I’m so tempted to start this post like an infomercial or prescription drug advertisement: Do you suffer from aches and pains? Do you find that you don’t bend like you used to? Are you suddenly grunting and groaning when you stand up or sit down? If so, ask your doctor about… stretching.
That’s right people, stretching: the solution for so many of our muscular and joint issues that’s incredibly obvious, yet so many of us don’t do it nearly enough.
As a child I took my flexibility for granted. Immersed in gymnastics and cheerleading, I could bend and split and fold in just about any direction until the age of 18. But now? Things just don’t work the way they used to. And while I could make excuses and complain that I do yoga and barre regularly, the truth is that I need to be stretching at home every. single. day. I’ve made it a personal goal of mine to return to being that limber, agile girl I used to be, and I knew that a consultation with Kate Waitzkin was the place to start. Click through as she shares and demonstrates the 6 stretches you should be doing regularly to improve your flexibility.
Reclining Hand-to-Big-Toe Pose
*props: strap or long towel
1. Lay flat on your back. Close your eyes and take a few slow, deep breaths. On an exhale, bend your right knee in towards your chest and place the strap around the arch of your foot. Hold one side of the strap in each hand with a soft grip, straighten your right leg towards the ceiling at 90 degrees. If you are not able to fully straighten the leg in this position, lower the leg until you find a place that allows you to maintain a straight position. Roll your inner left thigh towards the floor as you press the top of the left thigh down and forward through the left heel. Soften the sides of your neck and your shoulders down towards the floor. Stay for 5 – 10 breaths.
2. Stretch your left arm out to the side, palm up. Press your left thigh into the floor and slowly open the right leg out to the right. Do your best to keep your left thigh and hip rooting down towards the floor (if you feel your left hip lift away from the floor, you can place a block or stack of books under your right foot.) Again, relax your face and throat, stay for 5 – 10 breaths. Exhale and slowly bring the leg back to center. Bend your knee to remove the strap. Come back to your starting place, take a few breaths, then repeat this series with your left leg.
Seated Ankle-to-Knee with Shoulder Opener
Sit on your mat with your knees bent, feet flat and hip distance apart. Place your hands behind you lining up your wrists under your shoulders and your fingertips facing forward. Press your hands into the mat as you move your lower back in towards your spine and lift your chest. Roll your shoulders open and broaden across your collar bones. Close your eyes and take 5 breaths, making sure your lower back is not rounding towards the floor behind you.
Now open your eyes, while keeping your chest lifted, gently bend your elbows in a straight line behind you and cross your right ankle over the top of the left thigh. Flex your right foot. Maintaining the gentle bend in your elbows, press your hands down to, once again, lift your chest and your lower back away from the floor. Keep your inner elbows drawing in towards your midline and encourage your right knee to move away from your chest. Stay for 5 – 10 breaths. Slowly release, sit cross-legged for a few breaths with your eyes closed, then repeat on the second side.
Low Crescent Lunge with a Twist
*optional prop: blanket
1. Start in Downward Facing Dog, then step your right foot forward between your hands and place your back knee down. Untuck the toes of your left foot so the top of the foot is in contact with the mat. If you have any sensitivity in your back knee, place a blanket underneath it for support. Make sure your right knee is tracking over the center of your right foot. Inhale the arms overhead, shoulder distance apart. If you feel tension in the neck as the arms come up, separate your arms/hands wider.
Allow the hips to come slightly forward in space. Press your right heel into the mat and gently lift your lower belly in and up as you lengthen your tailbone down away from your lower back. Keep awareness in your back leg and extend from your inner left thigh out through your left big toe. Relax your jaw and the sides of your neck. Stay here for 5 – 10 breaths.
2. Bring your palms together in prayer at the center of the chest. Again, press your right heel down as you lift your lower belly in and up. Inhale and lift up through the crown of your head to create length in your spine. On an exhale, turn your belly, ribs and chest to the right and hook your left elbow outside your right thigh. Press your palms together to help rotate your torso bringing your thumbs in line with the center of your chest. Look straight ahead or, if you can maintain softness in the neck and tops of the shoulders, toward the ceiling. Hold for 5 breaths and release into Downward Facing Dog or Child’s Pose. Repeat on the left side.
Triangle Pose with Arm Variation
*props: one block or stack of books
Turn to face the long side of your mat and step your feet 3 – 4 feet apart. From the top of your right leg, turn your leg and foot to the right. Turn your left toes in slightly allowing your left hip to follow as you do this (do not try to square your hips). Inhale the arms up to shoulder height. Shift your hips to the left as you reach forward through your right arm, working to lengthen from your right hip crease to your right finger tips. Place your right hand onto a block directly under your shoulder and take your left arm toward to the sky. Look straight ahead or turn your gaze toward your top hand. Press down through the base of your right big toe and wrap your right hip under your body. Maintain this as you extend the crown of your head forward and lengthen your tailbone towards your left heel. Stay here for 5 breaths.
2. Rotate your left arm from deep in the shoulder socket so the palm faces toward your head. Stretch the left arm up alongside your ear. Bring awareness to your left leg and press down through the outer edge of your left foot as you stretch long through your left arm. Gently rotate your torso open towards the ceiling. Stay here for 5 breaths.
Wide-Legged Forward Fold with Variations
*optional props: 1 – 2 blocks
1. Turn to face the long side of your mat and step your feet 3 – 4 feet apart. Make sure the outer edges of your feet are parallel with the short edges of your mat. Place your hands on your hips and micro-bend the knees. Roll your shoulders open while drawing your elbows towards one another. As you inhale lift through the crown of the head, lengthening the spine, specifically the front of your torso. Keep this length as you exhale and fold forward from the hips placing your hands on the floor (or blocks) directly under your shoulders. Keep the back of the neck long. Stay here for 5 breaths lengthening all four sides of your torso with each inhale and hinging deeper at the hips with each exhale.
2. Place your left hand on the floor (or block) directly under your nose. Bring your right hand to your lower back, palm down. Inhale to lengthen the spine, then exhale and turn your torso to the right beginning the twist from your navel, then the rib cage, then the chest. Leave your hand on your lower back or consider raising your right hand toward the ceiling. Look straight ahead or turn your gaze toward the top hand. Stay here for 5 breaths, lengthening through the crown of your head on inhales, rotating deeper on exhales. Unwind, pause in center and repeat on the second side.
3. Repeat the setup from step 1, but this time, interlace your hands behind your back. If your hands don’t easily clasp, hold a strap between your hands. Widen across your collar bones as you roll your shoulders open. Keep a gentle lift in your lower belly as you hinge at your hips and fold forward. Pause once your torso is parallel to the floor. Press the top of your thighs back as you lengthen through the crown of the head, making more space between your pubic bone and sternum/chest. Stay here for 5 breaths. Consider folding in deeper from the hip crease, but only if you are able to keep the collar bones wide and torso long.
Bound Angle Pose
*optional prop: blanket
Come to sit on a folded blanket or the floor with your legs straight out in front of you. Exhale, and bring the soles of your feet together with your knees opening out to the sides. Bring your heels as close to your pelvis as you comfortably can. Place your hands behind you to begin and adjust your pelvis so you are sitting on the very top of your sit bones (not rolling backward, which will put pressure on the lower back). Press your hands down, widen your collar bones and lift your chest. If you feel a generous and sustainable stretch, stay here for 1 – 2 minutes. Otherwise, experiment with bringing your hands to hold your ankles or clasp your pointers, middle fingers and thumbs around your big toes. Inhale to lift and lengthen the spine, especially the front of your torso. Maintain length in the spine and exhale as you fold forward any amount. Keep the back of the neck long and stay for 1 – 2 minutes.