Flexibility comes to people in different ways. Those who have explored disciplines like dance or martial arts usually find the flexibility increases quickly. People with more muscular practices (Like weightlifters) and people who do not exercise at all, increase flexibility more slowly. I believe that this, in part, has to do with muscle memory. If stretching muscles is brand new there is a steep learning curve that takes time and consistent effort. If it is a refresher course, it comes faster.
We tend to hold emotions in our muscles. This means that stiffness in the body can be psycho-somatic rather than physical. And of course, dealing with emotional issues at the same time as going through a physical practice can be quite a challenge in it’s own right!
Different muscle groups also have their own tendencies. Generally, hamstrings open up fast. Hips are slower. This has to do with the accessibility of the muscles and the emotional issues attached to them.
For instance, your hamstrings are relatively close to the surface to the back of your leg, and every time you walk or bend over you stretch them. Hamstrings relate to anger and frustration, which are emotions that can pass quickly. Hip muscles are deeper in the physiological structure, and because they are in the center of the body, they may not be moved as often as muscles in the extremities. The issues attached to the groin and hips are generally deeper issues, such as sexuality. Because of the taboo our culture places on these issues they often go unaddressed. Holding on to unresolved emotions can result in stiffness and even illness. Although they are admirable, do not allow your Olympian ambitions to prevent you from facing emotional issues in your life and your body. It is very easy to bury our emotional issues when we are busy. And usually, muscular injuries seem to happen when we are busy rushing about, playing sports when our minds are distracted by busy-ness, or when we are so busy ignoring the messages our bodies send us until it is too late.
Working with the breath is a great way to facilitate the release of tension in the muscles. The in-breath is effectively a contraction, and the out-breath an expansion. Breathing in is active, breathing out is passive. The in-breath activates, the out-breath releases. Using the power of breath to link the body and the mind, is a great way to release stress and tension that inhibit flexibility in the body, whilst at the same time allowing the muscles to become more flexible and gain muscle memory of being in a longer, more relaxed state.
I often see yoga students red in the face, holding their breath and literally “fighting” the posture. I always encourage them to breathe out and soften to release. This brings greater ease in the body, and progress is likely to be more rapid. “Holding on” too tightly seems to be a habit which is hard to break. “Letting go” is hugely liberating, but we have to learn how to do it as it is no longer our natural state.
Interestingly, as the body becomes more flexible it seems that the mind also releases, becoming less resistant to situations like change and more receptive to things like new ideas. It’s just an observation, but if our bodies speak our minds than being tight and rigid may be a signal that we need to relax and let go what doesn’t serve us!
There are a few key tricks to speeding up getting more flexible:
- Elongate the breath to elongate the muscles. Take slow deep breaths and hold the stretches for a few minutes continuously. No bouncing! The longer the postures are held, and therefore the muscles remain in the longer state, the better for muscle memory to develop.
- Emphasize the exhale, and move deeper into the stretch only on the exhale. (On the inhale, adjust your alignment or the form of the pose)
- Stretch as frequently as you can. Just a 3-minute practice 3-5 times a day and you’ll zoom into flexibility.
- Contracting the reciprocal muscle, by pulling it inward closer to the bone, will stretch that muscle’s counterpart. For instance, contracting the quadriceps upward toward the top of the thigh (the kneecap will move higher) and inward toward the thighbone, will assist in opening the hamstrings. Similarly, stretching the triceps inward and toward the elbow stretches the biceps.
- Always include a counter-stretch to retain balance. For example, a long and strong Paschimottanasana (Seated forward bend) will benefit hugely from a front body stretch like Purvottanasana (Upward plank).The English names for these poses are Pose to the West and Pose to the East, naturally balancing each other and stretching opposite parts of the body.
- At the end of every stretching sequence or yoga class, allow some time for relaxation in Savasana. This allows the practice to assimilate, the body to recover and the mind to rest.
- Attend a Diversity Yoga foam roller class. The myofascial release effected by rolling the muscles with the foam roller, is supported by taking the same muscle into a deeper stretch to retain length, slow the body to assimilate the change and for muscle memory to develop. This is particularly useful in overcoming or avoiding muscular injuries. It is prescribed especially for runners, cyclists, tennis players or footballers who suffer from tightness in the large muscles of the legs, arms and torso.