Yogis and non-yogis alike can all receive the physical and mental benefits of yoga. When most people think of yoga, they correlate its asanas with flexibility. Increased flexibility is one benefit that yoga provides, but it isn’t the full focus of what yoga is. We won’t dive into the history of yoga- but we will provide answers to a widespread question- “how long does it take to increase flexibility in yoga?”
We’ll let you know now that the answer isn’t as straightforward as you might like. To understand your journey towards increasing flexibility, you should know the different body parts that significantly impact flexibility, the limiting factors of flexibility, and how you can incorporate additional techniques in your yoga practice to increase flexibility.
How Long Does it Take to Increase Flexibility in Yoga?
A study submitted to the International Journal of Yoga found that the impact of a 10-week yoga program produced a vast improvement in flexibility for the participants. Very few studies have explored the average time it takes to increase flexibility in yoga with people who have a diverse range of body types, ages, and physical ability levels. We know that your yoga journey is particular to you- and it will vary depending on your commitment, personal anatomy, and more! We did take a peek at current question threads online and found that most people reported seeing an increase in flexibility 2-4 weeks after beginning their practice. This isn’t a true measure of what your own journey will look like.
Since we can’t give you a blanket-statement answer, we’d like to provide you with the simplified information you need to learn about what body parts and systems affect flexibility and how you can lean into yoga-based techniques used to see results.
Body Parts That Greatly Impact Flexibility
The body is a complex bundle of parts and systems working together to keep you alive and moving! Flexibility is also complex, but there are main parts of your body involved in asanas that you can understand to your advantage. Skeletal muscles, muscle fascia, ligaments, and tendons are all key players on your journey in flexibility. Let’s take a look at each one.
Ligaments are tough bands of tissue that connect bone to bone. Ligaments, such as the ACL keep your movements running smoothly through stabilization by not letting your bones twist too much or move too far apart.
Tendons are flexible tissues that attach muscle to bone. They work as levers to move your bones as your muscles contract and expand. They’re strong and stiff with minimal stretch, allowing for fine motor coordination.
Muscle Fascia is a thin bit of tissue that holds everything together- nerves, organs, muscles, and more. While it looks like a single sheet or tissue, it has multiple liquid-filled layers to help you stretch and move. It can, however, dry up and tighten causing limited mobility. It is one of the biggest contributors to muscle stiffness, making up 41% of a muscle’s total resistance to movement!
There are three main types of muscle in the human body:
- Skeletal Muscle
- Smooth Muscle
- Cardiac Muscle
Skeletal muscle is a key player in flexibility. This is the tissue attached to your bones that allows for specialized movement. It’s often grouped in opposing pairs, such as the triceps and biceps or the hamstrings and quadriceps. These opposing pairs of muscles are called agonist (the contracting muscle) and antagonist (the relaxing or lengthening muscle). When one contracts, the other lengthens. Bring your arm up into a bicep curl. Your bicep is contracted and flexed while your tricep is lengthened and relaxed. Now, if you place your hand in a “karate chop” motion on a flat surface in front of you (by pushing your hand into it), your tricep will contract and your bicep will remain relaxed. This relationship is called reciprocal inhibition.
What Factors Limit Flexibility?
You may think the longer your skeletal muscles can stretch, the more flexible you will be. This is a factor of flexibility, but in reality, the elasticity of healthy muscle fiber is not a very important factor that limits flexibility in yoga. Aka, your tight hamstrings aren’t the only reason you’re not able to touch your toes. There are three stronger limiting factors: elasticity of connective tissue, the stretch reflex, and your own personal anatomy limitations. The good news is that yoga incorporates each of these factors into its practice: encouraging flexibility within the limits of your personal anatomy.
Elasticity of Connective Tissues
Connective tissues, such as… you guessed it! Ligaments, tendons, and especially muscle fascia bind our anatomy into one cohesive being. Stretching muscle fascia stimulates anti-inflammatory agents in the body. Keeping this tissue stretched out and hydrated is crucial with flexibility. If your connective tissue is not “hydrated,” it’s going to take time to make it limber again.
One key obstacle you must understand is the stretch reflex. Imagine you’re skiing downhill, and your legs begin to sprawl out away from each other on the slick snow. Your legs will react and tense up, attempting to bring them closer together to avoid doing the splits! This is the stretch reflex- our body’s natural reaction to contract when we’re stretching muscles past their determined limits. It’s a firing of muscles to protect you from over-stretching muscle tissue and exposing vulnerable parts of your body to danger. Amazingly enough, this response isn’t controlled by our brain. It’s a monosynaptic response that is triggered by sending an impulse of sensory neurons to a section of our spinal cord.
What does that mean for flexibility? Well, this is a natural reflex your body has to maintain your homeostasis, similarly to shivering when you’re cold to raise your core temperature! In an effort to try and protect you from bodily damage, it can also hinder your efforts towards flexibility.
Personal Anatomy Limitations
Your body isn’t the same as everyone else’s. The fitness industry, including the traditions of yoga, have not always included the limitations individual bodies have. Idealized postures and textbook images of certain poses are just not attainable for some body types. Bone-on-bone compression is not changeable and shouldn’t be forced. Take cobra pose, for example. There is tension needed to lift into this pose, but there will also be compression happening in each vertebra of the spine. Depending on your spacing within each vertebra, you may not have the space to rise higher than others. As someone who practices yoga, you should explore your own personal anatomy.
How To Increase Flexibility in Yoga
Dynamic movement implies that the body never stops in a still or static position but instead has a solid flow from one movement into the next. This continuous movement allows your muscle facia to stay hydrated and mobilized. The good news? Yoga is a GREAT activity to incorporate dynamic movement.
Proprioceptive Neuromuscular Facilitation (PNF)
We know this one is a mouthful! PNF stretching is where you engage the muscles in an isometric contraction and then release this action in order to move forward in the posture. Research indicates that this is effective in improving and maintaining your range of motion. An example of this would be bending over to touch your toes in a forward fold. Once you’re in the posture, engaging your hamstrings for a few seconds and releasing them can take you deeper into the fold.
Yep, we’re still working to override that stretch reflex. The Golgi tendon organ (GTO) is a part of your nervous system that works together with muscle spindles to regulate muscle stiffness. We won’t go into the full science here, but you should know that together they are like the security guards letting people (movement) through the door when heavily pressured. This reflex has been studied and is used within the yoga community to influence strong improvements in flexibility alongside an experienced instructor.
By adjusting your ratio of inhalation to exhalation, you can adjust the emphasis given to your sympathetic or parasympathetic nervous systems. A 2-to-1 breathing technique can create a deeper relaxation by decreasing the nerve activity in the sympathetic nervous system and increase the influence of the parasympathetic nervous system. There are multiple breathing techniques in pranayama that help calm the nervous system, such as:
- Nadi shodhana breath (alternate nostril breathing)
- Sahita kumbhaka breath (pause between breaths)
- Ujjayi breath (ocean breath)
- Sitali breath
Applying techniques such as 2-to-1 breathing can override your stretch reflex to move deeper into your stretches.
Additional Tips and Recommendations
In this blog post, we’ve gone over what body parts and systems affect flexibility and the yoga-based techniques that are used to see results. We did not go over safety or additional research done on these techniques. If you choose to pursue any that were listed, we strongly urge you to do further research.
Before you go, here are a few more tips and recommendations:
- Make sure to care for your ligaments by not stretching them too far. Keep a slight bend in your knees when in forward fold and push into your palms and fingertips when putting weight on your wrists.
- Perform prolonged breathing techniques only under the care of expert guidance. Stop breathing techniques that make you feel excessively dizzy, nauseous, or panicked.
It’s important to seek a professional opinion and advice- especially if you are attempting to increase mobility and flexibility due to discomfort or injury.
At Idaho Sports Medicine Institute, some of our staff members have experience with yoga. Dr. Cooperrider is a registered yoga teacher and spends time teaching classes in the Boise, Idaho area. Contact ISMI to learn more about how you can increase flexibility in yoga!
*Please always consult your physician before beginning any exercise program. This general information is not intended to diagnose any medical condition or to replace your healthcare professional. Consult with your healthcare professional to design an appropriate exercise prescription. If you experience any pain or difficulty with these exercises, stop and consult your healthcare provider.