It’s a common belief that you have to be flexible to practice yoga. Unfortunately, there’s some validity to this, because a number of classical yoga postures do require greater-than-average range of motion. However, you certainly don’t need to practice any pose in its “traditional” form in order to practice yoga!
Still, many different elements come together to create range of motion within a particular joint. Bone structure can affect inherent mobility. Your nervous system can affect range of motion. More commonly referenced, the elasticity of soft tissues (like muscles, fascia, ligaments, tendons, and more) can also affect mobility. And so can the strength of soft tissues.
Joints love balance. To maintain optimal health, most joints crave harmony between mobility and strength. Too much mobility without the strength to support it could potentially yield injured tissues. Too much strength and not enough mobility decreases range of motion. Asana can help to develop not only flexibility, but also a balance of flexibility and strength.
However, there are plenty of yoga postures that ask us to push our joints to their end range of motion. So, if we choose to practice these postures, it is important to have adequate muscular engagement and strength to support the joints. This is especially true when working toward maximum range.
The following are four such postures. Instead of always practicing them in their “traditional” alignment, it’s wise to also incorporate strength challenges within shapes such as these.
Standing forward fold (uttanasana ) is an oft-visited posture that requires extreme hip flexion, and is traditionally practiced by using arm strength to draw you deeper into that hip flexion. This variation requires a bit more active hip flexion instead. Although gravity is still working in your favor, this version may stimulate the musculature surrounding your hips more than a traditional uttanasana does.
• Begin by standing in mountain pose (tadasana) at the top of your mat.
• Activate your core. Imagine tightening a belt or drawstring around your waistline as you three-dimensionally cinch in and lift your low belly up.
• Inhale and reach your arms overhead.
• Exhale and hinge from your hips, opening your arms out into a wide T-shape as you swan dive over your legs, leading with your chest. Keep your weight equally distributed from front to back over your feet as you fold.
• Once you’ve reached your maximum depth in hip flexion, reach your hands around the outside of your legs toward your mat behind you. Spread your fingers evenly and energetically reach your fingertips back.
• Use the strength of your hip flexors (rather than your arms) to actively draw your torso closer toward your thighs.
• Hold for a few breaths and then soften the weight of your torso and arms down with the pull of gravity.
Dhanurasana (bow pose) is a full-body backbend that, for many people, maximizes range of motion in the facet joints of the spine and extension of the hips. Traditionally, the hands hold the feet, ankles, or a prop to provide resistance and leverage in order to deepen the bend. This variation engages the muscles of the entire backline of the body to more actively work your range of motion.
• Start by lying prone with your feet roughly hip-distance apart and your arms relaxed down by your sides. Lengthen your thigh bones away from your pelvis, slightly spiral your inner thighs toward the ceiling, and roll your pinky toes down toward the mat.
• Activate your core by cinching in around your waistline. Lift your head, chest, arms, and legs off the floor.
• Bend your knees and draw your heels toward your seat as you continue to lift your thighs away from the mat.
• Stretch your arms back toward your heels as if to grasp them, but don’t catch hold—just actively reach them behind you. Turn your palms to face away from your body with your thumbs facing up to externally rotate your shoulders and broaden your chest.
• Hug the tips of your shoulder blades toward each other and expand your chest toward the top of your mat.
• Root down into your pubic bone to lift your chest and legs slightly farther away from the floor.
• Hold for a few breaths and then lower your body back down to the floor.
In its classic form, vasisthasana (side plank) requires incredible strength in the upper body and core and extreme range of motion within the hip to move into external rotation and abduction. Traditionally, the big toe or a strap around the foot is held with the hand, easing the weight of the extended leg. This variation, instead, requires the muscles surrounding the hip to support the weight of the leg in the air.
• Start in plank pose.
• Pour your weight into your right hand and roll to the outside of your right foot. Either stagger your legs, with your left foot in front of your right, or stack your left foot over your right as you turn your torso to face the long edge of your mat.
• Plug your right upper arm bone into its shoulder socket and root down with that hand as you lift your hips away from the floor.
• Stretch your left arm up toward the sky.
• Stabilize your core and draw your left knee toward your chest.
• Externally rotate your left thigh to point your knee toward the ceiling—almost creating a tree pose shape but without letting your left foot rest on your right thigh.
• Either stay here or stretch your left leg toward the sky. Activate your leg strongly by reaching your heel upward.
• Hold for a few breaths and then release and switch sides.
One-legged king pigeon (eka pada rajakapotasana) is both a deep backbend and a deep hip opener—it requires an extreme range of motion in many different joints within the body. To fully support the posture, this variation recruits many of the muscles around the hips, spine, and shoulders to build strength within this range of motion.
• Start in downward facing dog (adho mukha svanasana). Lift your left leg to the sky and sweep your left knee forward to the outside of your left wrist. Wiggle your ankle slightly forward toward your right wrist and lower your left shin to the floor.
• Walk your right leg back until you can release your hips onto the floor or a prop.
• Lift your pelvic floor and activate your legs strongly by isometrically scissoring your knees toward each other until your hips lift away from the floor or prop. Stay in this elevated position, maintaining the engagement in your legs and around your hips.
• Stabilize your core and lift your arms up toward the sky.
• Bend your back knee and draw your right heel toward your seat.
• Bend your elbows and reach your hands behind your head as if reaching for your back foot—but don’t catch it.
• Keep your hips relatively squared to the front of your mat and expand your chest forward. Lengthen your whole spine. Visualize lifting your rib cage away from your pelvis. Hug your shoulder blades toward each other as you work to create an even arch throughout your spine. Cinch your waistline, continue to expand your chest toward the top of your mat, and lift your chest slightly up toward the sky.
• Maintain this strong, active shape for a few breaths and then switch sides.
Find Your Active Range of Motion
Try these variations on familiar postures to see if you have sufficient strength to support your range of motion. (You might be surprised!)
And remember, most joints like a balance of strength and flexibility. So it may be wise to work on strength in postures such as these that max out your range of motion.