Cultivate flexibility. Life is the process of becoming rigid but flexibility allows you to adapt to the movement of life. It allows you to react accurately to unforeseen events and to others' attitudes that surprise you - Frédéric Lenoir, writer and sociologist.

Practising yoga often is the guarantee of working three essential areas: the mind, body and spirit. Among the most beneficial benefits of yoga is flexibility. Indeed, the regular practice of yoga brings forth the body's natural elasticity.

This elasticity helps develop and protect both muscles and joints. Still, whether you are a yoga beginner or more experienced, many questions arise, especially when you know that a yogi practices, on average, between one and six sessions per week (Union Sport & Cycle study).

The practice of yoga is omnipresent in the lives of those who do it. This is why understanding the issues surrounding flexibility can be a good idea. How can you be more flexible with yoga? Should flexibility be a goal in itself? What are the best yoga poses for stretching the body?

Those questions and more will be answered in this article.

Do You Have to Be Flexible to Do Yoga?

It is essential to know how to distinguish yoga from the practice of Pilates and other gym workouts. Indeed, through asanas (poses), yogic practice allows you to develop the ability to let go and let serenity flow. For all of that, yoga can still be considered a sport.

With this in mind, you might wonder whether it is necessary to be flexible to do yoga. After all, other athletic disciplines don't require the body to be supple. Indeed, you don't have to be ultra-flexible to practise yoga but beware, there are other important things to know.

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Some people are naturally more flexible than others
Your body may never be able to fold yourself like this but there's nothing wrong with that. Photo credit: Missy N. on / CC BY-NC-SA

First of all, you need to know that flexibility is not a goal in itself, nor does not allow you to better enjoy the benefits of yoga. However, it seems obvious that flexibility would help you go further into certain movements and poses.

Since flexibility is not a gift - not everyone is born lithe, it logically follows that not everyone has the same ability when it comes to doing the Cow Face pose, to cite just one example. The takeaway from all of this is that no, you don't have to be flexible to do yoga, but you can become more flexible the more you practise yoga, depending on the asanas you adopt.

Finally, along with precise asanas comes adapted breathing, to build flexibility. Knowing how to breathe well is essential to ease from one pose to the next and to better understand the complexities of our body.

In the end, flexibility in yoga is about knowing how to listen to yourself.

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The Top 10 Poses to Increase Flexibility in Yoga

As just discussed, being flexible is not a necessity but it can help you do some yoga poses better. And, in a perfect instance of symbiosis, yoga can help you become more flexible.

Only remember that, in the long run, you should know how to adapt a sequence - how to flow from one pose to the next, to suit your fitness goals. That alone is a good reason to know the postures that will greatly increase your flexibility in yoga.

Here is a nice selection, chosen from poses that target alignment, stretching and movement:

  • The Cobra pose: the position on the ground (on a yoga mat, of course!), Where, lying on your stomach, you lift your chest with your forearms. What an excellent way to improve flexibility smoothly!
  • The (seated) Forward Bend pose: the posture wherein you only need to sit on your mat with your legs extended. Now, reach and  touch the tips of your toes with your hands. Be careful, the main thing here is not to force yourself!
  • The Candle pose: lying on your mat, stretch your legs in the air, supporting yourself with your hands on hips. Nothing but your head and shoulders should be left on the mat!
  • The Butterfly pose: not quite the lotus position, you only need to put the soles of the feet together and lower your knees to the floor. Flexibility guaranteed!
  • The Downward-Facing Dog: this asana will see you form an inverted V with your body. Great for stretching and toning muscles; ideal for relaxing at the same time,
  • The Upward-Facing Dog: similar to the Cobra, except that you raise your pelvis off the mat. A great asana to stretch the limbs and while building strength.
  • The Cow Face pose: this asana involves sitting with one knee stacked upon the other with your legs pointing in opposite directions. Not complicated enough? Then have your hands meet behind your back, one from up to and the other from the bottom. What a challenge... but not so bad if you breathe well.
  • The Pigeon pose: start on all fours, bring its left knee forward, place its right leg back - sort of a half-split. Now pitch forward until your head lies on your mat... gently!
  • The Cat pose: on your knees, lean forward a little, resting on your arms. Breathe in and relax the belly a little. Breathe out and arch your back like a hissing cat.
  • The Tree pose: can you stand on one leg with your other foot resting against that leg's knee? Now intensify by holding your hands above your head with palms together. Standing works on both flexibility and balance, making the Tree pose the ideal posture for a beginner yogi.

As ideal as all these postures are for becoming more flexible and more toned, they can also be poorly performed, to the point of injury or simply not being effective.

Therefore, we now present a few mistakes you should not make during your flexibility yoga sessions.

The Tree pose builds strength and balance
The Tree pose challenges your balance while helping you build strength and flexibility. Photo credit: dennis.grailich on VisualHunt / CC BY-NC-SA

Avoid These Mistakes While Working on Your Flexibility With Yoga

Have you ever noticed that, when you're interested in a subject, you quickly discover that there are certain mistakes not to be made?

There are mistakes to be avoided in working on your flexibility in yoga, too. Mistakes which, if they occur too often or too dramatically, can badly affect your physical condition.

Chief among these yogic disappointments is believing that you have to be flexible. We've hinted at that premise a little but, now, let's be clear: doing yoga does not mean having to twist yourself into a pretzel. Besides, contorting yourself is never the goal, letting the asanas allow you to work on flexibility and to get to know your body better is.

Therefore, you are not required to have any predispositions towards contortionism to step foot in a yoga studio.

Likewise, there's no need to feel any pressure. Yoga is open to all levels, so some in your yoga class might be more advanced - and thus, more flexible than you are. Don't let that worry you, you're there to discover your potential, just like everyone else.

Another mistake along the same lines is forcing yourself to be flexible. For instance, when you adopt the Forward Bend pose, initially, you are more likely to tense your leg muscles rather than leave them loose so they can stretch.

Wanting everything right away is the enemy of yogic efficiency. Listen to what your body tells you. Take the time to feel your body and your mind - that's the way to get better.

Your first few times in the studio, you may be tempted to compare yourself to others, especially when you are in a group class. This person manages to touch their toes, that person goes further than me in the exercise... so many little judgements that can quickly discourage you.

The important thing in yoga practice is to trust yourself, to understand your feelings, and especially not to want to reach someone else's level of flexibility. Flexibility is neither a goal nor a gift, it takes work and patience to achieve it.

Finally, it is essential to breathe properly. You might think that, because you breathe every minute of every day, we've gone off our rocker in suggesting you're not doing it right. Just hear us out...

Breath a major tool used to attain certain postures of flexibility. Thus, by not paying attention to our breaths in and out, it will be easier to hurt oneself or harder to persevere in a movement which, if the breath is controlled, could be more easily done.

Between breathing exercises, body expression and introspection, flexibility through yoga is your work in progress.

Forcing yourself to be flexible is a bad idea.
You should never force yourself to attain a pose; let your flexibility increase naturally. Photo credit: angelntini on VisualHunt / CC BY

Which Stretching Routines to Adopt?

Regular practice most often yields results. How about with a yoga stretching routine? Indeed, adopting a daily (or, at least, a regular) stretching routine will allow you to be more comfortable during yoga class.

Quite simply put: to be more flexible in your Hatha-yoga lessons, your Iyengar sessions or your Kundalini courses, creating a fitness routine that incorporates stretching through yoga poses can only be a good idea.

How can one instil such a routine? Here are a few key steps:

  • Dedicate a specific time to your stretching practice, for example, 20 minutes a day, blocked only for you (and your partner, perhaps)
  • Give your yoga stretching sessions a specific focus: set goals, mantras and your thoughts. For example, focus on having a good day, being able to breathe better, having more energy etc. This allows you to set a framework for your routine,
  • Don't forget to breathe! Pranayama (breathing) is a great support to take pleasure in doing your routine every day,
  • Do not force yourself: measure your stretches and know how to listen to your body
  • Diversify your poses: let's say your usual yoga stretching postures are performed on the ground. Occasionally mix in a few standing poses... because you might be surprised at how energising a new asana can be!

Now we understand that flexibility and yoga each are beneficial, and even more so in combination. By relying on crucial elements such as breathing and listening to your body, it is possible to develop a lithe, strong yet supple body while enjoying the inner benefits of yoga.

Now you are ready to stretch out on a yoga mat and relax; It's your turn to have a go!

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A student by trade, Daniel spends most of his time working on that essay that's due in a couple of days' time. When he's not working, he can be found working on his salsa steps, or in bed.