Senior Yoga Medicine® teacher Rachel Land shares how you can apply three stretching methods (passive, resistance, and active) to address common areas of restriction in the wrists, upper body, and hips.
Physical flexibility is one small aspect of yoga, but for many of us, maintaining a healthy range of motion in our muscles and joints is an undeniable benefit of regular asana practice. Yet there doesn’t seem to be any consensus on how to stretch: Some teachers stress the benefits of passive stretches, while others prioritize the range of motion we create actively with muscle engagement, rather than using gravity or props.
The reality is that our bodies benefit from variety, which is why, when we employ the same technique over and over again on the areas we regard as our trouble spots, they can continue to be troublesome. Rather than choosing one approach over the other, it pays to utilize a range of tactics to reap the benefits of each, like the three outlined here.
1. Passive Range of Motion (PROM) Techniques
Passive range of motion is the deepest position you can create for any particular joint without muscular effort. We explore this range of motion in passive stretches, created with the assistance of gravity, a prop, or a partner. For example, sitting in hero pose (virasana) creates a passive stretch for our quadriceps.
Current understanding is that passive stretches educate the nervous system to tolerate a deeper range of motion without triggering our muscles or connective tissue to contract to protect our joints.
The concept is employed very subtly to release chronic tension in restorative yoga, and more deliberately to act on our connective tissue in yin yoga. Either way, patience is key. PROM techniques seem to work best when we are comfortable enough to relax in a position for at least 60 seconds.
2. Resisted Range of Motion (RROM) Techniques
Resisted range of motion will look similar to passive range of motion, but will feel completely different. In this technique, we add muscle activation to a passive stretch position. In hero pose, it would mean engaging your quadriceps briefly without moving, pressing down through the tops of your feet and shins as if you wanted to lift your hips off the floor.
RROM capitalizes on a reflex action called autogenic inhibition (also called the Golgi tendon reflex because of the role receptors called Golgi tendon organs play in mediating this response). This reflex encourages a muscle to relax after strong contraction or deep stretch to reduce the chance of the muscle exerting greater than normal force on its tendons.
You may have experienced RROM in a stretching method called proprioceptive neuromuscular facilitation, or PNF. The most common form of PNF, the hold-relax technique, involves finding a passive stretch for a given muscle, contracting that muscle isometrically (without moving) for about 7 to 10 seconds, then relaxing the muscle into another passive stretch, usually deeper than the initial one, for at least 10 to 15 seconds.
3. Active Range of Motion (AROM) Techniques
In active range of motion we engage muscles on the opposite side of the joint. If we’re focusing on the quadriceps, we would use the antagonists to the quadriceps, the hamstrings, to actively flex the knees. So instead of using gravity to help us stretch in hero pose, we could lie prone and contract our hamstrings to draw our heels as close to our buttocks as possible. Active range of motion work seems to work best when the muscle engagement is sustained for around 10 seconds.
For most of us, active range of motion will be more limited than passive range of motion. It will probably not create the sensation of stretch in the targeted muscles—it will feel more like muscle engagement or work—but it does show us the extent of our unassisted range of motion.
Our range of motion has limits: For each of us there will be an end point dictated by our bony shapes and proportions. But within those limits, utilizing a combination of the techniques above regularly has the potential to maximize our range.
You could apply this approach to any area, but here we’ll address common trouble spots for yoga students:
• The wrists (in wrist extension)
• The chest (in scapula retraction and shoulder external rotation)
• The hips (in hip flexion and external rotation)
Wrist extension1 is a common challenge for yoga students. Wrist extension is the movement of making a “stop” sign with our hand; the back of our hand moves toward the forearm, engaging the wrist extensors and lengthening the wrist flexors.2 The degree of wrist extension required in yoga poses in which we bear weight on our hands, like plank, four-limbed staff pose (chaturanga dandasana), upward facing dog (urdhva mukha svanasana), side plank (vasisthasana), and arm balances like crow pose (kakasana), exceeds the comfortable range for many of us, especially students newer to yoga. However, wrists are rarely stretched in yoga classes.
The setup for this practice will vary for each individual, depending on wrist range of motion and arm length compared to torso length. You’ll be seated with your palms flat on the floor and your fingers pointing toward the back of your mat. That might mean that your hands are beside you (creating a 90-degree angle in your wrists), in front of you (requiring more extension), or behind you (creating less extension). Some people will do this more comfortably sitting cross-legged, while others might want to kneel or sit on a bench—experiment to see what works best for you.
PROM: Slowly inch your hands forward from your starting position so that your forearm moves closer to the back of your hand. Keep moving into wrist extension until you feel a gentle stretch along your inner forearms and wrists or the bases of your fingers, or until the heels of your hands start to lift off the floor. Stay in that position for four or five slow, deep breaths, keeping your neck and shoulders soft.
RROM: Stay in the same position. Gently spread your fingers and press your fingertips and palms into the floor as if you were aiming to lift your wrist creases, or even lift your hips, off the floor. Feel the muscles of your inner wrists and your inner forearms engage. Maintain that activation for one or two breaths, up to 10 seconds, then relax back into the passive stretch for another four or five steady breaths. You may find that you move a little deeper into wrist extension.
AROM: Notice the angle the passive stretch has created between the backs of your hands and your forearms. Engage the muscles on the backs of your hands, outer wrists, and outer forearms. Retain as much of that angle as you can, shifting your torso toward neutral until your hands ease off the floor. Hover your hands, maintaining active wrist extension, for three or four smooth breaths. Then relax your hands and circle your wrists a few times to release any lingering effort.
Another common area of restriction for yoga students is the chest. Many of us have a habit of rounding our shoulders, shortening the chest muscles (including the pectoralis major and anterior deltoids) and inhibiting muscles on the upper back (including the rhomboids, posterior deltoids, infraspinatus, and teres minor). This postural pattern can make it difficult to breathe freely and deeply, and can limit our range in backbends like bow pose (dhanurasana), dancer pose (natarajasana), and camel pose (ustrasana).
A helpful counter is to improve our range in scapula retraction, in which our shoulder blades move toward the spine, and shoulder external rotation, in which our upper arm bone (the humerus) rotates away from the midline of the body. These actions together broaden the chest.
To set up, lie down prone. Take your left arm out to a cactus shape with your upper arm at shoulder height, a 90-degree bend in your elbow, and your palm facing down. Turn your head to the right.
PROM: If you already feel a stretch in your chest and the front of your shoulder, stay as you are. Otherwise, place your right hand by your right-side ribs and press into it to turn your chest and hips toward the right, gliding your left scapula closer to your spine until you feel a stretch in the left side of your chest and shoulder. Use your legs to support you, either sliding one or both bent knees toward your chest, or (if you need more rotation to create a stretch) sweeping your right leg behind you as a counterweight. Your right leg can hover or you can bend your knee and place your right foot on the floor—discover what works for you. Relax your head and neck. Find a position you can stay in for at least four or five slow, deep breaths without strain.
RROM: Remain in the same position. Spread your fingers and actively press your left hand, elbow, and forearm into the floor as if trying to lift yourself up. Feel the muscles on the left side of your chest and the front of your left shoulder engage in their lengthened positions, and the head of your left shoulder move away from the floor. Maintain that activation for a breath or two, or up to 10 seconds, then relax back into the passive stretch for another four or five steady breaths. You may find that you can turn your chest a little more to the right this time around.
AROM: Notice the angle the passive stretch has created between your left arm and your rib cage. Your aim is to maintain as much of that position as you can, using your muscles to lift your left forearm off the floor. Squeeze your left shoulder blade toward your spine, engaging the muscles on your posterior shoulder and upper back to make your left forearm as light on the floor as you can. If you can lift your elbow, wrist, and hand off the floor without moving your chest, do so. If you can’t, then roll your chest back toward the floor a fraction of an inch at a time until you can. Feel the muscles on the back of your left shoulder and between your shoulder blade and spine contract strongly to hold the weight of your arm. Maintain that activation for three or four smooth breaths. When you are done, place your left arm on the floor by your side and let your shoulder roll forward for a few breaths’ rest before you switch sides.
The final area of focus is hip mobility. A position we most commonly employ in seated yoga poses entails hip flexion and external rotation, in which we fold forward with one or both knees opened wide, such as in bound angle pose (baddha konasana), one-legged pigeon pose (eka pada rajakapotasana), and double pigeon, or fire log, pose (agnistambhasana). These poses focus on passive range of motion, stretching the hip external rotators.3 Incorporating resisted and active range of motion can be helpful to build balance in underutilized areas around the hips, which can, counterintuitively, help our hips feel less stiff and more mobile.
For this practice, have a yoga block, cushion, and blanket at hand. Then sit down in a 90/90 position: Take your right leg straight out in front of your right hip, knee bent at a right angle, and outer edge of your foot on the floor. Bend your left knee 90 degrees, so your left thigh is parallel to your right shin and the inner edge of your left foot is on the floor. Your pelvis will be tilted so that you are sitting on your right sit bone with your left sit bone lifted. The intention is to focus the sensation in the outer right hip or buttock. If you feel any sensation in your right knee, prop it up on a yoga block, cushion, or folded blanket until it feels comfortable. If you feel compression at the front of your right hip, place a blanket on top of your thigh and wedge the folded edge into your hip crease to create more space.
PROM: If you already feel a gentle stretch in your right outer hip or buttock, stay as you are. If you don’t, hinge forward from your hips until you do, leaning onto your hands to find as much relaxation as possible. Stay comfortably for at least four or five slow, deep breaths.
RROM: Stay in the same position but draw in around your waist to help you feel lighter in your hands. Press down through your right knee and the outer edge of your right foot and feel the muscles deep in your right buttock engage. Use that strength to lift your hands to prayer position. Maintain that activation for a breath or two, up to 10 seconds, then relax back into the passive stretch for another four or five steady breaths. Your abdomen may come a little closer to your right thigh.
AROM: Notice the angle the passive stretch has created between your right hip and right thigh; you’ll try to maintain as much of that shape as you can, actively rotating your right thigh to float your foot and ankle off the floor. Press down through your right outer knee, trying to get light on the outer edge of your right foot and ankle bone. If you can lift your right foot and ankle, do so. If not, tilt your torso inch by inch toward the right, getting gradually lighter on your right outer foot until you can.
If you feel the left side of your waist working more strongly than your hip muscles, place your right fingertips on the floor on the right side of your mat to ease that effort, allowing you to focus your attention on your hip and thigh muscles instead.
Maintain that effort and awareness for three or four slow, steady breaths. When you are done, sweep your left leg forward and place both feet mat width apart on the floor with knees up toward the ceiling. Windshield-wiper your knees from side to side to refresh your hips before switching sides.
Mobility is an important aspect of physical health, and it’s part of what draws many of us to regular asana practice. Some of us build mobility by focusing on passive range of motion, others by highlighting active range of motion. The techniques outlined here support supple and adaptable soft tissues by employing a balance of both.
Start with your wrists, chest, shoulders, and hips, but don’t stop there! We all have “trouble spots,” the places we stretch again and again without seeming to make any progress there. Now that you are familiar with how to combine passive, resisted, and active stretches to improve range of motion, you can apply the same approach to any area you think would benefit from more variety.
1. The wrist extensors include: extensor carpi radialis longus, extensor carpi radialis brevis, extensor digitorum, extensor digiti minimi, extensor carpi ulnaris, abductor pollicis longus, extensor pollicis brevis, extensor pollicis longus, and extensor indicis.
2. The wrist flexors include: flexor digitorum superficialis, flexor digitorum profundus, flexor carpi radialis, flexor carpi ulnaris, palmaris longus, and flexor pollicis longus.
3. The hip external rotators include: gluteus maximus, piriformis, gemellus superior and inferior, obturator internus and externus, and quadratus femoris.