One of the first things that may come to your mind when you think of yoga is flexibility. While some people claim that they’re not flexible enough to do yoga, others are profoundly convinced that yoga improves flexibility. But which of these allegations is true? And what about mobility? While this word is often used interchangeably with the term ‘flexibility’, it is not the same.
In this short tutorial we will take a look at shoulder, spine and hip alignment to demonstrate these differences.
This article is intended to shed some light on the follwing questions:
“Mobility is not flexibility. Mobility is not strength. It rather encapsulates all of the above. “
1. What Is Mobility?
Mobility is, in general terms, how the joint moves. It’s the ability of a joint to move without interference from the surrounding soft tissue. There are numerous factors that affect how the joint moves.
The first factor is the strength of the surrounding tissue. If the surrounding tissue of a joint is not strong enough to support the joint as it’s moving, there’s a high risk of injury. This is why you want to make sure that you’re strong enough in the soft tissue, i.e. the tendons, ligaments, and muscles, to support your mobility. Lack of strength in the soft tissue increases the risk of injuring the joints at any moment you’re moving through a deep range – or sometimes even a shallow range – of motion.
The second factor that affects joint mobility is injury: If the soft tissue around the joint has been injured in some way, or if there’s inflammation or tear, this is going to limit the range of motion and mobility of that joint. It’s therefore important to make sure that the soft tissue that supports the joint is healthy, i.e. that it’s not just strong but also injury-free. This allows you to have a greater range of mobility and be more successful at your movements.
The third factor is joint health along the chain of movement. What does that mean? Just think, for example, of your shoulder: You want to have the full range of motion in the shoulder joint, but the elbow joint is injured. This means, to move the shoulder through its full range, you may experience pain in the elbow joint. This may actually affect your movement and keep you from being able to express that full range of motion due to the pain in the elbow because it’s within the chain of movement.
So what are the benefits of having greater joint mobility, strength, dexterity, and agility? If the joints are healthy and injury-free, they’re able to move through their full range of motion. This allows you to express all the possibilities of complex movements. If you can move freely without any pain, the mind can be present to understand and learn the patterns of movement that you’re trying to integrate into the body.
The fourth factor is dexterity, which can be described as the intelligence of movement: Think of a dexterous hand moving across the keys of a piano. The same applies to the body moving across the ground. The intelligence of subtle transitions – which, of course, are going to support overall movement – and strength enable you to move across the ground at your greatest range and with your greatest mobility, giving you more options of movement patterns.
2. What is Flexibility?
These days, flexibility is often confused with mobility. However, there’s a distinction between these two concepts that is usually not picked up by the typical mover: It’s important to understand that flexibility affects mobility, but not the other way around.
So, if the muscle that runs across the joint and connects the two bones, is not flexible, i.e. if it doesn’t have the length to express itself, then that muscle limits the mobility of the joint itself.
To put it in simple terms: flexibility is the length of a muscle while mobility is the ability of a joint to move and express itself in full range of motion.
3. How Can Props Help to Increase Mobility and Flexibility?
You can use props such as a foam roller, physio ball or simply a tennis ball to lengthen out the soft tissue that lays on top of the joint and surrounds the joint that could be inhibiting the joint’s mobility. These objects help to create some pressure onto the soft tissue, allowing the myofascial structures in the body that surround the muscle down to the bone to relax and stretch out.
Studies suggest that sustained pressure may reduce fascial adhesions and, as a result, soften the targeted tissues. This will give you a greater range of motion and, thus, greater mobility.
So, imagine you have all the space you need to move in the hips, i.e. there’s no bone compression, but the muscles surrounding the hip joint are tight. Although your quadriceps may be really strong, they may at the same time be very tight, causing tension up to the hip joint. This is because the four muscles forming the quadriceps run together into a tendon on the outer side of your thigh called IT band.
A lot of people use the foam roller with the intention to stretch the IT band. The thing is that you can’t really stretch out the IT band since it’s a tendon and not a muscle. It actually is designed to be strong and tight in order to hold your leg in position. However, you can apply the foam roller onto the muscles that feed into the IT band. Creating some more space in these muscles will allow you to increase mobility and flexibility in the hip and the knee.
Simply rolling over the IT band will bring you nothing but suffering. Instead, you want to address the muscles that feed into the IT band and also into the front part of the thigh. The latter may also restrict the flexion in the knee joint. This is because, if the thigh muscles are pulling the knee up and back, they are not giving you enough space to bring the knee into full flexion. This is why creating more length in the quadriceps will also create more mobility and space.
So, instead of rolling directly over the IT band itself, rather roll over the backside of the thigh, i.e. where the hamstrings are, starting from the knee and moving up to the hip to also reach the gluteus muscles. Roll back down toward the knee over the front side of the thigh, i.e. the quadriceps, to get the hip-flexor area involved.
Basically, what happens is that you’re targeting your myofascial structures underneath the skin, which runs into your muscles. This soft tissue sometimes needs to be lengthened out by putting pressure on it with a foam roller, for example. The concept is similar to rolling pastry: You use a roll to turn a ball of dough into a pizza, for example.
This is why using props such as a foam roller, physio ball, or simply a tennis ball helps you to release the muscle and let it lengthen out, which will in turn release tension around the joint and will, thus, increase your mobility.
However, mobility and flexibility aren’t the only factors that are essential to a healthy and safe yoga practice. Proper alignment is just as important.
4. How Can Yoga Increase Mobility and Flexibility?
Now that you’ve understood the difference between mobility and flexibility and how props can help you to increase your mobility and flexibility, you’re ready to roll out your yoga mat and play a little yourself.
Of course, some yoga styles require more mobility and flexibility than others. Think, for example, of Inside Flow or AcroYoga, where you may experience the limits of your own mobility and flexibility.
Another yoga style that not only combines mobility and flexibility but also requires strength, stamina and endurance is Budokon yoga. The creator of this fierce yoga practice, Cameron Shayne, has partnered with TINT to create a Budokon series that combines yoga, martial arts, dance, calisthenics, animal locomotion and other forms of movement. It is specifically designed to help you develop more mobility and, as a result, gain more flexibility.
This program, Mobility for Movers, is ideal for anyone interested in exploring movement from the perspective of joint mobility and is designed to guide you through construction, deconstruction, progression, and regression of transitions.
We will also take you through some of the basis exercises to increase mobility and flexibility especially in the hips and shoulders in this article. This will help you to learn more complex mixed movements by exploring the distinctions that make joint mobility a specific category of movement education.
As a result, you will develop a greater range of motion by cultivating more flexible, stronger, and healthier soft tissue surrounding the joints.
4.1. Yoga For Hip Mobility and Flexibility
Start by warming up the hips with gentle movements. Stand with the feet about shoulder-width apart and the knees slightly bent. Shift the body weight from side to side. This helps to lengthen the tissue around the hip and will also affect the knee and the ankle.
As you shift from side to side, keep the leg that you shift in straight with the quads active. Make sure that you don’t rock to the outer edge of the foot but root the inner arch down instead. This maintains the safety of the joints by creating a muscular brace around the ankle, the knee, and the hip.
Keep the body weight equally distributed on both legs. This exercise will give you a nice stretch on the outer line of the thigh and, as a result, increase the flexibility of the hip. This will, in turn, give you more mobility. Repeat this movement 10 times on each side.
Follow this up with a pelvic movement to the front and back, i.e. an anterior and posterior tilt of the pelvis. Softly bend the knees and start to rock the pelvis front and back in a subtle manner.
Engage the back muscles to bring the pelvis into an anterior tilt first. Focus not so much on bringing the tailbone back but rather on bringing the pelvic bones forward. To tilt the pelvis posteriorly, bring the pubic bone toward the belly button and the spine into flexion. Repeat this 10 times.
The next step is bringing the hip into a circular movement. To do this, start in an anterior tilt and then use the oblique muscles to contract on one side and bring the hip to the side. Then, draw the pelvis to the front, engaging the whole core, before shifting the hip to the opposite side and then back into the backline.
This will heat up and soften the tissue that is supporting the hip joint, thereby creating more range of motion. Roll 5 times clockwise and 5 times counter-clockwise.
The next exercise creates an external and internal rotation of the thigh bone, i.e. of the greater trochanter in the hip socket. This helps to awaken, heat up and lengthen muscles in the hip area.
Get onto the ball of one foot and rotate the knee in. Bring it back and, in the same movement, come onto the ball of the opposite foot and rotate the other knee in. Try to isolate this movement as much as possible to feel the work happening in the hip. Concentrate on the rotation to maintain your balance by focusing on steady breathing.
Squats are another great way to increase mobility in the hip. There are various different squat variations to explore.
For the first one, start in a wide-legged squat. As you lower down, the hip transitions back while the shoulders move forward to counter-balance. Don’t transfer too much weight into the front of the feet and the knees. Keep the body weight in the middle instead or even shift it slightly back towards the heels.
Lower down as far as is accessible to you without compressing your bones and as long as you can keep the heels on the floor. You can use the hands on the ground to support your body if required.
Maybe you can even go down all the way to come into full flexion of the knees, the hip, and the ankle. If your heels lift up the floor and you feel comfortable with balancing on the toes, you can also maintain this plantar flexion of the feet and find your squat from there.
Then rise up very consciously by transitioning from a spinal flexion to a spinal extension to stretch the frontline of the pelvis. Repeat this movement 10 times and be sensitive to notice where you can find space in your body.
Now, bring your feet closer together for a squat with a narrow stance. Depending on your range of motion, you may be able to lower all the way down until your sitting bones find the backs of your legs.
However, if this is not possible for you, notice at what point your heels start to lift off. Purposefully chose this position to balance on your toes. Wherever you find yourself in your squat, roll back up again through spinal flexion into spinal extension.
For the third squat variation, bring the heels to touch and keep the toes pointing out at 45 degrees. As you lower down the hip, the heels will immediately lift off the floor. Try to sink down until your sitting bones find the backs of the heels. This is a great shape for creating flexibility and mobility around the ankle, the toes, and the knee joint.
From this position, rise up all the way and even reach the arms up over the sides. Try to stay on your toes as much as possible. This movement requires a lot of balance. Anchoring your gaze at a fixed point may help you find your balance.
With this exercise, you also build strength around your ankles and toes. This is important since the feet support a lot of mobility work. Great ankle mobility and foot athleticism allow you to do many movements better and safer. The greatest athletes have the greatest feet.
These exercises are a great starting point for more complex movements since they warm up the main areas of focus for your mobility work: the hip, the knee, and the ankle. Try, for example, Cameron and Melayne Shayne‘s hip mobility class on TINT.
However, keep in mind that not only mobility and flexibility are important aspects of a healthy and safe yoga practice, but also proper alignment. That’s why we’ve created a free yoga alignment eBook where we reveal 3 yoga alignment secrets that you may not have been aware of before. The best thing about them is that they apply to almost every yoga pose and can therefore be a big help throughout your entire yoga practice.
4.2. Yoga For Shoulder Mobility and Flexibility
Another thing most people struggle with is shoulder mobility and flexibility. In this context, it’s important to know that there are three joints involved in shoulder mobility: the wrist, the elbow, and the shoulder joint. These three joints work together in collaboration and form a chain of movement. This means that each of these joints acts upon its neighboring joint and vice versa.
To increase your shoulder mobility and flexibility, warm up the shoulders by starting off with a basic exercise: Take a bowl or a book or something similar into one hand. Straighten the arm forward and then bend the elbow and move the arm back. This will give you a feeling for the bowl or book in your hand first and help you explore the movements of the shoulder: protraction and retraction to be precise.
In the next step, add elevation and depression of the shoulder to the movement by lifting the shoulder up as you move the bowl forward and back. Make sure that you move through the full range of motion in this circular movement. You can explore the same movement in a table-top position by shrugging the shoulders.
In a next step, add a simple rotation to your movement. So, start with the bowl in your hand and the arm extended to the front. Draw the arm back and circle the bowl over your head, lifting the elbow up. Make sure to keep the wrist inline instead of letting the hand fall down to keep the bowl level.
Reach the hand far to the front to increase your range of motion. Apart from being a mobility exercise, this exercise can also improve intelligence in the use of your joints. Repeat this motion with the other arm as well.
The idea of this exercise is that you notice all the movements the joints are able to perform. Usually, we only reach forward, grab or push. But we don’t follow more complex movement patterns the shoulder is able to do.
After having warmed up your shoulder, you’re ready for the next exercise. Sit on your heels and roll your shoulders through their full range of motion. Add the extension and flexion of the spine to make this movement even bigger and involve the entire trunk.
As a next step, start to bring in some rotation of the spine. This movement mainly comes from the thoracic spine with the solar-plexus region engaging. Do these movements so slowly and carefully that you can feel the joints moving.
After a few rounds, come into a table-top position to involve the lower spine into the movement as well. Instead of only moving from the solar plexus, you now start to move from the pelvis and let it be the source of action.
Start to make circular movements starting from your navel, traveling through your whole upper body, and adding flexion and extension of the spine. Experience the full expression of all the points along the chain of movement.
Then, take your hands wider than shoulder-width and explore the bigger range of motion you get now. This allows you to sweep the chest down lower and closer to the ground and helps to free the spine.
For the next exercise, lie down onto your back with the knees bent and the feet on the ground. Start to move the hips up and down. But instead of making this a rigid movement and holding the position, rather undulate through the movement from an anterior to a posterior roll.
Add a twist to this movement by reaching the arm up overhead diagonally as you bridge up. This also is a big extension of the entire frontline of the body. At the same time, the muscles of the backline are engaged to enable the elevation of the hips.
This sequence is perfect to warm up the entire shoulder area and allows you to follow more complex exercises in yoga to increase your mobility and flexibility such as Melayne and Cameron Shayne’s shoulder mobility class on TINT. And if you keep practicing long enough, you may even be able to perform a mobility chain like Melayne Shayne does.
While any kind of yoga will help you gain more mobility and flexibility, we have several programs on TINT that are specifically designed for that purpose. Let, for example, Finlay Wilson take you on a journey of 7 Days of Flexibility, which will introduce you to the basics of Forrest Yoga to let you feel space in your body and create awareness in the postural muscles with the goal of an effortless alignment of your body.
You can also practice together with Desirée Rumbaugh and Andrew Rivin to set the foundations for more mobility and flexibility in your own practice in their program Building Blocks for a Transformational Home Practice. They will introduce you to the concepts of functional movement, to build your own safe home practice in your own space and in accordance with your own schedule.
We also collected the joint knowledge of our experienced yoga teachers and summarized them in a free yoga alignment eBook to make their wisdom available to you. You’ll find fundamental yoga alignment principles explained that will make a huge difference to your yoga practice. Download it for free and take your yoga practice to the next level. Never stop learning!