If you're someone who's curious about the best yoga poses for flexibility, know this: there are hundreds of different types of yoga, but they'll all improve how well you can bend. From vinyasa yoga to ashtanga yoga, all forms of the workout promise whole heap of mental and physical health benefits.
One of the biggest perks of yoga, without doubt, is the flexibility. In a 2021 study from Frontiers in Public Health, they found that just ten yoga sessions were enough to improve women's flexibility in two classic tests: the sit and reach test, where participants sit on the floor with their legs straight and reach as far towards their toes and possible, and the side bend test, reaching one arm overhead as you bend sideways. An added bonus: researchers suggested that just one yoga session weekly is enough for significant stretch gains.
While we'll all agree that a stereotypically "flexible" person can touch their toes or even do the splits, how exactly is "flexibility" defined? Good question. "It's how much your muscles can lengthen to allow your joints to get into their deepest range of motion," explains Shannon Nichols, yoga and Pilates teacher, sports therapist and former gymnast.
For your complete guide to the best yoga poses for flexibility, not to mention the many benefits of yoga, keep scrolling.
Yoga for flexibility: your guide
Why is flexibility important?
While we all love the idea of being more flexible, the question remains as to whether being able to stretch your muscles far is actually useful. "In general, having lower levels of flexibility is going to make you feel stiffer, but it also means your body has less function," explains Nichols. "When you reach for something outside of your body's natural range means you are at risk of injury, for example, if you swing to pick something up or bend down to the floor and overstretch."
A 2021 study even reported that when flexibility was reduced by one centimetre, it increased the risk of injury by 6%.
Long term, poor flexibility can also impact your joint health, Nichols explains. "If your muscles aren't flexible enough to allow you to use a joint within its full range of motion, you lose access to those end ranges. The joint then loses lubrication which reduces the health of the joint," she says.
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How does yoga improve flexibility?
"There are so many different types of stretch and flexibility training, but static stretches - where you move into a pose until you feel the stretch sensation and then hold it still - are the best at deeply improving flexibility," says Nichols. "These are the types of movements you will find in a traditional yoga class where you sit and breathe into postures."
That explains why yoga is so good at improving flexibility, but why do studies, like this paper from the International Journal of Physical Medicine & Rehabilitation, show that the practice of yoga has an even greater effect on range of motion than stretching alone?
Firstly, it's likely down to the combination of physical and mental work in yoga. According to a 2021 study, the addition of slow deep breathing to static stretching produced a greater increase in hip range compared to stretching alone - and we all know that breathwork training is a huge part of yoga.
Plus, yoga's holistic version of stretching improves flexibility, says Nichols. "Yoga tends to focus on the classic myo-fascial lines, which are the muscles and wrapping that connect through our body," she explains.
"We have twelve of these in our bodies and releasing the full line is important for flexibility. One of these lines runs from the base of our skull all the way down our spines, the back of our hamstrings and under our heels, which is why full-body stretches like those that are done in yoga can be more effective at tapping into that full tissue than just doing a hamstring stretch, for example."
If you're still on the fence, know this: Dua Lipa is a fan of yoga for flexibility. In her newsletter, Service 95, Dua wrote that yoga "helped keep me strong, grounded and focused" during lockdown. Restrictions might be over, but yoga has also been keeping her flexible by the looks of her Instagram.
Former MC UK cover star Miranda Kerr is also a fan - as it turns out, supermodels are no strangers to yoga.
Kerr herself regularly shares photos of her flexibility training on IG and even has some guided practices you can follow on YouTube. Most recently, she posted about the benefits of a flexible spine, saying it gives her a "flexible mind".
Not forgetting Lizzo, of course, who looks set to be the fastest person to ever improve their flexibility after just just one class. In 2021, she posted a video of her journey to doing the splits on Instagram. It might take the rest of us more than just one class, but let Lizzo be the inspo for your flexibility journey.
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5 best yoga poses for flexibility
So, you're keen to give poses that'll boost the old hip hinge a go? The below will help.
"There are a few main yoga poses I would suggest to target your myofascial lines and improve flexibility," recommends Nichols. "The research suggests holding them for a minimum of 30 seconds to have any real benefit, and I would also suggest pairing stretching with strength training, ensuring that you move through a complete range of motion with those exercises, for flexible muscles."
Below, she shares her favourites.
What? A pike is a type of inversion. "There are lots of different variations of this and all begin in standing. For beginners, it can include reaching down to touch the floor and for advanced yogis, it can be taken all the way up to a handstand," shares Nichols.
Why? It stretches out that long myofascial line at the back of the body, targeting muscles like the hamstrings and lower back which are typically tight.
How long for? At least 30 seconds.
2. Bridge pose
What? To do bridge pose, you begin lying on the floor with your feet plat and heels close towards your bum. It involves pressing your hips to the sky and clasping your hands under your back to open the upper and lower body, or placing your hands by your head and moving into a full wheel.
Why? "Bridge pose opens your anterior line which is at the front of the body, including your hip flexors and pecs. A lot of people lack flexibility in the front of their body and arms and bridge is a great way to train that," says Nichols.
How long for? At least 30 seconds.
3. Front split
What? Perfecting your front splits sounds scary, but it's the perfect way to stretch out your lower body. A modified front split is really just a lunge, so you'll be working into your hips, quads and hamstrings.
Why? "You don't have to have a gymnastics background to benefit from the front splits," says Nichols. Push your own range to challenge your flexibility.
How long for? Again, hold each side for 30 seconds.
4. Middle splits
What? Rather than splitting the legs forward and back, a middle split is done with your legs wide. While the goal may be to get all the way to the floor, you'll feel an improvement in flexibility with every stretch, regardless of how low you go.
Why? This variation stretches the internal muscles of the body, improving the flexibility of your inner thighs and hips.
How long for? At least 30 seconds, though you may want to keep holding and moving through new ranges as they open up.
5. Pancake stretch
What? "A pancake stretch is performed seated with your legs in a straddle position. The goal is to reach forward to get your stomach close to the ground, like a pancake," says Nichols.
Why? Working up to that point will improve the flexibility of your hamstrings, hips and shoulders.
How long for? This is another stretch you might want to hold for longer than 30 seconds so you can really test your range.
Does yoga really improve flexibility?
Short answer - yes, it definitely can, shares yoga expert Shannon Nichols.
Case in point: one paper from the International Journal of Physical Medicine & Rehabilitation found that yoga alone is more effective than stretching for improving your range of motion.
Another 2021 study found that this might be down to the breathwork element, which could increase your hip range.
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Chloe Gray is a freelance journalist who writes and talks about health, fitness, and wellbeing through a feminist lens. She was part of the launch team for Stylist magazine's fitness brand, Strong Women, and has written for i news, Women's Health, Red magazine, Good Housekeeping, Refinery29, and more. She's all about building mental and physical strength, eating delicious food that fuels you well, and making the fitness industry more accessible and enjoyable. She's also a qualified fitness trainer and research nerd, so you can be sure everything you read is backed by proper science.
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