Improve Your Flexibility With These Yoga Poses

If you ask people why they exercise, most will stay to stay healthy, keep fit, or because it makes them feel good. Not a lot will mention flexibility as a goal, but it's a key part of maintaining your health and avoiding injury, especially as you age. The stretching you do in yoga is a great way to improve your flexibility. It's a commonly held misconception that you have to already be flexible to do yoga. In fact, the opposite is true: doing yoga regularly is a sure way to become more flexible.

The ten poses below target the three major muscles groups where most people are lacking flexibility: hamstrings, hips, and shoulders. These three areas tend to get even more tight from sitting for long periods or even from other types of exercise, like running.

Don't be in a rush to get through these poses. Many times you can feel several different phases of opening as you stay in a pose for longer. Don't expect overnight changes, however. For best results, do your stretches daily. The following poses are intended to give you some options to fit your current level of flexibility.

Hamstrings

Stretch Your Hamstrings to Improve Flexibility
RyanJLane/E+/Getty Images

The muscles running along the backs of your thighs are the hamstrings. Most people are pretty tight in this area, but it's an important place to stretch because tight hamstrings can cause back pain among other types of discomfort. Forward bends are a great way to loosen this area.

Reclined Big Toe Pose - Supta Padangustasana

Improve Your Flexibility With Yoga: Reclined Big Toe Pose
Reclined Big Toe Pose With a Strap. Visual Ideas/Camillo Morales/Blend Images/Getty Images

Using a yoga strap around your raised foot makes this pose accessible to even those with the tightest hamstrings (you can also use a regular old belt is you don't have a strap handy). Let the head of your femur settle into the hip socket as you stretch the leg so that both hips stay grounded on the floor.

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Standing Forward Bend - Uttanasana

Standing Forward Bend - Uttanasana. © Barry Stone

A standing forward bend is a simple way to stretch your hamstrings. Try to keep your hips over your ankles; most people have a tendency to let their hips creep too far back. Microbend your knees to avoid hyperextension. A nice variation is to take hold of opposite elbows and let your torso hang.

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Triangle Pose - Utthita Trikonasana

Improve Your Flexibility With Yoga: Triangle Pose - Trikonasana
Triangle Pose - Trikonasana. Ann Pizer

Straighten your front leg as much as possible, even if it means your hand can't reach the floor. Use a yoga block under your bottom hand if you have one. It's better to put pressure into the block than into your leg by leaning on it. Over time, use your developing core strength to take some of the weight out of your hand.

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Seated Wide-Legged Straddle - Upavistha Konasana

Improve Your Flexibility With Yoga: Seated Wide Legged Straddle - Upavistha Konasana
Seated Wide Legged Straddle - Upavistha Konasana. Ann Pizer

A wide-legged position is a good way to stretch the insides of the thighs. If you are more open, you can take a forward bend here, but try to do it with a long spine instead of rounding your back. It's also just fine to stay sitting up if that's a better fit for you.

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Hips

Hip flexibility is complicated because there are so many muscles packed into this small area. Poses that stretch the hip flexors, including the psoas, iliacus, and parts of the quadriceps and glutes, are a good way to accomplish greater freedom of movement in the hips.

Eye of the Needle - Sucirandhrasana

Improve Your Flexibility With Yoga: Eye of the Needle Pose - Sucirandhrasana
Eye of the Needle Pose - Sucirandhrasana. Ann Pizer

This is a great pose for people with tight hips because it's very customizable. Start just by crossing one ankle onto the opposite thigh. This might be enough for some people. If you want to go further, lift the bottom leg off the ground incrementally. Stop when you find the place where you feel a good stretch but you're not in pain.

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Cobbler's Pose - Baddha Konasana

Cobbler's Pose - Baddha Konasana
Cobbler's Pose - Baddha Konasana. © Ann Pizer

In cobbler's pose, gravity does the hip opening work for you. This is a particularly good pose to stay in for a few minutes at a time. If you find this position extremely uncomfortable, there are a few things your can try. Sitting up on a folded blanket can help because it raises the hips above the knees. Placing a block under each knee for support is also an option, but make sure you lower the blocks incrementally over time so that you see your progress.

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Pigeon - Eka Pada Rajakapotasana

Improve Your Flexibility With Yoga: Pigeon
Pigeon. Ian Hootan/Science Photo Library/Getty Images

Pigeon is an amazing hip opener, but it can be a tough one for people with very tight hips. The best thing to do in this case is to use plenty of props. Eventually, your butt comes to the ground on the forward leg side. If that's not happening, use as much padding as is necessary to bring the floor up to meet your behind. Once you feel supported, see if you can begin to forward bend. That added pressure on the front leg can open you up even more. But take it gradually if you are very tight to avoid injury.

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Shoulders

Like the hamstrings and hips, shoulders are another area that gets tight from too much riding in cars and sitting at desks. If possible, take stretch breaks at work to avoid serious repetitive stress injuries like carpal tunnel syndrome.

Eagle Pose - Garudasana

Improve Your Flexibility With Yoga: Eagle Pose
Eagle Pose - Garudasana. Ben Goldstein

Eagle works on both shoulder and hip flexibility, with the legs targeting the hard-to-get-to outer hips and the arms giving you a great stretch across the upper back.

If the twisted up legs are throwing you for a loop, just do the arm position while seated in any way that's comfortable (see here for eagle in a chair). Be sure to do the pose with each arm on top in turn.

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Bridge Pose - Setu Bandha Sarvangasana

Improve Your Flexibility With Yoga: Bridge Pose
Bridge Pose - Setu Bandha Sarvangasana. Ann Pizer

The way to get a good shoulder stretch in bridge pose is to make sure to tuck each shoulder under after you have lifted your hips up. If the back-bending aspect of the pose seems too intense, you can get a similar stretch in a supported bridge by doing the same shoulder-tucking action and interlacing your fingers around the block.

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Cow Face Pose - Gomukhasana

Improve Your Flexibility With Yoga: Cow Face Pose Arms
Cow Face Pose Arms. ZenShui/Frederic Cirou/PhotoAlto Agency RF Collections/Getty Images

Don't worry if you can't clasp your hands behind your back here. It's really not about that, so use anything handy (belt, strap, towel, t-shirt) to make up the distance between the hands. Try to send your breath into any areas of tightness you feel.

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