Many people have the notion that only skinny people are flexible, but the two are not always connected. Flexibility is an ability that we are all born with but lose as we grow. The extent of this loss depends on our lifestyle—a sedentary lifestyle, for example, leads to greater stiffness while an active one, like that of an athlete or dancer, keeps us more elastic. Retaining the elasticity of our muscles needs a little bit of daily practice.
Even the skinniest of people, if they don’t stretch regularly, will end up with stiff muscles and joints which lead to muscle pain and increase our body’s susceptibility to injury.
Consistent yoga practice greatly increases flexibility since yoga is focused heavily on muscle elasticity. This in turn contributes to keeping the body in good health. With increased flexibility, there is not just improvement in the functional movement of the body, but also better blood circulation, and reduced risk of arthritis, strokes, even heart disease.
In yoga, the movement and stretching of muscles is combined with breathing, thus avoiding tensing and shortening of muscles. Special attention should be paid to exhalations as the muscles are able to relax more deeply as we exhale.
The hamstrings, or the muscles at the back of the thighs, are one of the most susceptible to tightening if you are used to sitting for long periods of the day. Tight hamstrings lead to a pulling sensation in the back of the thighs while trying to do a forward bend. The hamstrings, because of their integral relationship with the hips and the lower back, also lead to lower back pain and hip pain when they are tight.
If you have tight hips, you will notice that your knees are way off the floor while sitting in a cross-legged position. Releasing the hips and hamstrings will help you to practise yogic postures with ease and also bring greater overall comfort in daily life.
Before you begin, make sure you have an empty stomach—3-4 hours should have elapsed after your last meal.
The half-pigeon pose is a great hip opener. Begin in the plank position, focusing on keeping your body as straight as possible. Then take your right leg through to the front and bend it in front of you at an angle, bringing your right thigh and calves down on the floor. Your hips will come down too. Keep your left leg extended on the floor and allow the centre line to press down on the floor, your toes stretched away from you. Keep the toes of your right foot flexed. Make mountains out of your fingertips and keeping your hands in front of you, lift your torso away from the thigh. Lengthen the lower back by pressing your tail bone down and forward simultaneously. Roll your left hip so that it points toward the right heel, and stretch the left side of the groin. Stay in this pose for 30 seconds, then repeat with the left leg. As you get more comfortable over a period of time you may slowly work your way up to 2 minutes. This asana opens up the hip flexor muscles and the groin area.
‘Supta’ is lying down, ‘pada’ is foot and ‘angustha’ is the big toe. Begin by lying flat on your back, arms by your side and feet together. As you inhale, raise your right leg up to 90 degrees. Keep it there for a few seconds, then grab the back of your thigh with both hands. Inhale, and then as you exhale, raise your head and chest up and walk your hands up your leg. Reach up to wherever you can comfortably—the calf muscle or the ankle. The aim is to gradually get to the point where you can hold on to your big toe with the thumb, index and middle fingers of your right hand, as your flexibility increases with regular stretching. Now bring your leg closer to you while keeping the knee as straight as comfortably possible.
The stretch should be felt on the back of the leg so the focus should be on the leg coming towards the torso, as opposed to the torso going up to the leg. Hold for a few seconds. Inhale, let go of your foot or leg and bring the torso down to the floor. As you exhale, bring the right leg down to the floor. Take a moment, then repeat with the left leg. This asana stretches your hamstrings, increases blood circulation in the legs and eases the tightness in the hips. The asana helps relieve sciatic pain.
Tara Goswami is a Delhi-based author, artist and yoga teacher trained in the Sivananda form of yoga at the Sivananda Yoga Vedanta Dhanwantari Ashram, Kerala.