Flexibility is the top reason for starting yoga, according to Yoga Journal.
While yoga isn't actually about becoming more flexible, 61 percent of Americans chose yoga as their primary or additional routine for gaining mobility and increasing range of motion.
In light of this data, let's explore:
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Guess what. Yoga doesn't always do what people say it does.
Detoxification, better heart health, sounder sleep... I can go on forever.
The truth is that we often see a correlation between yoga and a particular issue, but we don't really know if that was yoga that helped.
Flexibility as a result of yoga practice may seem like the most logical connection ever. Yet, until there's a quality controlled study, even the most logical deductions will remain purely anecdotal.
I've researched over 30 studies on yoga to find the connection between yoga and increased range of motion. Luckily, this turned out to be a pretty simple task.
Yoga does improve flexibility, and it's not just a marketing fad.
If you're a male well over your 30s, that relates to you too!
There's bulletproof science-based evidence that yoga will make you more supple regardless of your gender or age.
If the nerd in you craves for proof, here it is.
Study 1. A recent 2015 research summoned over 150 Chinese adults and divided them into two groups.
Those from the first group did one hour of Hatha yoga a week for three months. Participants from the other group in the meantime continued with their normal lives.
Well, guess what. Those who practiced yoga demonstrated greater flexibility in hamstrings, lower back, ankles, and spine. Besides, the yoga group increased their muscle strength and endurance. Win-win, right?
There are lots of 'similar' studies that measure participants' flexibility before and after the yoga program or compare the yoga group results to people who don't do yoga at all.
For example, this one where women attended a 90-minute Iyengar yoga class for 6 weeks and significantly increased their range of motion – especially in hamstrings and spine.
I know what you're thinking now.
So what that yoga improves flexibility? Every physical activity does if you use your maximum range of motion. The question is:
Is yoga as effective in making you flexible as other activities?
That's a good question. And I've got an answer for you.
Yoga is, in fact, MORE EFFECTIVE in promoting body suppleness than general fitness activities.
That 61 % of Americans who chose to do yoga for flexibility knew what they were doing, right?
So here's the proof.
Study 2. Seventy women were randomly divided into three groups. Each group was assigned a different physical program.
The programs included: 1) Hatha yoga; 2) comprehensive exercise program that involved aerobic and endurance exercises as well as flexibility training; 3) exercises of preference - participants could alternate between aerobics, strength training, yoga, Tai Chi, Zumba, etc.
The entire study lasted for half a year, and all the women participated in their assigned exercise program for 3 hours every week.
The results showed that after 6 months, those who did yoga improved their "forward reach" by 3.59 cm (that's a pretty impressive result!). And (drum-roll, please)...
...They outperformed those who took part in the comprehensive exercise program. Those from the second group gained only 1.35cm.
By the way, those who chose their own exercises lost 2.44 cm.
Study 3. In this 1-year research, elderly adults were assigned to do 1) yoga; 2) calisthenics; 3) no exercise (control group) at least three times a week.
No surprises here – yoga wins again.
The results showed that slow and passive movements of Hatha yoga are more effective in improving flexibility than fast and dynamic moves of calisthenics. Moreover, the flexibility gains of yogis were almost 4 times higher than those who did calisthenics.
Needless to say, those who didn't participate in any exercise lost the range of motion they had at the beginning of the research.
A bit of science is good, but let's get to the point here. What type of yoga is best for flexibility?
There are so many styles of postural yoga nowadays that the question is ever more natural. Obviously, you want to move and stretch for the most part of your yoga time. But don't get discouraged if the class includes chanting and meditation. These self-awareness techniques can actually help your body open up and gain the flexibility you're looking for.
Here are some of the best, in my opinion, yoga styles to increase flexibility:
Actually, any yoga that involves postures (asanas) is Hatha. Nevertheless, this term is now generally used for a yoga class that includes a bit of everything. Stretching, dynamic poses, strength training, breathwork – every Hatha class is a different yet well-rounded practice that will take your flexibility to the next level.
More dynamic and physically demanding style of yoga. Vinyasa is an excellent way to gain new flexibility and turn it into mobility – so-called useful flexibility. Read about the difference between mobility and flexibility here.
This is one of my favorite styles of yoga to practice when I'm overwhelmed and tired. The practice is often seated, and poses can be held as long as 10 minutes (or even more). Such long holds help stress and strengthen connective tissues (tendons, ligaments, and fascia) to increase the range of motion. Most people come to Yin Yoga for flexibility but stay for the peace of mind it brings.
I also call it a yoga style "where all your yoga gear is welcome." Iyengar yoga focuses on adapting poses to your body instead of forcing your body into a pose. The postures are held longer, and there's a strong emphasis on bending and folding – a guaranteed way to become more limber.
A controversial yoga style that is said to help with efficient stretching thanks to the external heat.
That's a very debatable topic that I already wrote about. I suggest you check out my post on hot yoga benefits and risks here.
In a nutshell, yoga practiced in a heated room has a ton of dedicated followers. And the same amount of raging haters.
There isn't much scientific evidence about the practice and whether it's good for us in the first place.
We're getting a bit anecdotal here, but according to hot yoga fans, practice in the heated room helps loosen the muscles due to the external heat. So if you want to get deeper in a yoga pose – hot yoga works like a charm.
I can argue forever about why you would even consider forcing yourself into a pose that your body doesn't want to go in under normal conditions, but I'll stop right there.
If you want to improve flexibility, hot yoga is a good way to do so. My main point here: because any yoga is.
Does hot yoga help the stiffest people become flexible fast?
I won't lie to you - nobody knows.
Yoga practice is called a practice for a reason.
There's no destination that you're heading to. There's also no time frame or deadline that you should be meeting. Instead, there's constant self-improvement and small achievements on the way.
The time it takes you to get more flexible will depend on a range of factors: age and sex, current mobility and strength, daily activity, past injuries. Even genetic predisposition. We all have different bodies with our own individual characteristics.
You'll probably see the most significant changes in your body during the first 5-6 weeks of consistent yoga practice. With commitment and dedication, your flexibility will continue increasing as long as you practice.
Flexibility may come naturally to some.
Don't worry if you're not among those people though.
Here are a few tips on how to overcome your natural stiffness and make your body more flexible with the help of yoga.
- Develop a consistent practice. They say that five minutes of yoga practice every day is better than an hour once a week. Not only it is easier to find some spare minutes in your schedule, but it can also help you cultivate a new healthy habit.
- Remember to breathe. There's a direct correlation between our autonomous nervous system and how deep you can go in your stretch. Relaxed and mindful breathing patterns help minimize sympathetic or stress response that will lead to tense muscles and limited range of motion. Instead, it will calm the mind and reassure your brain that the new range of motion is safe.
- Strengthening is key. Inflexible muscle often means weak muscle. If you practice at home, plan your yoga sessions accordingly. Tight hamstrings? Focus not only on lengthening them but on strengthening. Alternate days between more soft types of yoga such as Yin or Iyengar and more vigorous Vinyasa or Power Yoga. Or better – add a weigh-lifting routine into your schedule.
- Maintain your gained flexibility. It's easier to use your newly acquired range of motion than to lose it and get it back. Explore new movements and new workouts. Stay active. Remember that your body will sustain as much flexibility as is needed for daily life.
- Be patient. Like with everything, improving your abilities and skills takes time. Often longer than we initially expect. Be kind and respectful to yourself and your body and never push yourself beyond the limit.
- Enjoy the journey. Yoga is so much more than just flexibility. Let go of the expectations, focus on the process and enjoy the ride 🙂
It's your turn now! Did yoga help you increase flexibility? Share in the comments!