As health enthusiasts, we know that one of the keys to longevity is simply movement. If you don’t move it, you lose it. This message should always be at the forefront of your mind each day. It’s so important to move the body all the time, and as often as possible. But, what I’ve found through the years is that it’s really important to mix it up. I’ve spent days and weeks focusing on just one form of exercise, only to find when I switch to another form, my body is rusty and tired.
For example, I’ve been focusing lately on bike riding long distances. When I swam for the first time in nine months yesterday, it was really difficult. Which was surprising to me. The same goes for an advanced yoga sequence. Because I’d been focusing on bicycling, while putting my yoga practice to the side, moving through postures that used to come naturally was more difficult than I thought it would be.
The message here is that it’s important to focus on all types of movement. And this includes getting a good cardiovascular, steady state aerobic workout like bicycling or walking. But, it also includes getting a high intensity anaerobic workout a couple times a week via something like tabata, burst training, or high-intensity interval training. Then there’s the strength portion of movement, which should include exercise like Pilates and weight training. And last but not least, there’s the flexibility aspect, which includes various yoga postures and deep stretches.
In this article we’re going to look at what I believe are the best stretches and yoga poses for you to integrate into your weekly routine. These stretches are important because they’re going to get into the deeper tissues of the body like fascia and connective tissues, which we don’t target when we’re doing muscular-oriented activity.
In essence, I’m going to give you a simple yin yoga sequence which I’d like you to follow 2 times per week. This sequence will take about an hour if you do it correctly. And, I encourage you to do so, for it’s the time spent in each pose, and the deep breathing which accompanies it that will give your body (and mind) the most profound health benefits. Every pose in this article is accessible to every body type. So, there’s no need to worry about not being able to do these stretches. They’re meant for everyone. I hope you enjoy it.
Cat/Cow pose, as it’s known in yoga, is one of the easiest and most effective stretches you can do to lengthen your spine. It’s one of the best stretches we can possibly do because of what the ancient yogis believed about the spine. They believed that a long, healthy spine equaled a long, healthy life. What I love about this stretch is that it’s not difficult. It’s truly accessible to everyone. It’s also a great stretch to warm yourself up. I like to begin with a cat/cow in any stretching or yoga sequence for this reason.
For cat/cow pose, you’ll simply come to your hands and knees until your body forms a kind of tabletop position. Line the wrists up beneath the shoulders, and the knees below your hips. Now, you’re going to sync your breath to your movements. As you inhale deeply, arch the spine. This is known as ‘cow’ pose. Pause. As you exhale deeply, tuck the core in and round the spine like a cat does. Alternate between each position, as you breathe deeply with each movement. Feel yourself relax and your spine lengthen. Close your eyes as you move, and do this as long as you like. Several rounds is good.
Figure Eight on Hands and Knees
While you’re still in that tabletop position, here’s a moving stretch that’s really good for your spine and hips. Simply move your hips in a figure eight motion. As you do, make sure to breathe deeply and exaggerate the movement. Find your groove as you move those hips around. When you’ve done 4-5 rounds in one direction, switch to the other. Your knees can be together, or hip’s width apart. Don’t forget to breathe.
From all fours, push yourself back into a child’s pose. Your head is on the floor, and your arms are straight out above your head. Knees can be together or apart. This is a really nurturing position, that stretches the body gently. It’s an excellent resting stretch to do between deeper stretches. Rest in child’s pose for 2-3 minutes as you inhale and exhale deeply. See how relaxed you feel after.
Cobra pose, also known as upward facing dog in yoga, helps to stretch and strengthen the back. This is important because we so often forget about the back side of the body, as we focus on our core and front side much of the time. To stretch the back in this posture, simply come to your stomach. If you like, put a folded blanket beneath the tummy for a little extra cushion and support. Put your hands below the shoulders and push upward, while keeping your head in a neutral position so that the spine and neck are long. Your hips remain grounded, and your toes press into the floor or mat. Breathe here for several rounds of breath. When you’re ready to come out of the posture, gently let your tummy rest back on the floor. You may want to repeat the stretch a few times before moving to the next one.
Wide-angle seated forward bend
I believe this is one of the best stretches for us because of the way it targets the inner thighs and hamstrings. I don’t pay as much attention to my hamstrings as I’d like to, which makes this stretch the perfect pose for those of us who want to lengthen and open this part of the body. We can all benefit, as most of us have tight hamstrings anyway. The adductor muscles also get the attention they deserve.
Perfect for every body, you can modify as needed. All you do for wide angle seated forward bend is to sit with your legs stretched wide apart, in a straddle position. Keeping the spine straight, simply bring the torso forward, to your edge. Only go as far as is right for your body. You want to feel the stretch, but you don’t want to feel pain. And if you need to narrow the angle of your legs to fold forward, that’s perfectly fine too. Pay attention to your body, and breathe into the stretch. Stay in this stretch for about 3 minutes.
I’ve been stretching with butterfly pose for decades because of my dance background. It’s always been part of a dance warm-up. This is a hip-opener we can all do. We just take it to our own personal edge and stop there. In yoga, butterfly is sometimes referred to as bound angle pose. This stretch is ideal for opening our hip flexors and helping us increase mobility as we age. It helps elongate the inner thighs and even our spine when we stretch upward and then fold forward.
To do this stretch we simply sit on the floor, or on a blanket if we want to elevate the hips. Then place the feet together and let the knees fall towards the floor. We can stay here with a straight spine, sitting tall, or fold gently forward. Stay in the posture for 3-4 minutes and breathe deeply as you do. Feel tension in the hips and inner thighs melt away.
This is a stretch, for sure. But more than anything, it’s a stretch that strengthens your core in the process, which is really important for your body’s integrity for all forms of movement. To do boat pose, simply move to a seated position, and lean back until the weight is resting on your sits bones. Then, bend your knees and lift your feet off the ground. You can straighten the legs until you form a V shape with your body if you’re feeling strong. Hold boat pose for several deep rounds of inhalations and exhalations.
Supine spinal twist
This is another great stretch for the entire back, as well as the shoulders. To do the supine spinal twist, lay on your back, and lift your legs up so that they’re bent at a 45 degree angle. Then twist those legs towards the floor to your right side as you turn your head to gaze left. The arms are outstretched in a T position. You’re going to stay here for several rounds of deep breath. Five minutes in this position is ideal. When it’s time, you simply switch your legs to the left, and gaze to the right. Stay for another 5 minutes and breathe deeply.
Standing Forward Fold
I love this stretch for the way it targets the hamstrings and the entire back body. Most of us need to open our hamstring muscles to prevent pulled muscles. This pose is also great for increasing flexibility in the spine, essential for longevity. I also love the way this stretch allows the neck to elongate, which feels really good.
Stand with the feet hip’s distance apart. Then, roll the spine forward, one vertebrae at a time until your hands are touching the floor. If you can’t reach the floor, rest your hands on your thighs, your calves, or a yoga block. Allow gravity to guide the torso downward. Breathe into the neck, the back, and the hamstrings. Stay here for many cycles of breath. When you’re ready to come out of it, roll slowly back up, one vertebrae at a time, until you’re standing tall and refreshed.
In the yoga world, this is the granddaddy of hip stretches. This is great for all of us, given the fact that we store a lot of tension in our hips. This tension can be physical of course, but also emotional. This means if and when you find yourself in pigeon pose, and feel emotions bubble up to the surface, simply allow them to be. If you need to cry, cry. If you want to scream, do it. Your stretching time is one of self-care, just for you and your health. Have compassion for your body, mind, and emotions as you move through these deep stretches.
To come into pigeon pose, you’re going to come back to all fours, on your hands and knees. Then bring the right knee behind your right wrist. The right ankle will rest somewhere behind your left wrist. Your weight is on that right hip and the left leg is outstretched behind you. You’ll feel a deep stretch in the right hip flexor. Keep the torso upright or fold forward. Ease into the pose and breathe deeply. When you’re ready to move to the other side, come back to your hands and knees and simply move into the pose on the opposite side. With time, you’ll want to hold the pose for 3-5 minutes. If that’s too much at first, just stretch for as long as feels right.
Backbend over a bolster
This is a nice, calming backbend that’s great to round out this stretching routine. If you have a bolster or blanket, great. If you don’t, no worries. You’re going to place a yoga bolster or rolled up blanket beneath the shoulder blades as you lie down so that you’re opening your chest and giving yourself a backbend with support. Your legs are outstretched and your arms are resting at your sides. Your gaze can be up and a little behind you so that you get a good stretch in the neck as you lie here. Breathe deeply and close your eyes. This can be a little intense if you're not used to backbending so go slow. Allow gravity to sink you into the floor, ground, or mat. Stay here for 3-5 minutes to round out this stretching routine.