For many people who are unfamiliar with yoga, they imagine a lot of slow stretching and breathing exercises. While yoga goes far beyond the realms of stretching and relaxation, there's certainly a kernel of truth to this assumption. Every yoga class is different, but the library of asanas has been largely unchanged (though names of poses may differ slightly from style to style) since yoga became popular in the West.
While some poses focus on power and stamina, others involve joint rotation and the lengthening of often-ignored muscles or muscle groups. Some poses promote mobility and build strength at the same time. A yoga class or practice that is balanced will work to stretch, strengthen, and stabilize. You could try hot yoga or many other types of yoga classes.
If you are interested in what yoga can do for you, you might enjoy our article about Yoga as Physical Therapy Practice.
From anecdotal evidence--for instance, how much lighter I feel when running the day after a 30 minute yoga session--to peer-reviewed studies, there is plenty of information out there to show that yoga can benefit a wide range of people. There are so many reasons why we may have less than optimal flexibility or range of motion: hours sitting behind a desk, a sporadic exercise schedule, overuse of certain muscles, or even just aging.
In this post, I'm going to focus on one benefit of yoga in particular: attaining and maintaining mobility and flexibility. As with any new fitness regimen, talk to your physician to determine if yoga is safe for your body.
The Health and Flexibility of Feet
I think it's fair to say that most of us tend to ignore the general health and flexibility of our feet. That's understandable--after all, the majority of us are able to take for granted that our feet will take us where we need to go, be that walking up the steps to our apartment (with your Fitbit, of course), running a 5k, or peddling a bike. While we may breathe a sigh of relief when we kick off our shoes upon arriving home, we don't think that means our feet need any special attention.
Our feet, though, are our foundation. As runners, we may think more about wear and tear on our knees. As office workers, we worry about our hips or hunched shoulders. But our feet are there through all of that--stuffed into shoes while we type, or pounding the pavement on that long run. Taking time to work on the flexibility and mobility of the feet should be an integral part of any fitness regimen we undertake. Doing so will have a ripple effect up the kinetic chain. The muscles in your big toes support your arches. Healthy arches act as shock absorbers--shock absorbers that protect your knees and hips. Muscle instability in something as small as your big toe can affect the strength of one of the largest muscles in your body, the gluteus maximus (your butt), a muscle that is absolutely critical to athletic performance and overall physical fitness.
Dynamic stability is the goal here--the muscles and tendons in your feet and ankles need to be strong and flexible enough to respond to shifting weight, movement, and changes in balance. To enhance mobility of these tissues, we need to strengthen and then stretch.
The pose: Standing forward bends encourage strong feet and balance. A basic balancing asana like Tree Pose demands attention to the placement of the standing foot and leg, leading to awareness of the muscles and increased mobility.
The practice: Maintaining mobility through the foot and ankle involves both strengthening and then stretching the muscles. A slow flow vinyasa class will offer both: lots of standing poses that tend toward the stretchier side of the yoga spectrum. Classes labeled 'flow' tend to be fluid, with each pose flowing into the next, but there is generally plenty of time in each pose to find your footing.
Loosen Your Hips
Many of us feel (probably correctly) that we have tight hips, and we lament them whenever we attend a yoga class (or even a Cross-Fit Workout). Others may not even realize that their hips are tight until they struggle to squat down to pick something up from the floor or notice they have lower back pain. Tight hips are a detriment to mobility, which is important for anyone, whether a runner, a weightlifter, or someone who simply wants to keep up their mobility as they age.
It's well-known that muscles can become tight and inflexible from overuse. This can also occur from underuse and muscle weakness. Tight hip flexors can also lead to a forward pelvic tilt, which in turn leads to tightness in the hamstrings. This hamstring tightness often leads to lower back pain, which inhibits freedom of movement even further. Hip immobility can announce itself other ways as well: strain in the IT band or pain in the knees. It's often these physical issues that cause people to seek out yoga, rather than hip immobility itself.
The poses: Lunges are a pose that mimic a runner's stride and can be dialed up or down depending on the intensity you prefer. Malasana, or garland pose, is the gold standard of yogic hip openers. Bound angle pose is a passive, relaxing hip stretch that's a perfect post-workout cool down.
The practice: I can confidently say that you will address the hips in any yoga class you attend. If maintaining overall mobility is your only concern, choose a class that you enjoy and stick to it, picking out a few especially helpful sequences to try at home when you can't make it to a class or after a long day or sitting or strenuous exercise. Many studios offer Yoga for Runners or Yoga for Athletes, classes that usually target tight or overused areas of the body, like the hips.
Upper Body Mobility
Barring any injury in the shoulder itself, immobility in this area is often caused by the surrounding muscles in the chest and back. The muscles on the sides of our bodies are often forgotten altogether.
In daily life, there's rarely a need to rotate the shoulder a full 180 degrees. Brushing your hair or reaching up on a high shelf only provide so much range of motion. Overuse, especially without proper stretching of the muscles, can also lead to tightness.
Side bends should not be neglected. Poses that stretch the side body lengthen muscles between the pelvis and ribs. These muscles extend to parts of the low back as well. Standing poses where arms are raised overhead will help strengthen and stabilize these muscles, and side-bending poses will help lengthen them. Breathing will be easier during aerobic activity, and mobility in the rib cage will improve.
The pose: A gentle shoulder and chest stretch like the one found in Cobra Pose is a great place to start. If you want a fantastic stretch for the entire side body, try Extended Side Angle, a dynamic standing pose that also benefits the hips, legs, and arms.
The practice: Downward-facing dog is another pose that stretches and strengthens the muscles of the upper body. This pose is found in nearly all yoga classes. Power Yoga is a solid choice for strengthening all of the muscles in the body. Yin or Restorative yoga classes allow a more passive approach, letting the muscles relax during poses held for several minutes each.