting her body from injury by not over-stretching the muscles and joints. You should not look to her body as a guide or a goal. Doing so will only lead to frustration.
Rather than comparing yourself to people who walked into their first yoga class already able to do the splits, you should set realistic goals for yourself based on the the following principle:
The purpose of flexibility is to provide a functional range of motion for daily activities.
Anything beyond that is for showing off! So, for example, being able to straighten your legs and touch your toes is functional movement. Being able to fold yourself in half and wrap your legs behind your shoulders may be nice for Instagram, but it is not necessary for day-to-day activities.
Understanding Your Limitations in Yoga
The first key to getting the most out of yoga and doing it safely is to be aware and accept of your limitations.
While most yoga teachers are trained to deal with physical limitations and injuries, do not assume that your teacher is knowledgeable in this area. Some teachers may tend to push students past their limits. The worst offenders are teachers who, not understanding the limitations of someone struggling in a pose, physically attempt to push the student deeper into a pose and end up causing injury.
(This is a good time to remind you to always let your teacher know in the beginning of class of any injuries you have. If a teacher comes over and wants to "adjust" you in a pose - speak up. Tell them you have really tight shoulders or hamstrings, and ask them to go slowly and gently.)
Many advanced poses regularly done in yoga classes across America can be quite dangerous to someone with limited flexibility. A good example of this is wheel, or upward-facing-bow pose, demonstrated in the above picture by Swami Vishnudevananda.
Two major areas of the body need to be open and flexible to do this pose safely: One, the shoulders, and two, the back. If your upper back is not flexible enough, doing this pose could risk straining or injuring your lower back. If your shoulders are too tight, you might not be able to get into the pose in the first place, or if you force it, you could injure yourself.
An alternative to wheel is bridge pose, which is generally safe enough for everyone and can be done supported with a block to avoid strain.
Taking some time to familiarize yourself with the basic yoga poses and their gentler alternatives can save yourself a world of hurt later on.
Also, make sure you take classes that match your ability. Gentle or beginning classes will generally be more forgiving to those with flexibility limitations. Fast-moving vinyasa yoga classes might be fun, but many beginners jump into them before learning the basic mechanics of yoga postures. This is where you are likely to injure yourself by going too fast with improper alignment.
The reality is that a 200-hour yoga teacher is generally not equipped to handle complex physical issues while managing a large 30-person yoga class. Heck, even an advanced 500-hour yoga teacher can't help everyone in a 30-person class. Ideally, yoga classes would be a lot smaller, but that doesn't make yoga studios more money.
If you have major concerns with a physical injury or issue, your best bet is to seek an advanced yoga teacher with a specialty in that area, or a qualified yoga therapist. You will pay more for private yoga lessons, but in the long run, you will get a lot more out of it.
When Yoga Is Not Enough
Despite the hype, yoga in and of itself isn't going to magically turn your tight, constricted body into the fluid body of a young ballet dancer.
Unfortunately, many modern yoga classes do not offer much "yin time," that is, time spent gently stretching muscles. Instead, many yoga classes are geared more towards strength, cardio and "feeling the burn." A strenuous, sweaty "power yoga" class may burn calories, but it's probably not going to help your flexibility that much.
Even yin yoga classes will have their limits in terms of helping someone with extreme tightness. If you have a very tight, sore knot in your muscle, stretching can only do so much.
What happens is this: When you stretch, you'll stretch the muscle around the knot. The knot itself is still there. You risk weakening the surrounding muscle by too much stretching, and you still haven't solved your basic flexibility issue. You may also have tight fascia, which is the connective tissue that wraps around the muscle.
This is where bodywork therapies come in. A professional massage therapist who is knowledgeable in myofascial release and trigger point therapy can work wonders. You can also self-massage these tight muscles to release the knots.
A combination of bodywork and yoga is your best bet to truly make progress with your flexibility and develop a healthy range of motion that can improve your health and quality of life for years to come. Do not expect yoga alone to be a magic bullet. It is not. It should be one part of a holistic approach to body health.