Yoga for Flexibility: 14 Yoga Poses to Improve Flexibility

Flexibility is the ability of joints to move effectively within their range of motion. When we are born and in our younger years, our joints function optimally within their full range of motion. However, as we grow older we become less active, and spend more time seated – often in the wrong posture – leading to inflexibility. Also, doing other types of exercises without stretching could lead to stiffness. The common flexibility problem areas include hips, shoulders, hamstrings, and back muscles.

Regularly incorporating yoga poses that lengthen and stretch your muscles in your fitness routine will significantly improve your flexibility. When making a concerted effort to improve your flexibility with yoga, it is best to incorporate poses that lengthen and stretch several muscles at ago. Some poses lengthen the entire front of the body, others the backside of the body and others the sides of the body, yet others stretch specific muscles.

Being flexible improves your performance in other exercise and reduces the risk of injuries. It also makes it easy for you to do mundane physical activities such as bending, doing house chores, lifting items and cleaning. It improves blood and fluid circulation within the body.

Tips for cultivating flexibility with yoga

  1.        Start where you are.

Have you heard someone say they cannot do yoga because they are not flexible? Or, are you that person who has been avoiding doing yoga because, as you see it, you are not flexible enough for a yoga class?

You do not need to be flexible to do yoga. Rather, doing yoga regularly improves your flexibility. Therefore, don’t shy away from rolling your mat just because you can’t get your hands to your toes on the forward bend. Instead, reach for your shins or knees and focus on breathing through the breath. Your body will eventually open as you keep practicing regularly and consistently.

  1.       Use props whenever you need to.

Props help you to be effective in a posture by offering you support, ease and stability. They also help you to enjoy the benefits of the posture without causing yourself injuries or over extending your muscles.

Don’t be misled by the misconception that using props is cheating in your yoga practice. Some days you will have the energy to do the full expression of a yoga pose, other days you may need extra support – and there no shame in that. Some common yoga props you can use include blocks, straps, bolsters, wheels and wedges.

  1.         Take time in the posture

Don’t rush through the postures. The longer you hold each posture the more time you allow for the targeted muscles to stretch and open up. Take deep complete breathes in each pose. Work to increase the number of breaths and amount of time you spend in each asana. Gradually build up to holding each asana for at least 1 minute.

  1.         Practice frequently and consistently

Like any other practice, your body will take time to become flexible. To see results faster aim to do yoga at least thrice a week.

  1.         Incorporate yoga poses targeting different body parts.

You want to cultivate full body flexibility. The key to achieving full body flexibility is by incorporating yoga poses targeting different body parts. You could choose to focus on a specific muscle group per session or incorporate poses for different body parts in one session.

  1.        Do not push too hard.

The numerous Instagram photos of yogis in the inverted backbends can be intimidating and you may want to get there immediately. The reality is most of the Instagram yogis have been practicing for years. It has taken them consistent practice to get their bodies that flexible. Don’t push too hard in an effort to get the perfect version of a pose- you risk injuries.

14 yoga poses for improving flexibility

All yoga poses help with improving flexibility. This article outlines 14 yoga poses to get you started on improving your flexibility. Some poses are beginner friendly while others are more advanced. When building on your flexibility, start out with the easy-to-do postures and build up to the more advanced ones. While some postures primarily target one muscles, others stretch several muscles at a time.

  • Reverse Table Top

Sanskrit: Ardha Purvottanasana

Also known as the crab pose or the half reverse plank, the reverse table top is a beginner friendly pose that opens the front side of the body while strengthening the lower back, arms, legs and core. Opening the front side of the body invigorates and energizes you and helps in releasing tension and stress.

It is an excellent counter posture to the downward facing dog. It also counters spinal misalignment that may result from the accumulated tension caused by seating or standing for long hours.

Reverse Table Top

How to do it:

  1. Come to sitting in staff pose– legs extended in front, and hands placed beside your pelvis palms facing forward.
  2. Walk your forward-facing hands about three inches behind your pelvis while maintaining a shoulder-width distance.
  3. Bend your knees such that they are stack above your ankles with your feet resting down.
  4. Press the four corners of your feet and the palms down, engage your core and lift your pelvis to form a straight line from your shoulders to the knees.
  5. Squeeze your shoulder blades towards the centerline and draw the shoulders away from the ears.
  6. Keep your thigh muscles active to help you hold the pose for longer.
  7. If it is comfortable, drop your head back. Otherwise keep the neck straight, face looking up.
  8. Hold for at least 30 seconds or a minute.

Modifications

  • If your hips are tight, it may be difficult to lift your hips to be inline with your chest and knees. In that case, lift only as high as you can manage and work your way to lifting the pelvis higher gradually.
  • Place a yoga block between your thighs to encourage your thigh to remain active throughout the time you are in the pose.
  • You may place a stack of blocks or blankets underneath your seating bones to support the weight of your pelvis.
  • Do not practice the crab pose if you have carpal tunnel syndrome, or neck, wrists or shoulders injury

2.  Eye of a Needle Pose

Sanskrit: Sucirandhrasana

The eye of the needle posture is an excellent hip-opening asana that opens the hips, glutes and eases tension off the back. It also promotes circulation to the pelvis and knees joints. It is a great option if you have knee injury or you experience difficulty in more advanced hip openers such as the pigeon pose and frog pose.

Eye of the Needle

How to do it:

  1. Lie on your back, knees bent – pointing towards the ceiling.
  2. Lift your right foot off the mat and place its outer edge on the left thigh, a few inches above the left knee.
  3. Take the right hand through the space between the right and left thighs, and the left hand to the outside of the left thigh.
  4. Interlock your fingers to wrap around the back of your left knee.
  5. Take the left foot off the mat and maintain a right angle at the back of the left knee.
  6. Pull your left thigh as close to the chest as possible.
  7. Keep your head, neck and back on the ground.
  8. Hold for 5 breaths or 30 seconds.
  9. Release the pose and switch sides.

Modifications

  • A more advanced version of the posture would be to straighten the leg you are holding such that the heel is pointing towards the ceiling.
  • For extra comfort place a small pillow under the neck and a folded blanket under the sacrum.

3.      Marichi A Pose

Sanskrit: Marichyasana A

Marichyasana is the first pose in the series of marichyasana poses series in the Ashtanga yoga primary series. It offers you lengthening in the back side of the body including the shoulders, back, glutes, hamstrings and calves. The bent knees allow your hip flexors to stretch in the pose.

Marichi A

How to do it:

  1. Begin in a seated position on the ground, feet extended in front of you.
  2. Bend your right knee to point upwards and bring the heel of the right foot a fist away from your right seating bone.
  3. Keep both legs hip-distance apart.
  4. Flex the toes of your extended left leg to point towards your face.
  5. Lift your right hand up and take it to the inner edge of the right thigh.
  6. Lean forward as you continue to reach your hand forward until the elbow is slightly past your right shin.
  7. Bend and wrap your right hand around the right shin.
  8. Reach your left hand to the back.
  9. Bind both hands at the back.
  10. Lifting your belly up, lengthen your torso, bring your chest as close to your left thigh as possible and the chin as close to your knee as as possible. (Eventually, as you become more flexible, the chin will rest on the shin a few inches past the knees, and your chest and belly on the thigh.)
  11. Gaze at the toes of the flexed left foot.
  12. Hold for at least 5 breaths or 30 seconds.
  13. Release the bind and come up.
  14. Switch sides.

Modifications

  • If you have tight shoulders that do not allow you to wrap your arm around the bent knees, reach both hands forward and wrap them around the lengthened foot or ankle.
  • You may sit on a folded blanket for more comfort and to give your hip flexors more room for rotating in the pose.

4.    Standing Half Forward Bend

Sanskrit: Ardha Uttanasa

The standing half forward bend is an intermediate level pose that promotes flexibility by lengthening the spine, arms and sides of the body, while stretching the hamstrings and calves muscles. This pose requires you to activate your core and quadriceps hence strengthening both areas.

Standing half forward bend

How to do it:

  1. Come to a standing forward bend with hands resting on your shins.
  2. Lift your torso until it is parallel to the ground.
  3. Reach your hands past your head, fingers spread, and palms facing each other.
  4. Draw your shoulders away from your ears and your shoulder blades backwards and towards each other.
  5. Hold the pose for at least 30 seconds or 5 breaths.

Modifications

  • You may slightly bend your knees to ease tension on the hamstrings and calves.
  • If you are having difficulty keeping your hands lifted, either; place your hands on blocks on the outer edge of your feet or press your palms (fingers facing up) against a wall. In both variations ensure to keep the torso lengthened.

5.     Eagle Pose

Sanskrit: Garudasana

The eagle pose is a full body asana that offers a combination of strength building, balance, joint stability, and flexibility. It activates the psoas muscles and provides a gentle stretch to the IT bands while stabilizing the pelvis. It opens the shoulders and promotes circulation to shoulders, hips and pelvis joints. It also stretches the quads, glutes and hamstring. This pose requires a high level of focus.

Eagle Pose

How to do it:

  1. Come to standing with feet hip-width apart and hands besides your body.
  2. Reach your right hand forward.
  3. Take your left arm under the right arm.
  4. Bend both arms at the elbows- fingers pointing up.
  5. Grab your right thumb with the fingers of the left hand.
  6. Lift you right leg and wrap it over the standing left leg such that the toes of the right leg lock around the calves of the left leg.
  7. Focus on crossing your thighs as high up the quadriceps as possible for better stability.
  8. Center your pelvis- both hips face forward.
  9. Bend your knees and take a slight squat as if sitting back into a chair.
  10. Lift your elbows to be inline with the shoulders and forearms parallel to the face.
  11. Relax your shoulders and drop them away from your ears.
  12. Keep your torso lengthened.
  13. Gaze forward and hold for at least 5 breaths or 30 seconds.
  14. Release the pose and switch sides.

Modifications

  • Instead of wrapping your toes around the calves, place the outer edge of the foot of the top leg a few inches above the knee of the standing leg.
  • You may also rest the toes of the front leg on the ground beside the outer edge of the standing foot.
  • Slightly bend the standing leg instead of taking a deep squat.
  • If you have tight shoulders and can’t wrap your arms around each other, bring your palms and elbows to touch, parallel to each other.
  • Alternatively, place your right palm on the left shoulder, and the left palm on top of the right shoulder. In both forearm variations endeavor to keep your elbows in line with the shoulders.

6.    Dancer’s Pose

Sanskrit: Natarajasana

Also known as the Lord of the Dance Pose. The dancer’s pose offers strength, flexibility and balance. It opens the chest, hips, shoulders and arms. The pose lengthens and bends your back within a safe range promoting flexibility of the back muscles and stabilizing the spine.

Dancer’s Pose

How to do it:

  1. Start in a standing position – feet hip-width apart.
  2. Bend the right leg at the knee so that the right foot is pointing to the back of the room.
  3. Reach your right hand backwards to hold either the outer or inner edge of the right foot.
  4. Ground the standing leg by pressing the four corners of the foot down and engaging the quadriceps.
  5. Lean forward slightly.
  6. Reach your left hand forward (fingers spread and elbow straight) as you kick back your right foot against the right hand as much as possible.
  7. Squeeze your shoulder blades towards each other, drop your shoulders from the ears, lengthen your torso and lift your chest.
  8. Gaze at one point that is not moving for better balance.
  9. Hold for at least 5 breaths or 30 seconds
  10. Release and switch sides.

Modifications

  • If you are having a hard time with balance, press your lifted palm against a wall or any other sturdy surface.
  • Do not do this pose if you have low blood pressure, or knee, shoulder or back injury.

7.     Extended Side Angle

Sanskrit: Uttita Parsvakonasana

The extended side angle promotes flexibility on the sides of the body from the outer edge of the legs to the fingertips.

Extended Side Angle

How to do it:

  1. Come to a standing position.
  2. Step your right leg back, about 4 feet, and turn the right foot in to a 75-90 degrees angle.
  3. Bend your left leg to a 90-degree angle at the knee.
  4. Keep both feet grounded down.
  5. Drop your left hand to the ground, palm pressing down, fingers star-spread and left shoulder pressing against the left knee.
  6. Reach your right hand past your head, fingers spread.
  7. Lengthen your torso and the entire right side of the body.
  8. Press the shoulder blades towards each other and drop your shoulders away from your ears.
  9. Hold for at least 5 breaths or 30 seconds

Modifications

  • Instead of reaching your hand to the ground, rest the palm on a block or the elbow on the front thigh.
  • You may opt to reach your raised hand straight up towards the ceiling instead of taking it past the head.
  • If your hamstrings are too tight, slightly bend the front knee instead of the right angle.
  • If you have difficulty keeping your back heel down, shorten your stance.
  • Do not do this pose if you have high or low blood pressure or in the evening if you have insomnia.

8.      Airplane Pose

Sanskrit: Dekasana

The airplane pose resembles warrior 111 only that the hands are besides the pelvis instead of reaching them forward past the head. This balancing posture offers lengthening and stretching in the inner thighs, hamstrings, calves, glutes, back, shoulders and chest.

Airplane Pose

How to do it:

  1. Come to standing in Tadasana position
  2. Ground the four corners of the left foot on the mat and hug in your thigh muscles.
  3. Lift the right leg off the ground and lift it towards the back.
  4. Lean forward as you keep lifting your right leg backwards until your torso and the right leg are parallel to the ground.
  5. The airplane pose is a closed hip posture therefore ensure that both hips are in line.
  6. Extend your hands backwards so that the fingertips are spread and pointing towards your feet.
  7. Either gaze down or squeeze your shoulder blades towards each other to lift your chest and gaze forward.
  8. Hold for at least 5 breaths or 30 seconds.
  9. Release and switch sides.

Modifications

  • For better balance, place a chair either beside your right or left hip and hold onto it.
  • If you have tight hamstrings keep both knees slightly bent.
  • Avoid this pose if you have high blood pressure, back injury, groin injury or spondylitis.

9.       Pyramid Pose

Sanskrit: Parsvottonasana

The pyramid pose combines the elements of a forward bend and balancing to improve your flexibility. It is a variation of the triangle pose that stretches and lengthens the hamstrings, glutes, calves, back, spine, shoulders and both sides of the body.

Pyramid Pose

How to do it:

  1. Begin in triangle pose.
  2. Shorten your stance by bringing your back foot a foot or two closer to the front heel.
  3. Separate both heels hip-width apart.
  4. Turn the back leg in to a 75-degrees angle.
  5. Align both hips to be inline, facing forward.
  6. Clasp your hands at the back, squeeze shoulder blades towards each other, take a small backbend and lean forward with a straight torso such that the chest rests on your front thigh and the chin on your shin.
  7. Hold for at least 5 breaths or 30 seconds.
  8. Come up and switch sides.

Modifications

  • There are different hands variations that you can choose from in this pose including: hands in reverse prayer position, and palms or fingertips on the ground beside the front foot.
  • If you have shoulder injury avoid the hand position in prayer position and hands clasped in the back and instead drop the hands to the ground or on blocks.
  • If you have tight hamstrings, you may bend your knees slightly.
  • If you have difficulty balancing in the pose, step your feet slightly wider that hip-width apart.
  • Do not bend forward in this pose if you have high blood pressure, instead keep the torso lengthened parallel to the ground.

10.     Dolphin Pose

Sanskrit: Ardha Pincha Mayurasana

The dolphin pose is an intermediate pose that promotes flexibility in the back side of the body. It opens the shoulders and chest,and lengthens and stretches the back, glutes, hamstrings, calves and ankles.

Dolphin Pose

How to do it

There are two ways you can get into the dolphin pose: one from the table top position and secondly from the down dog.

From table top position

  1. Come your fours, palms on the ground shoulder width apart, and knees stack under the hips.
  2. Drop your forearms on the ground, elbows under the shoulders.
  3. Lift your hips up and back as you tuck your toes for the balls of the feet to press on the ground, making an inverted V shape.
  4. Keep your back straight.
  5. You may slightly bend your knees.
  6. Allow your head to hang freely towards the ground. If you are an advanced yogi you may rest your forehead on the ground
  7. Hold for at least 5 breaths or 30 seconds.

From downward facing dog

  1. Assume the down dog position.
  2. Drop your elbows to the ground maintaining the shoulder-width distance between the elbows.
  3. Hold for at least 5 breaths or 30 seconds

Modifications

  • Place your elbows underneath yoga blocks to lift your upper body and give you better alignment in the pose.
  • You may clasp your hands.
  • Do not practice the dolphin pose if you have untreated high blood pressure, glaucoma, and shoulder, back or arm injuries.

11.      Boat Pose

Sanskrit: Navasana

Building full body flexibility is dependent on having a strong core. A strong core enables you to do other asanas effectively, and promotes good posture. The boat pose strengthens your core and opens the hip flexors and lower back.

Boat Pose

How to do it:

  1. Come to a seated position, knees bent pointing upwards and feet on the ground.
  2. While keeping the knees bent, lift your feet as up above the ground as possible.
  3. Keeping the back straight, slightly lean back as you straighten the knees until you make a v-shape (45 degrees angle between front side of the upper body and the thighs).
  4. Balance the weight of your body on the seating bones.
  5. Drop your shoulders back and straighten your hands (palms either facing each other or turned up), forearms beside the outer edges of your thighs.
  6. Keep the neck straight and gaze ahead at a point that is not moving.

Modifications

  • You may hold on to the back of your thighs to help you balance more easily and keep an upright spine on the pose.
  • If you need to, keep your knees bent. The primary goal of the boat pose is not to straighten the legs, but to engage the core for it to support the weight of the entire body.

12. Frog Pose

Sanskrit: Mandukasana

The frog pose is a deep hip opener that stretches the IT bands, psoas, inner thighs and entire pelvic area. It also stretches the glutes, quads, hamstrings, chest, shoulders and back muscles, secondarily. This pose may give rise to intense sensations – modify and use props as need be to allow you to do the asana effectively.

Frog Pose

How to do it:

  1. Comes to your fours-hands shoulder-width apart and knees hip-width apart.
  2. Turn your feet so that your toes are pointing opposite direction.
  3. Walk your knees as wide apart from each other as possible.
  4. Lengthen your torso and reach your hands forward- fingers spread, palms pressing down.
  5. Drop your head and chest as close to the ground as possible.
  6. Your pelvis may tilt forward, aim at keeping the hips centered and inline with the knees.
  7. Hold for at least 10 breaths or 1 minute.

Modifications

  • Instead of reaching your hands forward, rest on your elbows and forearms. Ensure your shoulders are stack directly above the elbows.
  • Place a blanket or a block underneath each elbow for extra comfort.
  • To ease pressure off the knees, fold two small blankets and place each beneath each knee.
  • Place a bolster under your ribs for comfort.
  • Hip openers are more effective when held for longer. Aim to hold the pose for at least a minute and build up to 5-10 minutes.
  • Avoid doing frog pose if you lower back pain or knee, ankle or shoulder injuries.

13. Wheel Pose

Sanskrit: Urdhva Dhanurasana

Also known as the Upward bow pose, the wheel pose is a deep backbend that offers an intense stretch to the east (front) side of the body; therefore, promoting full body flexibility. It opens the shoulders and chest, your hip and wrist flexors, and stretches the core musculature and the quadriceps. It also lengthens and strengthens the hamstrings, glutes and back.

Since the wheel pose is an advanced level pose, it is important to build your way up and adequately warm the back muscle before doing it. Preparatory poses include the camel pose, bow pose, upward facing dog, fish pose, locust pose, and bridge pose among others.


Wheel Pose

How to do it:

  1. Lie on your back with knees bent, soles of the feet on the ground about hip width apart. Your heels should be about a foot away from your seating bones.
  2. Place your palms on the ground (beside your ears, slightly above the shoulder), fingertips pointing towards the shoulders.
  3. Root the four corners of your feet down, press your palms on the ground, activate your thigh muscles and lift your back and glutes off the ground.
  4. Drop your head backwards so that the crown of your head is pointing towards the ground.
  5. Maintain a shoulder-width distance between your hands, and a hip-width distance between the feet.
  6. Your toes, feet and knees are likely to turn outwards as you come up in the pose, realign them such that the big toes, inner edges of your feet and knees are parallel to each other.
  7. Squeeze your shoulder blades towards each other to help lift your chest and draw your shoulders away from your ears.
  8. Keep your thigh muscles activated by hugging in from the shin, to the muscle to the bone.
  9. Aim to hold the pose for at least 30 seconds or 5 breaths at a time.
  10. Come down for 3-5 breaths and hug in your knees to the wind removing pose. (To come out of the pose, tuck your chin into your chest and release the shoulder blades to the ground, then the rest of the back, and finally the glutes.)
  11. Set up to do wheel pose again.

Modifications

  • You may place your hands on blocks to lift the level of your palms hence allowing you to get into the pose more easily.
  • For beginners, instead of lifting the shoulders, back, and glute off the ground, position the hands as described in step 2 above but keep the shoulder blades on the ground and only lift the lower back, and glutes.
  • For a deeper backbend, once you have lifted up to the wheel pose, walk your heels in a few inches towards the hands.
  • You can use a yoga wheel to support your back and ease the weight of your body on the hands and legs in this pose.
  • If you are an advanced yogi, you can repeat the wheel pose 3-5 times. You could also hold the pose for 10 breaths or a minute at a go.
  • If you are a beginner, it may be difficult for you to hold the pose for 5 breaths. Begin with a breath or two and build up gradually.
  • Consider placing a block between your thighs and squeezing it to encourage the leg muscles to stay active throughout the pose.
  • Do not do this pose if you have back injury, carpal tunnel syndrome, high blood pressure, low blood pressure, diarrhea, heart disease or you are experiencing a headache. Instead take the bridge pose.

14. Upward Facing Wide Angle Pose

Sanskrit: Urdhva Upavistha Konasana

The upward facing wide angle pose offers deep stretching and lengthening of the spine, hamstrings, hips and inner thighs promoting overall body flexibility. It also opens the shoulders and chest besides other numerous benefits such as improving balance, concentration and relieving stress. This asana also strengthens the core which is essential in improving flexibility.


Upward Facing Wide Angle Pose

How to do it:

  1. Begin in a seated position with knees bent and soles of your feet touching.
  2. With your two piece fingers, grab your big toes.
  3. Take your shoulder blades down squeezing towards the centerline and lift your chest.
  4. Lean back slightly as you lift and straighten your legs to a wide v-position such that you are balancing the weight of your body on the seating bones.
  5. Keep the neck straight and lengthened.
  6. Hold for at least 5 breaths or 30 seconds.

Modifications

  • Keep you kneecaps pulled and toes flexed towards your face for better balance.
  • Avoid doing this pose if you have back, shoulder or knee injury.

Conclusion

While you could randomly pick any of the postures above for practise, they are arranged in order of their ease and you can follow them in sequence to create a quick yoga for flexibility routine.  End the sequence by resting in savasana for at least a minute.

Remember, work within your limits. As long as you are practicing the above poses frequently, the body will open up gradually and you will be able to do the deep version of the poses eventually.

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