I’ve taught yoga for over 10 years now and wanted to share with you what I have learnt about flexibility, I'm also a nutritionist so know about the nutrients we need for our muscles. I see many students trying so, so hard to reach their toes in a forward bend and want to give some information about the science, about nutrition and the yoga perspective on flexibility.
Social media and yoga magazine covers give the impression that doing yoga is about being able to bend backwards or twist one’s limbs into intricate positions. Of course this looks more interesting than someone just sitting or lying, which is as just as valid and a more typical yoga position seen in many classes.
How do we improve flexibility though and what is realistic?
Research highlights that regular yoga practice has been shown to improve flexibility in male college athletes (1) and to improve hamstring flexibility in male adults (2). While spinal flexibility and hamstring flexibility has also been seen in women (3). Anyone that attends a class regularly will notice improvements in their flexibility. If we can improve our flexibility, then our body is more adaptable and we’re less likely to get injured.
Stretching releases endorphins which mean you feel good. The blood to the muscles increases after a long stretch and a long stretch activates the parasympathetic nervous system ‘rest and digest’ to help us relax (4). With such an epidemic of stress anything simple that we can do to ‘rest and digest’ is critical.
When you’re in your yoga class, remember that the person next to you may naturally be very flexible, or even hypermobile which brings other challenges. They may touch their toes but that doesn’t mean they get any more from the asana than the person who only reaches 50% of the distance. The effect of stretching is the beneficial part.
Whether you touch your toes or not, is incidental!
If you attend a class once a week and that is the only time you stretch then you will see slower changes than someone who also spends 5 to 10 minutes a few days a week stretching. Rather than try and fit in a 90 minute yoga class each day I suggest that you choose one area to focus on each week. For example, hamstring flexibility, hip flexibility or shoulder/chest flexibility.
Try these three simple yoga moves.
** Consult with your yoga teacher to learn safe ways of practising yoga. These descriptions are for people already attending my class **
Hamstring Stretch (the muscles at the back of your thighs) Supta Padangusthasana
Lie on your back
Hold the belt in each hand and relax your shoulders.
Ease your back and backside into the floor, and keep them there.
Bend your left knee, foot on the floor.
Loop a yoga belt or a tie around the ball of your right foot.
Straighten your right leg and stretch into the air, observing the stretch in your hamstring muscle. The aim is to straighten your leg, it may not point up to the ceiling.
Hold for a minimum of 60 seconds on each leg and repeat 2 or 3 times.
Sit up on the floor with your legs out in front
Put a thin cushion or rolled up blanket under your backside and sit on the front edge which has the effect of improving your posture rather than your back and core sinking backwards.
Bend your right leg and put your foot on your left thigh, or left calf. Avoid the knee.
Place your right hand under your right thigh and ease your leg up and down 10 times.
Repeat on the other side
Shoulders and Chest: Dwikonasana
From standing take your arms behind you and interlace the fingers.
Squeeze the shoulder blades together.
Fold forwards from your hips, if your hamstrings are tight then you will benefit from bending your knees (bend them even more than you think you want to!).
Allow your arms and hands to reach up while your head relaxes down
Hold for 30 seconds to 1 minute.
Come up slowly, particularly if you have low blood pressure.
What About Food?
Our muscles, joints and tendons are made from the food that we eat.Does that mean that we can improve our flexibility with our food and supplement choices?
One critical nutrient is magnesium, it is involved in over 600 reactions in the body and needed for muscle and mind relaxation, as well as generating energy. People deficient in magnesium often report symptoms such as tight muscles or pain, poor sleep, poor blood sugar control, feeling wired and tired, low mood or anxiety.
The role magnesium plays with the muscles is that it helps to relax the cells; the magnesium works in unison with calcium and compete with it to get into the receptors (5), so if there isn’t enough magnesium you may feel less flexible.
With regards to health conditions magnesium may be useful for depression and has been shown to treat mild to moderate depression (6), heart health (remember that your heart is a muscle), constipation, hormone balancing, sleep, and for conditions associated with low energy such as fibromyalgia.
Reasons we may need more magnesium
Eating what we perceive as a healthy diet doesn’t necessarily provide the magnesium we need, one reason is that the soil we grow our food in is not rich in magnesium.
If we exercise we may need more magnesium (7).
Drinking alcohol can deplete magnesium (8).
Some of us may just benefit from more compared to our peers.
Scientific testing of magnesium levels in blood has its flaws and is under review (9).Foods that are good source of magnesium include pumpkin seeds, spinach, swiss chard and quinoa. Foods to focus on include green leafy vegetables, nuts and seeds.
Magnesium supplements are available, if you decide to go that route you need to check contraindications if you are on medication or have a health condition (a Nutritional Therapist can do this). From a supplemental point of view Epsom salts (magnesium sulphate) which you add to the bath, magnesium sprays and creams could be useful. Research and opinion differs on whether the body can take in the magnesium through the skin, however many people in the sports area and nutrition world are already benefiting.
Then the question is about what type of magnesium to use. Some products are more gentle on the digestive system and the sprays or creams may be useful for sensitive people. Magnesium citrate may be useful to improve bowel movements. Magnesium glycinate or magnesium bisglycinate is better tolerated by some people, it is used by athletes and also people with mood issues. It tends to be more expensive.
Another less known about nutrient is collagen. It is a protein that is a component of your muscles, tendons, ligaments and skin. It may be useful for skin health as well as reducing pain, and I would add that perhaps it might improve your flexibility or the perception of how it feels when you move your body! There are different types of collagen so if you buy a product specific for skin health then you will not get the benefits for other parts of your body, although the marketing may say you will have beautiful skin!
The collagen applicable to this article comes from beef and chicken, some people like to make their own bone broth by making a stock from chicken or beef bones, or they buy ready made collagen which comes as a drink or a stock cube you dissolve in water. Research tends to be on bovine (beef) collagen so nutritionists are more likely to recommend this. Chicken bone broth can be more palatable and you could try half chicken, half beef. If you are buying this product then look for organic or animals not fed antibiotics, the collagen comes from the bones. Pescaterians can buy marine sources of collagen but this will contain another type of collagen, the type focused on skin. Some websites though suggest that fish collagen may support the whole body but research seems to be more focused on skin and biomedical use.
There are many approaches to take to improve your flexibility. Practice yoga or other similar stretching activities, nourish yourself and most importantly be kind on yourself. I haven't even mentioned genetic predisposition to injury which will be another article!
About Joanne Hart
Joanne Hart is a BWY Yoga Teacher and a Registered Nutritionist mBANT, Registered Nutritional Therapist CNHC (BSc (Hons)). She teaches a weekly yoga class, and sees nutrition clients for 1-1 consultations, as well as supporting sportsmen and women, and delivering corporate wellbeing.