For this online yoga topic, I'm going to talk about mobility versus flexibility in relation to yoga asana. Even though the whole world of yoga goes beyond just the physical poses like the asanas, as it goes into a whole way of peaceful living, equanimity, harmony within ourselves and connection to our spirit, the reality is that the developed parts of the world market yoga as a mindful fitness class. People get a good sweat and they get their asses kicked. This feels good and people can get stronger with their pushing actions. It's up to us as teachers to know about the things that most physical fitness instructors would know as a standard. Fortunately, this information is starting to become more well-known in the modern yoga teaching world.
Let me tell you a story about what brought about today's topic. I was in Ubud, Bali the other week. It's said to be one of the yoga meccas of the world, so I had to try out as many classes as I could! There was a class called “Embodied Movement”. The word “embodiment” is is a term that you might hear more and more often in the yoga scene over the next couple years. I had never taken an embodied movement class before, so I decided to check it out to see what's up.
There were no yoga mats involved. It was just a whole group of us and the studio’s circular floor. This kind of class involved a warm-up where we were standing in a circle before we walked towards the center, then walked back to our starting point. Next, we walked on the different edges of our feet and walked back. Then, we started to walk towards the center again, lower slowly into a squat, then we slowly rose from the squat to standing before walking back to the start.
The next thing you know, there was this gradual progression of walking forward, lowering into a squat then sitting flat on the ground (like in dandasana). Our legs were extended flat on the ground. Then, we were sitting upright and brought our knees in towards our chest, our feet towards our glutes as we tried to lift them up into a squat. Then, we had to get back up without using our hands at all! That was extremely difficult! I only saw two people who were able to do that. I saw how easy it was for the instructor to do it! He looked like he was floating from sitting to squat and standing! This observation told me that a lot of people could use more mobility in a world of mainstream yoga and its popular emphasis on flexibility.
Let’s get you a basic understanding of what mobility and flexibility is. Why are they different? Learn about the pros and cons of each and be able to change your approach to some poses based on what intention you have for that moment. At the end of this article, I will share some mobility approaches to 3 yoga poses that you can start practicing right away!
The Biomechanics of Your Body
Let's talk about the mechanics of your body. At a quick glance we have connective tissues, muscles, bones, a brain and a whole bunch more. As an example of how they all work together, I’ll describe your hip extension. When you’re standing straight and you extend your left leg behind you, your left hip is in extension. With your glutes and hip muscles activated, this is the active range of motion your left leg can make. This would be your degree of “mobility”. Mobility is your ability to control this movement without using any other pushing forces like gravity, yoga straps, your hand, or someone else.
WHAT IS FLEXIBILITY?
Now, imagine if you’re trying to do the splits. Your leg would go much further behind you. It would move past this natural range of motion. This would be your degree of “flexibility”. Flexibility is how far you can push that end range of that motion. This almost always involves using gravity, a non-elastic yoga strap, your hand/elbow or someone else.
THE PROS OF FOCUSING ON FLEXIBILITY:
It looks appealing unless you're a very knowledgeable movement expert and you're no longer into doing just flexibility. If you’re a weight trainer or an athlete, it is helpful to have just enough flexibility so your muscles aren’t stiff. Currently, the general public gives extreme flexibility a ton of attention on social media. For some reason many people are drawn to seeing someone bringing their legs behind their head and around their neck. It tends to be considered this art form and if you're a contortionist then your livelihood depends it. As a contortionist, you have to be hyper flexible and consistently bring yourself past the average range of motion.
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THE CONS OF FOCUSING ON FLEXIBILITY:
It doesn't tend to serve too much of a purpose an average day of life if you're not a contortionist. If you don’t support this growth of flexibility with strength-training, it also leads to higher risk of injury. Imagine you are trying to do the splits again. Your legs are completely horizontal on the ground. Would you be able to get yourself out of the splits without using your hands? Would you be able to use your sheer will to bring yourself back up from the split?
Imagine you have a toddler or a fur baby and you have one of those bungee cords to attach them to. Your hand is holding the the main end of it, so if your precious one is right next to you you're feeling a sense of safety. But, the moment your little pumpkin runs off from your handle, you most likely would feel a sense of concern. The further away it is from you, the less you can keep them safe.
Now, imagine that the handle is your brain and your nervous system, and that your little snookums is your limb that is moving away from your joint. As your limb moves past a known and safe range of motion, your nervous system gets nervous and freaked out. It doesn't know that you can control yourself the further you move.
If you don't feel pain while you are practicing your flexibility, (you may not feel pain for months to years) you might think that nothing's wrong. Well, I can speak from my experience: it didn't hurt reaching for my toes or working towards Lotus pose. After 12 years, I woke up and had pain in my shoulders and my hips. My hip bone (aka the femur) began to sublux. It partially popped out of my hip socket! Twice! That goes to show that 12 years of practice and not feeling pain added up into a point where my body told me, “That's not cool anymore”. So, that's something to consider.
WHAT IS MOBILITY?
Mobility is being able to control a specific movement. Sidenote: mobility’s definition tends to overlap with stability’s so we'll just group the two as one. Say, for example, you go into the splits. Without using your hands or anyone else's help, could you come back up to standing? Or if you are standing on one leg and lower down into a pistol squat (one-legged squat), could you do it without your knee wobbling all over the place?
Mobility is pretty functional. It's very helpful and can help you prepare for random things that can happen in your everyday life. For example, if you accidentally trip over a rock, your reflex or ankle’s mobility would be prepared to deal with different angles like that. When you need to bend down and pick up your kids (or your fur baby), that's pretty beneficial to reduce the risk of injury from instability. To have the strength and control throughout your body to get up out of bed, open your refrigerator door, etc...that where you're using mobility. If you think about it, you need good mobiltility everyday.
THE PROS OF FOCUSING ON MOBILITY
You are reducing the risk of injury and you are teaching your brain, your connective tissues and muscles to communicate on a stronger level. You get to have much more stronger control
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THE CONS OF FOCUSING ON MOBILITY
Well, you don't move as deep into your range of motion as you would when you're trying to be flexible. You're not trying to go into your end range of motion. You're staying mid-range and strengthening the mid-range, so your action doesn't look like those hyper bendy/hyper flexible people on social media. So, if you're a yoga teacher and you want to grow your social following, you might think that if you don't have super bendy pictures that it won't be as appealing to your followers. This could be a legit concern for some teachers.
If you or someone you know is experiencing something like low back pain or some sort of achiness, sometimes it can be temporarily alleviated through deep stretching. If you focus on strengthening your mobility, you might not feel the pain dissipate as fast because it takes time. You're building a foundation, so it could take months or years to regain control over the muscles around that area.
Now that you have this basic understanding of what flexibility and mobility is, here's a couple of exercises you can apply to your yoga practice today.
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LOW LUNGE W/ MOBILITY
Go into a low lunge. Instead of focusing on lowering the hips down towards the ground, keep your chest neutral and lower your ribs down. Your knees will appear to be in a 90 degree angle. Both of them. Then, with slow and steady control, glide your back knee forward as you rise up to stand.
Continue to bring your knee forward and up until you are standing with a high knee. Notice how your glutes, hip flexors and knee operates as you practice this move.
As you move through that kind of motion, you can think about when it can be helpful. If you’re climbing up a large set of stairs, if you need to go hiking and step over some fallen trees, etc.
SPHINX POSE W/ MOBILITY
Come into sphinx pose and put a blanket or towel under your hands and wrists. Slide the hands forward and away from you, then (using your shoulder pulling strength), slide your hands back towards you very slowly.
Those are two poses you can try and experiment with. Notice for yourself what happens. Re-define for yourself the level of importance flexibility and mobility have in your life. See if it serves your purpose not social media’s purpose. YOUR purpose. Decide how you can be able to reduce injury and live a functional life. (I know the word functional gets used a lot, but true. It's the ability to function in a safe way for as long as you want to practice yoga).
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In short, I've geeked out very thoroughly about mobility versus flexibility. I've gone over the pros and cons of each, and given you two examples of poses that you can explore both with. I hope that helped! Be sure to comment with any questions, comments or experiences you have with these two aspects of movement!
So, the next time you practice yoga, try adding some mobility to your asana and notice what happens. Send me an email and let me know how it goes! Need a helpful cheat sheet for reference? Just join my list and get free access to it, along with a whole bunch of other yoga resources.
Hope this helps!!
Julie (Your Head Rogue Yogi)
Related Post: The 5 Most Common Yoga Injuries (and how to avoid them)
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