Updated: Jul 21, 2022
There is a lot of focus in the Yoga world on extreme flexibility and aesthetics, but is being a 'bendy-Wendy' an ideal we should be striving for? What is more important to your Yoga practice and your body? Having good flexibility or good mobility?
There is actually a pretty big difference between these two words, they're bandied about in Yoga class a lot and whilst they might seem interchangeable, it's important for our Yoga practice to be able to define them both.
Have a look at this basic definition:
The ability of the joints to move actively through it's full range of motion. Eg - how high can you lift your leg without holding/pulling it/using the floor?
A muscles ability to lengthen without engagement, ie. passively stretch. Eg. - how high can you pull your leg up?
The key words here are Active and Passive. Active movement requires strength and control, where as passive movement is just that, passive. You use levers and pullies to force the body into a position that lengthens the muscles and provides a stretch.
I'm going to tell you something that doesn't always go down all that well in Yoga communities, but 'flexibility' isn't necessarily all that good for you. There is very little research that shows passive stretching gives you any benefits at all. Don't believe me? Do your own research and let me know if you can find any studies that show anything more than a negligible effect of passive stretching on the body. In fact, often the opposite is true; stretching can cause wear and tear to the joints, and stretching ligaments and tendons out of shape can be dangerous (they don't have recoil like muscle does, so overstretching can cause permanent damage to these delicate structures).
Extreme forward folds with locked knees may look good on instagram, but can risk stretching the knee ligaments out of shape...
Mobility on the other hand is generally considered to be good for the body - there are several studies that have shown improved active range of motion in the joints reduces likelihood of injury. Essentially by focussing on active, dynamic stretches, and strength through your full range of motion (more lifting your leg up in the air, less grabbing and just pulling it up...) your body will be healthier and happier.
The extreme flexibility you see on social media and are occasionally taught in class serves, in my opinion, our egos far more than it does our bodies. We also need to take into consideration genetic factors such as hyper-mobility, which effects roughly 1/3 of the population (possibly a higher ratio in Yogic communities - hypermobile people tend to be drawn to Yoga as they are naturally good at the egotistical flexibility stuff!) some people are more flexible than others for genetic reasons alone.
So I hope you'll take away from the post some inspiration to improve your mobility, or active range, and be less inclined to putting pressure on your body to perform high flexibility passive movements. They may look 'prettier' but believe me in time, your body will thank you for it!