My friend Anna joined me for a yoga class a few days ago.
What should have been a restful and 'oh so good' yoga session turned into an agonizing hour during which Anna was groaning with frustration and beating herself up for not being 'bendy' enough.
'I just don't know what's wrong with me. I'm stretching every single day, I do yoga twice a week, and I still feel stiff as a board. Is there any hope that I'll get flexible one day?'
If that sounds familiar, read on about five potential reasons you still can't touch your toes and whether you should even try.
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Anna has missed out on a very important point.
While she stretches ten minutes every day, she still sits at her desk or lies on the couch for the rest 23 hours and 50 minutes. She also had a knee injury in the past. And she's far from being 20 years old.
So here's my message to you, inflexible yogis. Loud and clear.
You can bemoan your poor flexibility as much as you can and stretch those tight areas to your heart's content, but you probably won't accomplish much without getting to the root of the problem.
It can be a long and frustrating process. Yet, finding the cause of inflexibility is the place to start.
Here are five potential reasons why you can't touch your toes (even though you're stretching every day).
Nothing surprising here. Those who sit in a chair the whole day are less flexible than those who have more active jobs.
Our body gives us as much range of motion as we need to perform our daily tasks. If your daily tasks involve being a chair and couch warrior, don't expect ho have open hips and hamstrings.
The more active we are in our daily life, the more range of motion we can maintain.
If you go to Asia, you'll see tons of people, young and old, in the street squatting in Malasana – a deep yogi squat – a posture hardly accessible to the majority of the US population nowadays. That's because we have short hamstrings, tight groin and low back from spending most of our lives at a desk.
We often pin the blame on our short and tight muscles when we're struggling with certain yoga poses. But the truth is that the lack of flexibility can also stem from muscle weakness rather than their "shortness".
Believe me, this happens more often than you think.
Your brain controls everything that's happening with your body. So it gives you as much range of motion as you can handle to prevent tissue damage and injury.
When your muscles are not strong enough to stabilize and protect the joint you're trying to stretch, your brain will automatically stiffen that area for your own good.
As we age, our bodily functions naturally slow down. Our joints, muscles, and bones start to deteriorate.
We are born extremely flexible as kids, strike the perfect balance between mobility and stability at the age of 25-35. After that, maintaining mobility becomes an uphill battle.
Bernie Clark nicely put it in his book The Complete Guide To Yin Yoga. "We continue to become more yin-like as we age, until eventually we end up completely rigid."
Unless you were a contortionist star in your youth and maintained the mobility throughout the years, you can't expect to be as flexible in your 30s as yogis in their 20s.
Our sex can also define how flexible we get. Women are known to be bendier because of bone structure and hormone differences. Besides, since childhood, women more often than men focus on activities that help develop body suppleness such as dancing, gymnastics, Pilates, etc.
It's not all about the muscles and joints. The way you're naturally built can affect your range of motion.
For example, people with long femur bones (long legs), generally, can squat deeper than those with short femurs as their body has to go through a greater range of motion to get into the same position.
While it can be an advantage in a yoga class, it certainly isn't in a weightlifting world. People with short femurs can naturally squat with better form and with heavier weight.
Whether you like it or not, some people are born bendy while others are not flexible at all.
It can result from a mixture of different factors. But if we're talking genetics specifically, there's a particular gene variation that makes your connective tissues stiffer, thus decreasing the possible range of motion.
You might not be the most supple person in the class, but this gene increases your endurance and makes you a much better runner than an average flexible yogi.
Apart from these five reasons, there are also a ton of other things that can result in flexibility loss. Previous injuries, inflammation, chronic diseases (e.g., arthritis or osteoporosis), your whole medical history. However, these mostly account for the cases when you were flexible at some point in your life and experienced a reduction in the range of motion after the event.
If "I want to become more flexible" has been permanently pinned on your life goal map, then good news.
Everyone can become more limber.
According to Dr. Paul Weitzel, a sports medicine orthopedic surgeon at New England Baptist Hospital, even the stiffest people can improve their flexibility by 20-25 percent.
What you need is the right amount of effort and commitment. I would even argue that with the routine that works for you, you can improve the range of motion even more.
The question is whether you'll be able to sustain the flexibility gains in the long-term and make the process as safe as possible for your joints.
BKS Iyengar, the founder of Iyengar yoga, once said:
"The study of Yoga is not like work for a diploma or a university degree by someone desiring favourable results in a stipulated time." (Light On Yoga, 1994, p. 28)
That's a spot-on reply to the common question about how long it takes to increase flexibility.
I know, it is annoying to hear. But that's the bitter truth.
First of all, the timeframe depends on what flexibility means to you.
How much do you want your joint to move? If you're a martial artist, reaching your toes might not be your exact definition of suppleness. At the same time, chair warriors who sit at a desk all day will admire your abilities.
Secondly, it ebbs, and it flows. On some days, you feel stiff as a board and sitting cross-legged is a curse. On others, you nail a Pigeon Pose. Everything plays a part, including your medical history and past injuries that might one day remind you about themselves.
Some people can work up the splits in a week. I couldn't in a month! Even by practicing split stretches daily. Check out my 30-day Splits Challenge here.
Remember that we're not robots, and all of us operate in our own individual fashion.
1. Figure out the potential cause of your inflexibility. It's gonna save you time and frustration.
2. Create a program that will help you improve the range of motion.
Depending on your case, you can:
3. Set up small and specific goals.
"I want to reach my ankles in Forward Fold" if you can only reach the shins is better than "I want to be able to do Forward Fold." Celebrate these small achievements.
4. Let go of any expectations. Flexibility is just one of the aspects of yoga practice, but definitely not the end of it.
... and engage in any kind of targeted flexibility training, here are a few questions to think about:
- Why do you want to become more flexible? Will it really improve the quality of your life and your daily movement?
- Who's gonna benefit from yoga more: an extremely flexible person with a sloppy, inconsistent, and unmindful practice or a less supple person with regular mindful practice?
What do you think? Share your questions and thoughts in the comments below!