The simplest daily activities requires your muscles to move properly – to be supple at the right times. Moving your body in its full range of motion is deemed essential to live a full and active life. Regular stretching can maintain your normal function of both muscles and joints.
I see it often in the yoga classes that I teach. Men and women who have concentrated their physical activities in running or cycling are sitting very uncomfortably in a cross-legged position on the floor. Their hips are so tight that their knees are high up their chest instead of close to the floor. Even their walk is tight.
When I meet such people, they say “Yoga is not for me – I am not flexible.” On the contrary, your inflexibility is exactly why you need yoga. It is certain that it will take time to gain flexibility. It is a slow and careful process to elongate your muscles and joints when you have ignored them this long.
Flexibility, in my mind, is being able to move your big and small muscles effectively and to have your joints pivot freely. The goal is to have a full range of motion allowing you to participate in active daily living – like bending down to tie your shoes. It is not about becoming a contortionist and being able to join the Cirque du Soleil.
If you are stiff now – it will only get worse with aging. The American Academy of Orthopedic Surgeons says the following about aging muscles and joints:
- They begin to shrink and lose mass. This is a natural process, but a sedentary lifestyle can accelerate it.
- The number and size of muscle fibers also decrease. Thus, it takes muscles longer to respond in our 50s than they did in our 20s.
- The water content of tendons, the cord-like tissues that attach muscles to bones, decreases as we age. This makes the tissues stiffer and less able to tolerate stress.
- Joint motion becomes more restricted and flexibility decreases with age because of changes in tendons and ligaments.
- As the cushioning cartilage begins to break down from a lifetime of use, joints become inflamed and arthritic.
If you maintain regular physical activity, that includes stretching, you can maintain near normal function of both muscles and joints as you age.
New research into maintaining flexibility is ongoing. From what is now understood it is important to do two types of stretching that are typically part of a yoga practice:
- Slow, dynamic movements allow gradual muscle lengthening without triggering the muscles protective reflex. Doing Sun Salutations is a a good way to warm up for static pose stretches.
- With static, held stretches, entering into the stretch slowly lets your muscles lengthen more easily. Holding a pose for more than 20 seconds triggers a relaxation of the muscle.
You can increase and maintain your flexibility by stretching your muscles every other day on a regular basis. It doesn’t matter when you start a regular stretching routine. Doing it now is what counts.