Melt Into These 16 Flexibility-Boosting Yoga Poses and Unknot Muscles You Forgot You Had
As I (vividly) recall, my one and only failure in the elementary school Presidential Fitness Test was the sit-and-reach. You sit. You stretch your legs out. You reach your toes. And man, I could not do it. To this day, I can run, I can lift weights, I can swim, I can push my way through a HIIT workout until I physically collapse, but if you ask me to touch my toes? Ha.
Flexible muscles can help prevent everything from exercise-related injuries to daily aches and pains, while improving your posture and balance. Thanks to some very inconsistent yoga practice over the past few years, I have gotten somewhat more limber, but it's something I still need to work at constantly. Luckily, flexibility is something you can really improve with time and consistent practice, which is why we asked these nine yoga instructors to spell out their favorite flexibility-enhancing moves for beginners like myself, who need to take things slow and steady. You can do these stretches one by one or in a sequence, moving slowly and mindfully from pose to pose. Grab a mat or find a comfy floor, and get ready to stretch things out.
Standing Forward Fold
Standing Forward Fold is "the easiest yoga pose that's accessible to anyone," said Liza Janda, a certified yoga instructor at Yoga Janda. It lengthens your hamstrings, stretches your lower back, and relieves lower back pain.
- Begin at the front of your mat, feet hips-width apart and hands on your hips. Inhale and reach your arms straight above you.
- As you exhale, engage your abs, and fold forward with a straight back. Tuck your chin in toward your chest, relax your shoulders, and extend the crown of the head toward the floor to create a long spine. Shift weight forward into your toes, straightening the legs as much as possible.
- Let your hands hang toward the floor or use them to cup your opposite elbows.
- Hold here for 30 seconds.
Downward-Facing Dog Pose
"Downward-Facing Dog strengthens the hands, arms, and legs while stretching the shoulders, the hamstrings, and calves," Liza told POPSUGAR. If you're not as flexible through your hamstrings, feel free to bend your knees while tilting your tailbone as high as possible to keep your spine straight.
- Come onto the hands and knees with your wrists underneath your shoulders and your knees underneath your hips.
- Inhale as you tuck your toes under your heels. Then exhale to lift your hips, coming into the classic upside-down "V" shape called Downward-Facing Dog.
- Spread your fingers wide, and create a straight line between your middle fingers and elbows. Work on straightening your legs and lowering your heels toward the ground. Relax your head between your arms, and direct your gaze through your legs or up toward your belly button.
- Breathe deeply for five breaths.
"Child's Pose is calming and gives a great stretch to the shoulders and the muscles down both sides of the spine and the quadriceps," Liza said. "This is a go-to pose any time in yoga that you feel you need a break or a rest." You can come into this pose directly from Downward-Facing Dog by lowering into a plank, then onto your hands and knees.
- Kneel on your mat with your knees slightly wider that hip-width apart with your big toes touching behind you. Take a deep breath in, and as you exhale, fold forward. Lengthen your neck and spine by drawing your ribs away from your tailbone and the crown of your head away from your shoulders.
- Rest your arms beside your legs, with palms facing up, or extend the arms out in front of you.
- Stay here for five to 10 breaths.
Cat-Cow is a simple pose that opens your chest and loosens your lower back, said Lara Heimann, physical therapist, yoga instructor, and founder of the LYT Method yoga certification program. "Move fluidly between these two poses," she told POPSUGAR. "Add a circle of torso, and feel the long muscles of the back give way!"
- Begin with your hands and knees on the floor and your spine in a flat, neutral position. Make sure your knees are under your hips and your wrists are under your shoulders.
- Exhale, round your spine up toward the ceiling, and imagine you're pulling your belly button up toward your spine. Tuck your chin toward your chest, and let your neck release. This is your catlike shape.
- On your inhale, arch your back and let your belly relax. Lift your head and tailbone up toward the sky without putting any unnecessary pressure on your neck. This is the Cow portion of the pose.
- Continue flowing back and forth from Cat Pose to Cow Pose, and connect your breath to each movement — inhale for Cow Pose, and exhale on Cat Pose.
- Repeat for 10 rounds.
Low Crescent Lunge
Low Crescent Lunge gives you an amazing stretch through your quads, groin, and the front of your hips, Liza said, while strengthening and increasing mobility in your lower back.
- From Forward Fold, step your right foot back, and lower your right knee to the floor. Keep your left knee directly over your ankle.
- Inhale to raise the arms up, sinking the pelvis toward the floor to intensify the stretch in the hips. Look up to intensify the stretch, and open your chest. You can also hold the pose with your hands on your knees.
- Hold for 30 seconds.
- Come out of the pose by curling your right toes under, placing your hands on the ground.
- Come into a plank position, then walk back into Standing Forward Fold.
- Repeat with your left leg.
Kneeling Quad Stretch
You can add in a little extra quad flexibility to your Low Crescent Lunge by incorporating an extra quad stretch, said Kelly Clifton Turner, yoga teacher and director of education for YogaSix.
- Start in a Low Crescent Lunge with your back knee on the ground.
- Pull your back foot in toward your hip, holding the top of the foot with your hand.
- Rest your opposite forearm on your thigh, staying here for at least five breaths.
- Release the back leg, plant your hands on the ground, and step your front foot back.
- Go into Downward-Facing Dog, then step the opposite foot forward and repeat.
"Triangle Pose is both a twist for the torso and a great stretch for the legs, inner thighs, hamstrings, calves, and Achilles tendon," Liza said. If you're flexible enough, you can lower your hand all the way to your ankle or the ground; otherwise, rest it on your shin, a block, or a chair by your front foot.
- Stand with your feet parallel, about four feet apart, and arms extended to the sides.
- Pivot your right foot 90 degrees, and turn your left foot just slightly to point toward your right foot.
- Exhale and shift your torso and right arm over your right leg while keeping your lower body still.
- Place your right hand just below your right kneecap (or on a prop), and extend your left arm toward the ceiling.
- Rotate your ribcage, and turn your head to face your left arm, if it's comfortable.
- Hold for 30 seconds, then repeat on your left side.
Movements in the Warrior II pose work to loosen the lower back muscles that tighten up from prolonged sitting. Lara recommended moving back and forth between Warrior II and Reverse Warrior to open up your lower back and the front of your ribs.
- Begin in Downward-Facing Dog. Step your right foot forward between your hands, and stretch your hands up to the ceiling. Rotate your left foot so your toes are pointing away from you. (This is called Warrior I.)
- Rotate your arms, hips, and chest into Warrior II. Your arms should be extended straight out to the sides and your chest facing forward. Take a deep inhale.
- On your exhale, gently arch back, and rest your left hand on the back of your left leg. Raise your right arm overhead, feeling the stretch through the right side of the body. Make sure you continue to lower your hips and press your front knee forward so it's directly over your right ankle.
- Remain here for five breaths. Lift your torso up, place your hands on the floor, and move back into Down Dog. Step your left foot forward, and do this pose on the left side.
"Pyramid Pose adds a little more oomph for the back of the legs or hamstrings," Lara told POPSUGAR. "Put more weight in the hands for even more stretch."
- Stand with both feet together at the front of your mat. Step one foot directly behind you, about two feet.
- Bend from the hips to place your hands on either side of your front foot, keeping your front leg slightly bent. Keep your back as long and straight as possible to increase the stretch in your hamstrings.
- Hold for five deep breaths, then lift your torso up. Repeat this pose with your other leg forward.
Lifted Head to Knee
Also known as Half-Splits, this pose opens up your hamstrings and calves, said Ava Johanna, a Los Angeles-based yoga and meditation instructor and host of The Alchemized Life podcast. It's a great way to work you way up to the ultimate test of flexibility: a full split.
- From Downward-Facing Dog, step your right foot between your palms, and lower down onto your left knee.
- Straighten and extend your right leg, flexing the toes back toward your face.
- Pull your right hip back in line with the left, and fold over your right leg.
- Hold for a five breaths, then bend back into the right knee and switch legs.
Overhead Side Bend
The Overhead Side Bend not only increases flexibility in your back and shoulders but also strengthens your oblique muscles, said yoga instructor Sienna Creasy, founder of Reggaelates and spa director at Hilton Rose Hall Resort & Spa.
- Stand with your feet a little wider than hip-distance apart, holding your pressed palms overhead. Squeeze your head with your upper arms to fire up your core and protect your neck.
- Bend sideways to the right, squeezing your waist on the right side. Relax your shoulder blades down your back, and keep your collarbones wide and open.
- Hold for five breaths, then pull the left ribs down to return to standing upright. Repeat on the other side.
"This pose hurts so good for most people," said Gwen Lawrence, yoga therapist and founder of Power Yoga For Sports. Your hips hold a ton of tightness and stress, and this gentle release can help them loosen up and regain flexibility. For the best results, Gwen recommended holding the stretch for three to five minutes on each side.
- Sit with your right knee bent and your left leg extended behind you. Pull the right heel in toward your left hip, or if your hips are more open, inch your right foot away from you. Make sure your left hip is always pointing down toward the mat. If it begins to open up toward the ceiling, draw your right foot back in toward your body.
- Stay here with your hands resting on your right thigh or your hips, or walk your hands out in front of you, allowing your torso to rest over your right knee.
- Hold here, breathing into any areas of tightness and tension for at least one minute and as long as five minutes.
- Repeat this pose with the left knee bent.
Legs Up the Wall
"Legs Up The Wall is an excellent pose to relax tight low backs and hamstrings, as well as to 'wind down' with at the end of a busy day," said Heather Larivee, a Kripalu-certified yoga teacher and CEO of wellness and management consulting company Sparkflo. "It's considered a restorative pose because your body receives the benefits of the pose without having to work for them."
- Place a folded bolster, blanket, or pillow against a wall.
- Sit down as close as you can to the wall next to the blanket. Lie down on your back, place your feet on the wall with your knees bent, and scoot your body over so that your bottom and lower back are on the blanket.
- Adjust your body so that your butt is touching the wall, then place your feet straight up, resting your heels on the wall. You can keep your arms by your sides, or rest your palms underneath your head.
- Close your eyes, and allow your entire body to relax, feeling gravity pulling you down as the wall and blanket support you.
- Hold like this for several minutes or longer.
"This is the perfect pose for stretching the spine, hips, and backs of the legs," Aaptiv yoga instructor Jade Alexis told POPSUGAR. It's also a relaxing release for your lower back and groin muscles.
- Begin lying flat on your back. Bend both knees, and hold the outside edges of your flexed feet with your hands. Keep your arms on the outsides of your legs.
- Gently use your upper-body strength to equally press both knees to the floor below your armpits. Keep the back of your head flat against the ground, tucking in your chin and pressing down your lower back.
- Stay here for five deep breaths.
Supported Fish Pose
Gwen recommended a modified Fish Pose for beginners looking to increase flexibility and extension through the spine. "This pose not only opens the back in two directions," she said. "It also reverses poor posture habits and undoes tech neck issues!"
- Lie on your mat with your back flat on the floor. Place a block beneath your midback and another beneath your head.
- Bring your arms close to your sides, palms facing down. Keeping your butt on the floor, inhale as you arch your back, pressing your hands and forearms into the ground.
- Keeping your legs strong, hold for five breaths, then relax your back.
Lying Spinal Twist
The Lying or Supine Spinal Twist stretches all through your back for an amazing release and flexibility booster. "It also allows gravity to do most of the work for you, so you can't really mess it up!" said Cat Aldana, founder of Eat Stretch Nap and yoga instructor at JW Marriott Chicago. For an extra hamstring stretch, she recommended straightening your crossed leg and reaching for your toes with your outstretched arm.
- Lie on your back, bending your knees into your chest.
- Extend your arms out in T-position.
- Slowly lower both knees to the right. Rest them on the ground, and turn your head to the left. You can increase the stretch by crossing the left knee over the right thigh.
- Hold here for at least five breaths, feeling your spine lengthen and twist. You may even hear some "cracks."
- Use your abs to lift your knees back to center, then repeat on the other side.