Finding the Right Flexibility Program

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Kimberly asks:

I’ve always had an issue with my calves. They are so tight that they block my hamstring stretches most of the time. During forward bends, it is my calves, not my hamstrings, that are stretching.

This is an interesting question, and the same is true for me, Kimberly. It’s not very common, but for me, in my early 20s I used to spend a lot of time doing Stairmasters, like 200 flights of stairs in 20 minutes or whatever it was. My calves got really big and overdeveloped and tight. So, anytime I do a forward bend, anytime I do Downward Dog, it’s always my calves that would really take the stretch. And even today, in most forward bends I’m the same as you. I feel it in my calves more than anything.

In terms of what you can do, all the stretches were you feel it in your calves, they’re perfectly fine. So don’t beat yourself up about it. Those will be helpful. But in Downward Dog, if you do one-legged Downward Dog, so that’s when you take one leg up in the air, those will be really powerful. I don’t know anything better than a one-legged Downward Dog, other than those forward bends where you’re feeling it in your calves, even like a seated forward bend, like Paschimothanasana, when you feel it in your calves. Just work through it, and that will be very helpful.

I need help with my Forward wide-legged bends. My main issue is my back wants to lay back and not fold forward when I’m laying down and my legs spread out. What do I need to do so my core is allowed to rotate forward and I can eventually move my stomach towards the ground?

Okay, I think I misunderstood. It sounds like Kimberly is doing a Konasana or different seated wide-legged poses. So sitting on the floor, legs wide apart, forward folding, and she’s having a hard time getting that pelvic tilt. In terms of what you need to do, Kimberly, there’s not just one thing. You just need to keep at it. The key thing in these kinds of things, I always tell people, is to look forward and don’t look down. The tendency is to look at the ground and your back curls up, so with your eyes, look straight forward, maybe even use your hands on the floor and extend your spine long and strong. Eventually, your chest will touch the floor first and then your chin and then eventually your navel, but one thing at a time and look forward when you’re practicing that. That’s the best advice I could give you.

Stephanie asks:

My mom is 80. She been going to yoga at her gym, but she says they go too fast, don’t explain and it’s generally too much. She walks three miles a day and lifts weights, but really wants flexibility and pain relief for her arthritis. Can you give me some advice on a yoga DVD for seniors that could really benefit her?

That’s a great question. I don’t have a specific DVD I could recommend. What I would recommend, Stephanie, is that you find your mom a class that would probably be called Yin Yoga or Restorative Yoga or something along those lines, or maybe even a classic Hatha Yoga, like an integral yoga class, Sivananda yoga class. Those are going to be a lot more accessible to somebody who’s that age.

I wouldn’t give up on the group classes. It’s just that most group classes these days are designed basically for women who are 25 to 55 years old, so somebody who’s 80, for sure, are going to feel like your mom does where she gets caught up and wrapped up in the speed of things and the athleticism, but there are plenty of classes around that are designed to be much more gentle and much more restorative and can probably give your mom some really great flexibility benefits. So that would be my biggest advice. To not give up, call around and see what you can find. Hatha Yoga, Sivananda, integral yoga, restorative yoga, Yin Yoga, these are all great classes to check out.

Jean asks:

I’ve definitely noticed improvements in my side splits and backbends, but my front split still needs major improvement. What are the best stretching techniques for this?

So, in terms of side splits, with the side splits you’ve got to practice the side splits to get it. With the frontal splits, it’s an easier pose because all the forward bends you do bend up to it. So lots and lots of poses are constructive poses for building up to the frontal splits, but you should also just practice the splits itself. The best thing to do, if you’re in a place where you can get into it pretty well, like 12 inches or less off the ground, I’d encourage you just to practice it 5 minutes on each side every day and you’ll see big results really quickly. Just be careful of any pain in your knees and do be cautious, and use your hands for support if you need it.

Kimberly asks:

I am not feeling any stretch doing the Twister pose. Is there a more intense stretch I can do instead of this one?

Yeah, if you’re not feeling it in the Twister pose, try moving your hips more to the center. Twister is a passive supine twist, where you’re lying on your back and twisting. If you’re not feeling it, try moving your hips more to the center, and if you’re just not feeling it there, it might be that this pose is not that effective for you and you can skip it. In terms of passive twists, there’s not a better one that I could recommend that’s safe. Other twists, you can hold for 5 or 20 breaths, but definitely not for 5 minutes.

Shane asks:

The Flexibility Program recommends stretching one group per day. If you follow it, it means that you are stretching one muscle group once every 7 days for 5 -15 minutes. Could it be more effective? If so, how could this be more effective and what to most people do to produce results?

Yeah, that’s what we recommend, is moving through the series one section at a time and practicing for about 15 minutes per day. Some people practice more. Some people just practice one area of their body every day, so some people might just do the hips or might just do the hamstrings. And some people will just practice for 75 minutes a day doing the full series. It really depends on you. One area per day, 15 minutes per day is what we recommend as the minimum, and it can give you really great results, but whatever you have time for. The key thing is whatever you can maintain is going to be the best. Whatever you can do sustainable over time.

I find I want to do stretches every day and I’m finding the whole workout takes me around 2 hours. This is based on doing warm ups and a few of the poses for 5 minutes, some of them for 4 minutes.

So, no, it shouldn’t take you that long. It should take you about 75 minutes, 90 minutes at the most, even with warm-ups. So, you’re taking too much time, either between poses or getting in and out of poses, so I’d encourage you to speed that up. But if you have two hours, I like to do yoga for two hours, so if you have it, go for it. But if two hours is too long, which I’m guessing it is, you should be able to tighten that up to 75 or 90 minutes.

You mentioned coffee but did not mention caffeine in tea. Are they as bad as each other?

There’s a lot of confusion around tea and coffee. It’s the same thing, it’s caffeine. Here, where I live in Spain, they call it teina instead of cafeina, but it’s really the same chemical, just a different name, so the same chemical compound. The nice thing about tea is that it’s a lot less. There’s a lot less caffeine, but there’s still quite a bit, and so we tend to drink more tea than we do coffee. So, you just need to be careful with both of them and just making sure you’re not using it in excess. They’re just dark teas. With your non-caffeinated herbal teas, there’s plenty to use that and have no caffeine at all.

The challenge with caffeine, just to reiterate, is it can really fry your adrenals. So it can put you in a fight or flight state, elevated cortisol levels, it’s kind of a nervous system fry. So the tension in your body increases, rather than decreases, and it’s very dehydrating. All of these are really counterproductive for flexibility and yoga.

In your First forward bend, you say bend your knees. However, I have seen you post on a blog in one section that says bend knees a little and then later it says bend a lot. Which is more effective and correct?

Bend your knees as much as it is comfortable here. When you’re doing passive forward bends, you bend your knees to take the pressure off your lower back. For some people, that means a little bend. For other people, that means a big bend. Do whatever works for you.

You appear to be a supporter of Bikram Yoga and never lock out your knees. But one of the central principles of Bikram is to do exactly the opposite. How do you explain this apparent contradiction?

This is a great question. In Bikram Yoga and most hot yoga sequences, they teach you to lock out your knee, which is basically if you engage your quadriceps as strongly as you can, if you do it right now, you feel your knee lifts up and what they call locks. So Bikram Yoga is an athletic practice. Poses are held for, at the most, a minute each. When doing passive poses, meaning gravity yoga, it’s just a different approach. It’s not that one is right and the other is wrong. It’s a different approach. When we’re working just on flexibility, we’re looking for complete passivity in our body and so we soften our knees always when we’re doing long holds. So that’s why it’s not a contradiction. It’s just different things at different times, so that’s the reason why. Yoga Protein