What Is Balanced Flexibility?

The best answer I can give to this question, is to work on attaining a balanced body rather than a flexible body. As a yoga teacher, I have seen many students who can bend forward at the hips and place their nose between their shins with straight legs and a straight back and I can tell you that this is not necessarily healthy. Such flexibility is unnecessary and will lead to instability in the lower back and pelvic region and will also hinder your strength. I would much rather see you functionally stronger, with less flexibility because just trying to “go deeper” as many yoga practitioners do, will lead you down an unbalanced and injurious path and once you have an imbalance in your body, it is hard to undo. 

 What do I mean by having a balanced body? Have the same range of motion on left and right side and appropriate flexibility bending forwards and backwards. For example, if you sit cross legged and your left knee rests a few inches higher than your right knee, your left hip probably needs more range of motion (ROM) work than your right hip. The goal would be to work primarily on releasing the tightness in the left hip and leave the right side alone until your ROM is equal. There is no point in releasing the right hip even more since it fosters your imbalance. The tightness in your left hip could be due to an injury, a subconscious lifestyle choice, such as always crossing one leg over the other when sitting, which needs to be addressed.

Another example of imbalance could be that you have flexible hamstrings (rear muscles) from many forward folds in your yoga practice, but your quadriceps (front thigh muscles) and hip flexors are tight from cycling or running. It is common in athletes, as they rarely stretch their quadriceps. Loose hamstrings and tight quadriceps will start to pull your pelvis into a forward tilt and give you lower back issues, which will inevitably lead to upper back and neck issues as the entire body is connected. 

I have a saying I use when teaching yoga classes, “the more mobility, the less stability.” Mobility is good, and necessary, however too much mobility is not good. While it may be necessary for dancers or gymnasts to be extremely flexible for their arts, it is not healthy for the average individual. Studies show that longevity is assisted by strength far more than flexibility. In other words, I would rather you are strong than flexible. In the three main fitness components: strength, flexibility and cardiovascular endurance, in order of importance flexibility comes last. Please note that I am saying this as a yoga practitioner teacher of over 14 years. My concern is that most instructors of yoga in America, mainly lead classes towards extreme flexibility and seldom work on more strength and balance. 

 In my Stretch & Mobility class at R.I.B.S., we work on releasing the hips and shoulders. This class was originally designed for athletes to balance the ROM in their pelvic and shoulder regions. We do not work on strengthening in this class as it is specifically designed for people who have lower back issues, due to tight pelvic and thigh muscles. To strengthen, try picking up a set of weights and try resistance training with a professional trainer, as specific exercises will directly address the weaker areas of the body and be more functional. 

 I see many people who practice the yoga postures that they like, rather than the postures they need. This also leads to an imbalance in the body. For example, if you do not like to practice back bends, and really enjoy practicing forward folds, folding forward becomes easier and releasing the muscles in the front of your body becomes harder as you will do it less often. Practice what you need, not what you want, and always relax into the posture. Forcing a stretch will cause your muscles to tighten up in what is known as ‘the stretch reflex’.

Finally, I would like to encourage you to consult with a professional before joining any type of yoga class. By professional, I mean a chiropractor, sports medicine physician or physical therapist. In doing this, you will learn your physical strengths and weaknesses and be give the correct guidance to create a balanced and healthy body.

by Adam Sewell

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