It was embarrassing!
So I am naturally one of the most inflexible people in the world. When I first started doing yoga, the instructor laughed when I tried to touch my toes (I just about managed to touch my knees!) and told me I have the flexibility of an 80 year old. Great! Actually I think I am probably naturally way worse than many 80 year olds! Especially this lady…
This problem was made incredibly worse by my annoyingly bendy yoga buddies. My mother can basically touch her elbows on the floor when she bends over… I think I am adopted! One friend said to me, “I like doing yoga with you as it makes me feel better about myself”. Great! I am so pleased I could help!
Despite being horrendous at yoga, I persisted, and frustratingly, although I practiced frequently, I didn’t get much better. Why?! I used to think that practicing yoga builds flexibility, but what I have learnt is that most yoga poses demonstrate rather than develop flexibility. Thus, you have to do extra work to build flexibility. Which is what I did, and I am now relatively flexible! I will never be one of those people who can wind themselves into a pretzel, but thats ok, I have come to terms with this! I am happy with being able to touch my toes!
Are you an inflexible yogi?
If I can learn to be flexible, so can you! How? Here are the top 5 things that helped me to build my flexibility…
1. Feeling hot, hot, hot!
I spend a lot of time abroad, and I have noticed that I always seem to be more flexible whenever I do yoga in a hot country (the gyms I go to abroad often had no aircon – good for yoga, bad for cardio!). I figured out that the heat made a big difference. Obviously hot yoga is great for this, but if you can’t hack the heat whilst you are doing yoga, it helps to have a hot shower beforehand. Or if your gym has a sauna, even better!
I know that yoga itself is a lot of stretching, but I like to do my own little stretching warmup before a class, focusing particularly on problem areas. It helps to do this straight after or during a hot shower or sauna. When I was trying to build my flexibility I tried to do 5 mins of stretching every evening. You can use this time to be mindful, relax, listen to relaxing music or, if you are not into all that and you struggle to focus or get bored stretching, do it whilst you watch tv.
We are not as flexible when we are stressed as our muscles are all tense. Try to relax before yoga and whilst you stretch, to turn off your nervous systems stretch reflex. Use slow diaphragmatic breathing from nose-to-mouth. Visualisation can be helpful; imagine you are in your favourite place in the world, what can you see, hear, smell? Relaxing helps your body to change from a sympathetic to a parasympathetic state, which helps with flexibility as it allows your body to soften. Massage, if you have a nice friend, can also be amazing for relaxation.
4. Drink Water
Did you know that hydration helps with flexibility?! It seems weird right? Well it does! Our bodies and cells are made up of 70% water. Hydration effects the consistency of your facia, the tissue that surrounds your muscles. When your fascia is dehydrated it turns from a liquid state to a sticky, gluey state, which does not stretch as much. When muscles are dehydrated, they are not as flexible. They don’t extend and contract like they do with proper hydration. Thus, drinking more water is one of the simplest things we can to to increase our flexibility.
5. Eat More Plants
Now, you don’t need to become a vegan, but you do need to massively increase your plant-food intake. Water-based, micro-nutrient-dense foods are the foundation for a flexible body. Nutrients such as sulfur, magnesium, vitamin C, and essential fats are crucial for soft tissue health. An unhealthy diet leads to inflammation in the body and the more inflamed you are the less flexibility you have. Thus, try and eat more plants. Smoothies can be a great way of doing this.
6. Do Weight Training
Your nervous system controls your muscles, in terms of how much they can lengthen and shorten. Our body is always trying to protect itself. When you go down to touch your toes and you can’t, and you feel that tightness, that is your nervous system protecting you and preventing your from injuring yourself. The stronger you are the more your body trusts you to stretch without tearing a muscle. Weight training will help to build this trust!
If you hold a weight when you touch your toes you will probably be able to go further, as the nervous system will switch your muscles on more.
If you want to be good at yoga, you need to do yoga, and keep doing yoga! You wont master yoga if you go sporadicly to one class once every one or two months. Frequency is key, whether that involves going to classes or practicing in your bedroom. I try to go to a class at least once a week. I would have gone more but I just never have time.
In conclusion, there are two types of people; those people who are half human half pretzel and then those who can’t touch their toes without having an operation! Since you’re reading this, I’m guessing you’re in the second category, like me, but the good news is you can do something about it! Get hot, stretch, relax, drink water, eat plants, lift some weights and keep going to yoga class! It takes time but it can be done! If I can learn to be flexible, so can you!
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