Getting More Flexible-An Engineering Approach

Problem Solving

Many people turn to yoga as a way of dealing with a problem or problems. For myself the problem was that I was inflexible. I turned to yoga erroneously thinking that I could do it for three months, get flexible, and then get on with what I really wanted to do (run, skate, martial arts.)

I spent five years in university to learn one simple thing. In order to fix a problem you gotta know what it is. Prior to that it helps if you understand what you are working with. If you don’t understand what you are working with or what you are trying to do then part of the problem solving process is acquiring that understanding… in other words learning.

Its ten years later… or maybe 12 (time flies) and now I’m finally getting on with what I want to do. Part of the reason it has taken me so long is that in the process of making my body more flexible I’ve also been learning to understand it. Its so much easier to fix something when you understand what you are working with. I also had to learn what flexibility was. I had to define it. Then I could work towards acquiring it.

Flexibility Defined

For this article I’ll define flexibility as the ability for a muscle or muscles to relax and to be lengthened. The part that relaxes is the belly of the muscle, which is also the same part that contracts.

When a muscle is relaxed and then lengthened (or lengthened and gradually relaxed) the connective tissue within the belly of the muscle is stretched.

Flexibility is a quality of the connective tissue with our muscles. The more pliable our connective tissue is, the more flexible we are. The better we are at controlling our muscles, being able to relax as well as contract them at will, the better we can access this flexibility.

So to stretch and improve our flexibility, part of what we need to develop is control and part of that control is the ability to relax at will.

So one part of flexibility training is learning to relax the muscles we are stretching.

Learning to Relax

Part of learning to relax is learning to feel when muscles are relaxed and when they are engaged.

We can learn to feel our muscles by using and experiencing them. As an example, if we want to learn to feel our quadriceps, the large muscle at the front of the thigh that straightens the knee and helps to flex the hip, we can practice straightening the knee and allowing it to bend.

If we do this slowly we can feel the various groups of fibers as they activate (and as they relax.) Of course to do this we have to put our awareness in our knee and thigh, we have to focus on feeling our quadriceps. (And of course to do that we need to know where our quadriceps is and where its endpoints attach to.)

If we do the movement repeatedly and slowly we can notice changes in sensation and then we can differentiate the sensations that indicate muscle activity and those that indicate that the muscle is relaxed.

Another way to see if a muscle is relaxed is to shake it. So for example, if you roll your thigh from side to side and the quadriceps are relaxed, the muscle will “roll” from side to side. First experiencing this feeling and then memorizing it we may then make it easier on ourselves to find the sensation again, i.e. relax our muscles.

To learn to feel when a muscle is being stretched we can slowly move in and out of a stretching position and notice the changes in sensation.

By moving slowly we maximize our ability to keep the muscle we are stretching relaxed. By moving in and out of a stretch repeatedly we can learn the sensations that indication stretching and we can also enjoy the sensations that accompany the release of that stretch.

(As an aside, some of us enjoy these sensations more than others.)

A Stable Foundation for Relaxation

So that we can relax and then stretch another requirement is a stable foundation.

If we are standing on firm ground it is usually more easy to relax than if we are on ground that is moving or otherwise unstable.

In our relationship with the earth, if the earth is stable then we can relax. If the earth is unstable then we probably tense up in one way or the other.

Looking at the relationships of bone to bone and bone to muscle within our body:

  • If the two bones two which a muscle is attached are aligned with gravity or otherwise positioned so that they are stable then the muscle can relax.
  • If one bone is moving but the other bone is stable then depending on the type or intent of the movement that muscle can relax or slowly lengthen and then relax.
  • If both bones are unstable then chances are that any muscles that connect those bones will tense up.

To relax muscle (so that we can lengthen or strengthen) we can position our bones so that they are aligned with gravity or otherwise supported. So that we can relax and stretch we can make sure that one of the bones to which a muscle we want to stretch is stable and then we can focus on moving the other bone relative to the fixed bone so that the target muscle is lengthened and stretched.

Weight Control

Something to be aware of and this is further understanding, is that the parts of our body have weight. If one part of the body is stable and the other part is allowed to move, then chances are that the movement of the moving part is being assisted by gravity.

Because of this weight, any muscle that is potentially being stretched may tighten up to resist being stretched too fast or being stretched beyond breaking point. If a muscle is active or engaged, it can’t be stretched. So we need to overcome, prevent or counteract this mechanism.

If we control the rate at which the moving part moves, it may be  easier to avoid this automatic contraction. We can do this by moving slowly and gradually and even repeatedly.

As an example, in a standing forward bend lets assume we want to stretch the back of the thighs-the hamstrings. If we are standing then our legs will be the stationary element and we move our pelvis by tilting it forwards relative to the legs to stretch the hamstrings.

Since the hamstrings attach to the lower leg bones we can focus on making the feet, ankles and shins stable. Our hamstrings then have a fixed point so that they can lengthen. However they also are dealing with the whole weight of the upper body (pelvis, ribcage, head and arms) hinging at the hip joint. Our hamstrings may tighten to prevent being overstretched. However, if we use our hands to support the weight of our upper body, we can give our hamstrings time to relax. We can use blocks if we can’t reach the floor and push our hands down so that we push our ribcage up.

Since our goal is to lengthen the hamstrings we can slowly lower the ribcage under control by slowly bending the elbows. Better yet, we can bend the elbows slightly, notice the hamstrings and feel when they relax, and then bend the elbows some more.

Once we are practiced with this we may find that we can relax our hamstrings and keep them relaxed without using our arms. Instead we slowly relax our hamstrings to the point of complete relaxation.

Once they are relaxed we can then use the weight of the upper body to help lengthen the connective tissue and stretch it.

Using Weight to Stretch

In a standing forward bend if we want to use the weight of our upper body to help lengthen our hamstrings, we can grab our elbows and let our arms, head and ribcage hang down from our waist.

In a seated forward bend, if we want to add weight to stretch our hamstrings we can engage our back muscles to straighten our spine. We can even think of bending it backwards slightly. If we engage our spinal erectors to keep the spine straight (or bend it backwards) then we have the weight of our ribcage and head helping to tilt out pelvis forwards and lengthen our hamstrings.

Better yet, doing the opposite of before, if we lift our hands off of the floor and reach them forwards we can add even more weight to our upper body (instead of taking it off.) But so that our muscles don’t tighten up in defense, we can do this slowly and smoothly so as to keep our hamstrings relaxed. Then the weight of our upper body can be used to help lengthen the connective tissue within them.

If we understand our body and what flexibility is we can go about stretching in an effective manner.

We can position our body and provide the muscles we are stretching with a stable foundation, we can control the parts that move so that the muscle we are stretching can relax and stay relaxed, and prior to that or during that, we can practice activating and relaxing muscle tissue so that we can feel the sensations that are associated with both.

Body Basics-Feeling your Spine and Breath

The following set of exercises are designed to help you feel you pelvis, low back, ribcage, neck, head and shoulder blades. These exercises are designed to help you experience your body by moving specific parts slowly, smoothly and repeatedly with rhythm. You can then focus on feeling the parts that you are moving.

Once you’ve learned to feel these parts individually, you could then practice feeling them in the context of some action, whether a yoga pose or a tai ji movement or rowing or weight lifting or any activity that you do. The more you experience your body, the better you can feel it and control it in any situation. The intent is not to program you and say that this is the right way or the wrong way, but to allow you to feel and control your body so that you can use it in a way that is appropriate to what you are doing at the time. Better yet, it is to give you the ability to feel the possibilities for each of these parts so that you can choose from among them.

As an example, in the twisting section there are four different exercises. One involves twisting with the ribs expanded, another while the ribs are pulled inwards. Another involves twisting with  one side expanded while the other is contracted and the other variation is the opposite.

Now even if you can only do the first two options (expanded or contracted) you can try these options and notice which one makes twisting easier, or helps you to twist further or which simply feels the most comfortable given what you are doing at the time.

These exercises are all designed so that they can be done while sitting. You can sit on a chair (while looking at your computer) or you can sit on the floor. If on the floor you may find it to sit on a block or a book so that your can move your pelvis freely relative to your legs. Ideally, you can move roll your pelvis far enough forwards that you lumbar spine can straighten or even assume a “normally curved” position.

In the context of basic principles and foundation, you can consider these exercises foundational building blocks for feeling your body and using it in different contexts.

Ribs and Spine Together-Lengthening and Relaxing

Learn to feel your ribs and spine  by bending your spine forwards and allow your ribs to sink. Hold and concentrate on feeling the “weight” of your ribs and allowing weight to sink down. Notice (and allow) spine to bend forwards. Think “Couch Potato” or simply slouch. Also allow the head to go forwards and down relative to the ribcage.

Next slowly pull ribs and head upwards. Pull up on the back of the head so that the back of the neck feels long.

Work at making the ribcage feel expansive and spacious. You can also focus on creating space between the ribs.

Relax ribs and head down and then and then Lengthen entire spine, ribs and head upwards. Gradually shorten the time in each position and move slowly and smoothly from one to the other. Notice the difference in sensations. You may notice that you naturally inhale while lengthening and that you exhale while relaxing. That is because lengthening the spine and opening the ribcage expands the lungs while doing the opposite compresses the space that they are in.

Ribs Only

For the next exercise, which can continue from the previous, keep the spine upright and long and only move the ribs.

Because you are only moving your ribs, you may notice that each breath is a lot smaller.

To maximize your breath, focus on each part of your ribcage individually. While inhaling and exhaling, focus on moving your front ribs forwards and up, and then back and down. Bottom side ribs move outwards and up and then inwards and down. The back ribs simply lift up and down.

Focus on feeling or sensing each of these actions separately first and then all together. To feel your ribs move put your awareness on them or in them.


For the next exercise, keep the spine long and the ribs lifted and allow your front belly (the front of your belly) to move as you breathe. It’ll move forwards as you inhale and back as you exhale. Once you have the hang of this,  focus on the bottom half of your lower belly (the bottom quarter of your belly)-halfway down from the belly button. Hold this part of your belly inwards while inhaling. There should be a slight feeling of tension running from side to side. You can imagine pulling the front edges of your pelvis inwards slightly.

Allow your upper belly to expand while holding your lower belly in. Slowly and smoothly relax your entire belly completely while exhaling.

Now try the same action while lifting and lowering the ribs. While inhaling gently pull your lower belly back while allowing your upper belly to expand. Allow your ribs to lift and expand at the same time. You may get the sensation that you are using your upper belly to push your ribs upwards.

Smoothly relax everything while exhaling.

The diaphragm pushes downwards on the abdominal organs while inhaling in this exercise. The abdominal organs then push outwards on the abdominal wall. It also can cause the “Pushing Up” sensation on the ribcage.

Roll the Pelvis and Straighten the Lumbar Spine

Changing gears slightly, sit on a chair or on a book or block so that you can roll your pelvis freely back and forwards. Start with it rolled forwards so that you lumbar spine is bent backwards (normal curve.)

Slowly rock your pelvis back just far enough so that your lumbar spine is straight. Then rock forwards. Practice slowly smoothly rocking backwards and forwards while feeling the change in position of your pelvis and lower back.

You may find it helpful to use a mirror. Notice when your lumbar spine looks straight and notice the feeling that accompanies this straightness. You might try fine tuning this position if there is a position near straightness that feels really comfortable or nice-as if the lower back is open or full.

You can add the previous exercise to this one and allow your upper belly to expand while rolling your pelvis backwards. You can pull your lower belly in at the same time. You then straighten you lumbar spine and expand your ribcage each time you inhale. You relax them both while exhaling.

Pulling head Up, Straighten Cervical Spine and Spreading Shoulder Blades

We’ve already practiced pulling the head back and up while straightening the spine, but here we’ll isolate the movement.

Relax the ribs and allow the head to sink forwards. Now focus on pulling the back of the head back and up. The chin can pull inwards at the same time. You may notice that this action naturally causes the front of the ribs to lift. Now slowly relax your head forwards and down. Repeat and make the movements smooth and slow.

Adding the shoulder blades, focus on feeling the inner edges of your shoulder blades, the part closest to the spinal column. This is the attachment point for most of the muscles that stabilize the scapula with respect to your ribcage.

As you pull your head back and up move the inner edges of your shoulder blades away from your spine. You may notice that your back feels wider, broader, more open. Relax while exhaling. While doing this action, try to keep the muscles that sit on your shoulder blades relaxed. Keep your large chest muscle (Pectoralis Major) relaxed also. You may have to focus on slowly moving your shoulder blades in order to feel this action, and in order to feel the position where the inner edges of your shoulder blades are flat on your back.

Twisting and Turning the Ribcage

With hands in prayer in front of your sternum, keep your hands there and turn your ribs to the right. Turn your ribcage relative to your pelvis and lumbar spine. Twist your ribs relative to each other.

Keep your ribs and head lifted and move your upper belly while breathing.

Hold for a few breaths and then pull the ribs in while continuing to twist. Hold for a few breaths noticing whether pulling ribs in makes twisting easier or harder. Did you twist further?

Next contract the left side of your ribcage and open the right side. How does this help (once you get the hang of it.)

Try the opposite.

Rest and then try the same options while twisting to the left.

In any exercise where we are twisting and turning the ribs, we can expand the ribs, contract them or expand one side while contracting the other. As mentioned, one option may be more appropriate given what you are doing at the time.

Bending the Spine Backwards and Forwards

Again while sitting, bend the spine backwards. Tilt the pelvis forwards at the same time. You can tuck the chin in and focus only on bending the lumbar spine and thoracic spine (back of the ribcage) backwards. Notice as you do so how your belly lengthens and the front of your ribcage opens. To assist this action, Focus on the side of your ribcage and push the sides of your ribs forwards.

Just for the experience also try pulling the sides of your ribs back.

Notice how each movement assists or doesn’t assist the backbend. For myself (currently,) pushing side ribs forwards makes bending spine backwards feel better.

Next bend the spine forwards. Pull the side ribs back and then try pushing them forwards. Notice the results. Again, my personal observations (yours may be different) are that pulling the side ribs back make this action easier while sitting.

When holding each position, experiment with different types of breath to see which one is easiest.

I find that when bending backwards, holding my lower belly in and breathing into my upper belly and front ribs feels comfortable. While bending backwards, I can breathe just a little into my upper belly but I then I put most of my effort into breathing into the back of my ribcage.

Stretch and Relax

To stretch and relax the muscles you’ve been using you may find it useful to do an assisted or relaxed twist.

Use a knee or the side of your chair and the back of your chair or the floor for leverage, use your arms to twist your ribs while relaxing your waist and ribcage.

Make both your inhales and your exhales feel relaxed and smooth.

Wrap Up

Most of these exercises involved using the muscles of the abdomen or intercostal spaces (the spaces between the ribs) in one way or another. They also, ideally, will help you to develop your ability to both feel and control your spine, the elements that make it up (the head, cervical spine, ribs, thoracic spine, lumbar spine and pelvis,) and the relationships between these elements.

In Basic Principle terminology we can use the word “idea” instead of the word “element.”

Note on Ideas and Relationships

The ideas we can learn to feel using these exercises are: The head, neck (cervical spine), ribcage, thoracic spine, lumbar spine, pelvis, shoulder blades.

Because the neck, thoracic spine and lumbar spine are actually made up of smaller elements, we can actually learn to feel and control the relationships between these smaller elements. Thus these elements could be considered as ideas or as a system of relationships.

Other relationships that we can learn to feel and control include those between the following pairs of ideas: head and ribcage, ribs and thoracic spine, ribs and pelvis, shoulder blades relative to each other, shoulder blades relative to the spine.

Movement References for the Hips

This article covers basic movements of the thigh relative to the pelvis. It includes

Creating Space and Stabilizing the Hip Joint

Two very basic movements for the hips include creating space and stabilizing.

The first movement feels like pulling the thigh bone away from the hip socket or pushing the pelvis away from the thigh bone.

The second movement feels like you are sucking the thigh bone into the hip socket (or sucking the pelvis towards the thigh bone.)

The first movement, creating space, uses the gemellus superior, gemellus  inferior, obturator internus and externus to create the space. These muscles generally externally rotate the thigh with respect to the pelvis. To balance this action, the tensor fascae latae, gluteus minimus and/or the long head of the adductor magnus may also activate. These muscles can be used to cause internal rotation.

The gemellus and obturator muscles are all close to the hip joint, near the junction of where the thigh joins the pelvis. To try to sense or feel these muscles we can put our awareness in the region of the groins. More specifically we can put our awareness in the regions of our pubic bone and sitting bones and the ischiopuboramus which spans the two.

The obturator internus and the two gemelus leave the pelvis just above the sitting bones and reach “upwards” and “forwards” to connect to the back of the top of the thigh bone.

The obturator externus reaches back from the pubic bone, passes underneath the neck of the thigh bone to attach to the back of the thigh bone.

The tensor fascae latae and gluteus minimus are both at the side of the pelvis between the head of the thigh bone and the top crest of the pelvis while the adductor magnus is the largest of the adductors, located at the inner thigh.

Sucking the hip joint may be caused by contracting the quadratus femoris, pectineus, and piriformis. These muscles also lay within the region of the groins.

Quadratus femoris and piriformis have similiar lines of pull, reaching down from a point just above the sitting bones to the back of the thigh bone.

The piriformis attaches to the front of the sacrum and so with “sucking” you may feel a slight pulling forwards of the sacrum.

The pectineus reaches down and back from the region of the pubic bone to the top of the inner thigh.

These muscles chiefly act in external rotation so that again the internal rotators may activate to counter this tendency.

In prone backbends like locust, or in poses like cat where we reach one leg back, we could try creating space in the hip joint to give the leg room to move relative to the pelvis.

In forward bends, whether standing or sitting, we might find that creating space in the hip joint gives us room to tilt the pelvis forwards relative to the thigh bones.

Standing on one leg and moving the pelvis relative to that leg we might want to try creating space in the standing leg hip joint.

Standing on one leg and keeping the pelvis still we might want to try to stabilize the standing leg hip joint.

There may be situations where we try to do both actions at once, first creating space and then stabilizing the joint or stabilizing the joint and then trying to create space.

Hips, Opening the Back or Front

Opening the back of the hips is the same as tilting the pelvis forwards relative to the thighs or swinging the thighs forwards and up towards the front of the body.

The technical name is flexion.

Extension or opening the front of the hips corresponds to tilting the pelvis backwards relative to the legs or swinging the legs back relative to the pelvis.

Hip flexion, tilting the pelvis forwards or opening the back of the hip can be done by the psoas and illiacus. These both attach to the top of the inner thigh to a point called the lesser trochanter which actually is at the back of the top of the thigh. The illiacus attaches to the inside edge of the blade of the pelvis while the psoas attaches to the front of the lumbar spine.

If we stabilize the lower back using the abdominals and erector spinae then the pelvis and ribcage act as one unit. We can then focus on tilting the pelvis and lumbar spine forwards towards the thigh or thighs using the psoas and illiacus.

The feeling is as if pulling the lumbar spine and pelvis towards the inner thighs but rather than bending the spine we are rotating it along with the pelvis around the axis of the hip joint.

If when laying on our back we move the thighs towards the front of the body then the feeling is of squeezing the top of the inner thighs towards the belly.

The tensor fascae latae can also be used to open the back of the hip joint. The belly of this muscle is near the side of the hip joint towards the front but it acts via the fascea latae on the fibula, the small outer bone of the lower leg as well as the tibia.

If the illiacus pulls inwards on the blades of the pelvis when active, this muscle pulls outwards.

The pectineus, adductor brevis and adductor longus can all be used to open the back of the hip (red, green and yellow respectively).

These muscles all attach to the inner thigh from near the top of the thigh bone to about half way down. They attach to the pelvis near or at the pubic bone.

These muscles also tend to externally rotate the thigh when active and so this has to be countered by an internal rotation. The tensor fascea latae may help in providing that internal rotation.

The rectus femoris can also be used to open the back of the hip. Like the Tensor Fascae Latae is also crosses the hip and the knee.

It attaches via the knee cap to the front of the tibia, the larger of the two lower leg bones. It also attaches to the front of the pelvis near the top at each side.

This muscle has more contractive room when the knee is bent. Trying to use it when the knee is straight may cause cramping. It may be useful in kicking actions to flick the knee straight at the thigh is swung forwards.

When holding a forward bend it may be indesirable to use this muscle.

When lifting a leg (perhaps while sitting or while standing or while balanced on the pelvis) it may be easier to use the psoas and illiacus to open the back of the hip if we start with the leg open out to the side. These muscles then have more room to contract and it may be easier to keep them contracted as we swing the leg so that it is straight ahead.

For hip extension, opening the front of the hip, we can use the adductor magnus. This muscle attaches between the sitting bone and the inner thigh bone just above the and behind the knee joint.

In belly down backbends this muscle can be used to lift the thigh bone. It tends to rotate the thigh internally and in a belly down position the weight of the leg itself when lifted accentuates this tendency.

The gluteus maximus can also be used to open the front of the hip however this muscle can also get in the way because it is so bulky. It is similir to someone moving a couch up a narrow stairwell and becoming jammed between the couch and the wall.

This muscle is probably more appropriate for swinging the leg back from a forwards position.

Piriformis, quadratus femoris, obturator internus, gemellus superior and gemellus inferior can also be used to open the front of the hip. However they all tend to externally rotate the thigh and so possibly this tendency can be countered by using the internal rotatores.

Internally and Externally Rotating the Hip

Internally rotating the hip generally refers to rolling the thigh inwards around it’s long axis. This means the front of the thigh bone moves inwards and the back of the thigh bone moves outwards.

If one thigh is kept still and the pelvis moves relative to that thigh then internal rotation causes the opposite side of the pelvis to move forwards. External rotation does the opposite. If a thigh is kept stable then the opposite side of the hip moves backwards. If the pelvis is the reference then external rotation of the thigh causes the front of the thigh to move outwards.

With both feet on the ground we can turn the pelvis to the right. This causes internal rotation of the left hip and external rotation of the right hip.

Rotation of the hip can occur by virtue of the position the feet are in while in contact with the floor or some solid surface. In such a case the legs are passively rotated. No muscle needs to be active to cause this action.

Internal rotation can be performed by the gluteus minimus and the adductor magnus. It can also be assisted by the tensor fascae latea.

External rotation can be performed by pectineus, adductor brevis, adductor longus. These muscles all lay within the inner thigh compartment. It can also be caused by the obturator internus, gemellus superior and inferior, piriformis, quadratus femoris. These muscles are closer to the pelvis and can be thought of as being in the groins.

Psoas and illiacus can also be used to cause external rotation. When using these muscles to externally rotate a lifted leg the weight of the leg itself can be used to assist in external rotation.

Opening the inside or outside of the Hip

In a standing position we can think of using both legs to push the pelvis to one side. If we push the pelvis to the left then we open the inside of the left hip and the outside of the right hip.

Laying on our left side we could lift the right leg and thus open the inside of the right hip. In general, moving one leg out to the side we open the inside of the hip of that leg. Moving the leg inwards (assuming the other leg is not in the way) then we open the outside of that hip.

In a standing position like warrior 2 where one knee is bent and the other is straight, we can use the outer thigh of the bent knee to turn the pelvis to the side. In this case also we can say that we are opening the inside of the hip.

To open the inside of the hip we can use the glute maximus, the tensor fascae latae, the glute medius and glute minimus.

We can also open the inside of the hip passively in an action or position like side splits where we allow the legs to slide away from each other.

To open the outside of the hip we can use the pectineus, adductor brevis, adductor longus, adductor magnus. We may also be able to use the deeper hip muscles but their contribution may be slight.

Psoas and illiacus can also be used to open the outer hip.

Special Cases for External Rotation

In a posture like pigeon where the thigh is forwards and externally rotated, the outer hip tends to be stretched which means that possible we can use some part of the inner thigh to help open the outer hip. From a standing position, we can use the glute maximus and quadratus femoris to externally rotate the thigh. However in a position like pigeon where the thigh is forwards and externally rotated, it may be that this position can be used to stretch these two muscles.

We may also be stretching the tensor fascae latae which normally does internally rotate the thigh.

In a posture like butterfly with the feet close to the pelvis, the inner thighs tend to be stretched. With the feet positioned further away from the pelvis the outer thighs tend to be stretched.

At some point between these two extremes we move from stretching the outer thigh to stretching the inner and from using the inner thigh to using the outer.