Like many yoga teachers, I’ve been reasonably flexible my whole life. Not flexible in the “tuck both feet behind the head” sense, but I’ve always had to work harder on creating strength and stability than on increasing my range of motion. In fact, I find that deep static stretches at my end range can actually create joint stiffness, even pain, the next day.
For that reason, a few years ago I essentially stopped “stretching.” Which doesn’t mean that I purely work strength. Instead, the gentler side of my practice focuses, not on flexibility for its own sake, but on these three aims:
1. Maintaining mobility
Like most of us, I wake up in the morning feeling a little tight. Part of the reason for morning stiffness is that our fascia tends to dehydrate overnight, becoming more solid and less gel-like in its structure. Smooth, gliding movements encourage these sliding surfaces to move more freely, to break up light adhesions between tissue layers, and to warm and lubricate joints. And they feel great. My morning practice often starts with gentle flow to free up restriction and open up my normal range of motion. I like joint rotation, rippling between Marjaryasana (Cat Pose) and Bitilasana (Cow Pose), flowing twists, and side bends.
2. Balancing range of motion
Over years of yoga practice, I’ve noticed that certain poses are easier for me to move into than others. For example, I can fold forward into Upavistha Konasana (Wide-Legged Forward Fold) with little or no preparation, but sitting in Virasana (Hero Pose) is challenging for me no matter where I am in my practice. It’s easy for me to externally rotate my hips. To balance that I make sure each practice includes poses such as Virabhadrasana III (Warrior Pose 3) and Crescent Lunge that require internal hip rotation.
My left hamstring is noticeably tighter than my right, so I regularly practice asymmetrical poses that only lengthen one leg at a time like Parsvottanasana (Pyramid Pose) and Janu Sirsasana (Head-to-Knee Forward Bend). We all have these imbalances, so it’s helpful to use our practice time strategically to equalize tension around our joints and to balance left and right sides, rather than trying to deepen into poses that naturally come easy.
3. Releasing tension
When we get stuck in the same position or movement pattern, our muscles and fascia tend to tighten up around that shape. Think about how you feel when you stand up after sitting for hours at the computer or on a long drive. The body intends this change to be helpful—to reduce the effort required to hold a position—but the end result is a feeling of stiffness, reduced range of motion, and potentially restricted blood and lymphatic flow.
I’ve found gentle, long-held stretches (especially supported on props) and myofascial release with tennis or massage balls to be very helpful in unraveling postural tension. When I can, I finish the day with a couple of these kind of poses to release the tension of the day, even if it means doing them when I get into bed. For example, lying down with a small pillow or rolled hand towel under my mid-back (at bra band line) feels great to dissolve tension in the chest and the front of the shoulders. A reclined single-knee twist with a pillow propping my bent knee is a restful way to unwind muscular habits around the spine. The key here is to look for a feeling of release or relaxation, rather than a stretching sensation.
I may never be able to tuck my feet behind my head but, with this approach, I hope to enjoy a healthy and balanced body for many years to come.
Related: Everything You Need to Know About Fascia and Yoga
This article has been updated. It was originally published on July 31, 2017.
About Our Expert
Rachel Land, E-RYT 500, is a yoga teacher, writer, and teacher trainer based in Queenstown, New Zealand. Having completed extensive study in anatomy, physiology, sports training, and therapeutics, she is a 1000-hour Yoga Medicine® Therapeutic Specialist. She runs workshops and anatomy trainings, and co-teaches Yoga Medicine® orthopedic modules as well as vinyasa, Yin, and one-on-one yoga sessions.