According to a 2012 survey by Yoga Journal magazine, flexibility is the number one reason people in the United States do yoga on a regular basis. And while not every posture in yoga is guaranteed to make you long and limber, there's a good chance you'll leave class feeling more flexible than when you walked in.
"All day long we do things that compress our spine and make our muscles shorter," says Brigitte Bourdeau, a certified health coach and yoga instructor in New York City. "Yoga is a great way to reverse that, to stretch out and become more fluid, and to counteract all of the hunching over and the slouching and the bad posture."
Can't make it to yoga class? Try these five stretches at home. They'll do wonders for your whole body, either as part of a full routine or by themselves.
Locust Pose (Salabhasana)
Stretches the shoulders, chest, belly and thighs
Lie on your belly, with a folded blanket beneath your pelvis and ribs for extra padding. Place your arms alongside you, palms up, and rest your forehead on the floor. Touch your big toes together and engage your buttocks muscles. As you exhale, lift your head, upper torso, arms and legs off the floor. Make your body as long as possible by stretching through the top of the head and through the tips of the feet, keeping your big toes pointed toward each other and your thighs rotated in. Keep your arms raised parallel to the ground, stretching through your fingertips and pushing upward as if there was a weight pushing down on the backs of your upper arms. Hold for 30 seconds to a minute (don't forget to breathe!), and release with an exhalation.
Downward-Facing Dog (Adho Mukha Svanasana)
Stretches the shoulders, hamstrings, calves, arches and hands
Start on your hands and knees, fingers spread and index fingers parallel or slightly turned out. Tuck your toes and, as you exhale, lift your knees off the floor. Keep them slightly bent, heels lifted away from the floor, as you lengthen your tailbone and press it back and up. Lift your sitting bones toward the ceiling, and engage your inner leg muscles, drawing them up. As you exhale again, push your thighs back and stretch your heels down or towards the ground. Straighten (but don't lock) your knees if you can, and press your shoulder blades firmly against your back as you draw them toward your tailbone. Keep your head between your upper arms. Stay here for 1 to 3 minutes, "walking" back and forth between legs for an added calf stretch, if desired.
Pigeon (Eka Pada Rajakapotasana)
Stretches the thighs, groin, abdomen, chest, shoulders and neck.
Begin on all fours, knees below your hips and hands slightly in front of your shoulders. Slide your right knee forward to meet your right wrist, and your right foot to the front of your left knee. (The outside of your shin should be resting on the floor.) Using your arms for support, slide your left leg straight back so that the top of your thigh is on the floor and your toes are pointed straight back. Lower the outside of your right buttock to the floor, and slide your right heel just in front of your left hip. As you exhale, begin to fold over your right thigh, gradually walking your arms out in front of you. Stretch your arms forward.
Big Toe Pose (Padangusthasana)
Stretches the hamstrings and calves
Start in Mountain Pose, standing straight with your feet about six inches apart. Lift your knee caps by engaging your front thigh muscles. Keep your legs straight while you hinge at the hips, folding forward. Wrap your index and middle finger on each hand around your big toe and second toe, and hold with your thumbs to secure your grip. If you can't reach your toes without rounding your back very much, pass a strap under the ball of each foot and hold onto the straps, instead. As you inhale, lift your torso as if you were standing, straightening your elbows. On your exhale, lift your sitting bones, release your hamstrings, and hollow out your lower belly. This should create a hollow in your lower back, as well. For several breaths, lift your torso on the inhales and your sit bones on the exhales, deepening the hollow in your lower back. Finish by holding a forward bend position for one minute, keeping your torso long, before returning to standing.
Lord of the Dance Pose (Natarajasana)
Stretches the shoulders, chest, thighs, groin and abdomen
This is a challenging pose, but a rewarding stretch once you master it. Start in Mountain Pose, standing up straight with feet shoulder-width apart. Shift your weight onto your right foot and bend your left knee, lifting your left foot behind you. Turn your left arm outward, bend your elbow, and grip the outside of your left foot, pressing your thumb against the sole. Inhale and lift your left leg up, bringing your thigh parallel to the floor. You should rotate your shoulder so that your bent elbow points toward the ceiling. Reach your right arm straight forward, parallel to the floor. Hold for 20 to 30 seconds, and repeat on the other side.
- AARP Bulliten. "13 Easy Yoga Poses for Everyone." January 14, 2011. (June 1, 2013) http://www.aarp.org/health/fitness/info-01-2011/yoga_poses.html
- Bourdeau, Brigitte. Yoga instructor. Personal interview. May 31, 2013.
- Crandell, Jason. "Proper Pigeon Pose." Yoga Journal. (June 1, 2013) http://www.yogajournal.com/basics/1808
- Gudmestad, Julie. "What's In a Stretch?" Yoga Journal. (June 1, 2013) http://www.yogajournal.com/for_teachers/2376
- Mayo Clinic. "Slideshow: A Guide to 10 Basic Stretches." (June 1, 2013) http://www.mayoclinic.com/health/stretching/SM00043
- Yoga Journal. "Yoga in America Study 2012." (June 1, 2013) http://www.yogajournal.com/press/yoga_in_america
- Yoga Journal. "Yoga Poses Index." (June 1, 2013) http://www.yogajournal.com/poses/finder/browse_index