6 Yoga Tips for the body that is tight
As a yoga teacher I often hear the comment: ‘I’m too inflexible to do yoga.’ One of the benefits of practising yoga is improved flexibility but you do not need to be flexible at the beginning! If you experience tightness, these 6 tips will help you get more from your yoga class.
Find a yoga practice that suits you
A good teacher will give instructions that suit not just the flexible students in the class, but also for the students that have tightness in their body. In your general yoga class you can expect to have practices tailored to you suit you, with specific instructions for how to practise in a way that helps you work with tightness in the body. If the practices are not being tailored to suit you, you could find another more suitable class.
The stiffer body needs more time to warm up. Choose a class that offers this or arrive at your class early so that you have 10 minutes to warm up. Warming up means doing a few simple movements or stretches that release muscles and soft tissues, focussing on the key joints of the body where you feel tight. This commonly includes warming up the shoulders, neck, hips, knees, ankles and the lower back. Sequences that focus on mindful rotations of the joints are excellent.
3. Release tightness before doing long held positions
The person with stiffness needs to be wary of holding active postures for long periods of time as this can increase tension in the stiffer body. For the tighter areas of the body, especially the upper body, it may be appropriate to hold a posture for only 1 breath, then progressively building up to 3 breaths, then 6 and so on. The aim is to hold for the length of time where there is no tension or pain in the body. Tension in a pose will only reinforce tension patterns in the body. If you are in a class where poses are being held for longer times, you can simply move out of the pose for a moment. For example you may lower the arms down for a moment in a standing pose, circle the shoulders for a bit, then come back into the posture.The legs can usually hold for longer as the big muscles of the legs are designed for strength, though be mindful of long holds with the legs if the knees are stiff.
It can be useful to practise simple vinyasa sequences, mindfully moving in and out of a yoga posture or sequence and doing several repetitions of this. So for example rather than holding one posture for 12 breaths, doing 6 rounds of moving slowly and mindfully in and out of the pose, holding for 2 breaths each time.
Restorative postures, where the body is fully supported with props, can also be useful for releasing tightness. These postures allow for meditation, which can be a wonderful way to also release mental and emotional holding patterns.
4. Bend the knees in forward bends
It is crucial to bend the knees in forward bends if the spine is rounding when bending forward. The spine will tend to round when there is tightness in the lower back, hamstrings or around the hips. When we bend forward we want to hinge or fold at the hips, not the lower back. Bending forward with a rounded spine can lead to injury, especially in a standing forward bend. Bending the legs means the legs will do the muscular work of the pose, not the lower back. So bend the legs, fold at the hips and keep the spine beautifully long and released. We may need props to help with this.
5. Breathe and let go
Practising relaxed abdominal breathing is useful for those with tightness. When we practise abdominal breathing, the abdomen expands as we inhale and relaxes towards the spine as we exhale. Abdominal breathing helps energy flow throughout the body. This helps bring energy and movement to stiffer parts of the body. Choose a class that helps you explore how to breathe effectively.
We can also use the exhalation phase of the breathe to consciously release any tightness. Bring your attention to sensation of tightness. Breathe as though you can inhale into those sensations - and then feel the sensations melting as you breathe out. Of course letting go can also mean letting go of emotional and mental holding patterns.
6. Practise patience and self-acceptance
There is not usually a ‘quick fix’ to stiffness. Releasing tightness takes patience, a practice modified for your needs and regular practice. Along the way we honour the tightness. It has been there to serve a purpose and it will shift when the time is right. It helps to not compare yourself to others in the class and to remember that all students have their own challenges in their practice.
Most of all, keep self-acceptance at the very heart of your practice. Ironically when we practice being with our felt experience just as it is in this moment, without any striving or urge to change anything, then the next step of transformation can happen more effectively. Self-acceptance can bring a natural and progressive evolution of ourselves, all in good time.
Anahata Giri 2017
Anahata Giri is the founder of One Heart at the Abbotsford Convent which offers yoga, meditation, yoga therapy and social change projects for a wise and compassionate world.