Why Most Yoga Classes Don’t Work for Flexibility
I couldn’t touch my toes when I first started practicing yoga. When I bent forward, my spine hunched up like Quasimodo, and my fingertips didn’t even reach my ankles. At age 23 I felt 73 and was desperate. Yoga seemed like the obvious solution, so I became a fanatical student.
After weeks of dedicated daily practice, I still had not achieved any measurable flexibility gains. I did feel calm, balanced, and had even lost weight - the benefits were undeniable - but I was still stuck in an old man’s body, and I didn’t see that changing anytime soon.
I assumed I was doing something wrong, but as it turns out, thousands of yoga students have the same experience. We show up hoping for flexibility, and what we experience is something completely different. Amazing, but different.
I had no idea back then, but as it turns out, most yoga classes are not about flexibility. That’s just a stereotype. Most focus on functional strength, balance, breath, and the mind-body connection. To truly change your range of motion, you need a targeted approach outside of class.
Did you know?
- Flexibility is governed by both the length and the elasticity of your connective tissues and by your nervous system
- Your connective tissues stretch best when relaxed completely
- Your stretch reflex is your body’s natural fight response to your stretching attempts, and it can be turned off through specific breathing exercises
- Deep stretching reduces the strength of your muscles and stability of your joints for approximately two hours
3 Little-Known Secrets About Flexibility
#1. Extra practice required. Most super-flexible yoga teachers who are super flexible didn’t get that way with the poses they teach in their classes. This isn’t actually a secret at all, but most students never bother to ask. When I asked, again and again, my teachers would show me passive, long-hold poses they did in the evenings, supplemental to their regular practices.
#2. The nervous system connection. Your nervous system can block up to 50% of your gains. Stress, poor breathing patterns, and lack of mental focus can totally throw off your flexibility game. How? Your body has something called the stretch reflex, an electrical firing of muscles to protect you from over-stretching tissues and exposing vulnerable regions of your body to danger. This is a self-preservation response, but it’s counterproductive in the yoga room. To make real gains, you have to switch off or override your stretch reflex.
#3. Food matters. Healthy food is important for your body both inside and out, and your connective tissues are no different. If you’re trying to survive on processed foods, refined oils, and snack bars, your muscle tissue, fascia, tendons, and ligaments take a hit. They can become rigid, dehydrated, poorly nourished, and inflamed. Because the work of flexibility is internal (you don’t see it), people often miss the food and flexibility connection.
Gravity Yoga: Targeting Mobility Training
To truly open up your locked hamstrings, stiff back, and tight hips, I discovered and organized a simple system that delivers real results for any student. It’s called Gravity Yoga because the primary principle involves relaxing into the force of gravity to increase the range of motion both in the short and long term. Below are the three principles of Gravity Yoga.
- Wet Noodle. Muscles stretch best when completely relaxed. So when you train for flexibility, you attempt to relax into the stretch as much as possible.
- 4:8 Whiskey Breathing. Inhale through your nose to the count of four, exhale to the count of eight. This breathing practice turns off the stretch reflex, stimulates the parasympathetic nervous system response, and relieves muscle tension.
- Meet or Beat Your Hold Time. The gating factor for flexibility is time under passive tension (AKA how long you spend in these deep poses). The typical Gravity Yoga hold times are 2-5 minutes.