These days we often hear the word mobility thrown around with terms like flexibility and functional fitness. While these terms are related, they’re also distinct.
Flexibility is the ability of a muscle to lengthen passively through a range of motion. For example, folding forward to touch your toes uses the weight of the body to lengthen the hamstring muscles into a stretched position.
Mobility, on the other hand, is the ability of a joint to actively move through a range of motion in a controlled manner. This requires flexibility (the tissue’s ability to lengthen), movement capacity in the joint itself, the ability to relax the central nervous system, and motor control. This makes mobility a bit more complex, but also a lot more functional. In layman's terms, mobility is (you guessed it) your ability to move, as opposed to your ability to stretch into a specific position.
Now, there’s a lot of information on the difference between mobility and flexibility out there, so let’s instead focus on how this relates to yoga specifically. Much of traditional yoga seeks to improve strength or flexibility, without impacting mobility. So let's unpack a bit about yoga’s overall effect on mobility and how you can increase your range of motion through practice.
How yoga fails to build mobility
Much of traditional yoga is built around static postures. While practitioners move between poses, they’re rarely challenged to find their end range of motion (where mobility is built). Mobility, as the word implies, is dependent on active and engaged movement. Therefore, sitting into stretches (while juicy) will not be enough to increase it. Note: This isn’t to say that many modern yogi’s aren’t pioneering work in increasing mobility. Only that many traditional asanas are static.
Similarly, we often see advancement in a yoga practice in terms of how “deep” we can go into a pose. This advancement is focused on increasing passive flexibility so as to find a more extreme static expression of a shape. This focus on “postures” pulls our attention away from transitions which are the movement-based part of practice. By many accounts, this hierarchy of yogic priorities should be reversed (as many modern movement-loving yogi’s have done).
How yoga helps build mobility
Now, this isn’t to say that yoga never improves mobility. It does in several ways. Firstly, passive flexibility will aid in mobility to an extent (as you can see in the earlier paragraph, it is a component). But more importantly, yoga teaches us very intentional movement. It allows us to understand the subtle and nuanced ways that we engage the body to find very specific postures. This level of detail in movement bridges a gap that often exists between physical therapists and fitness instructors. It’s necessary to have a very attuned level of bodily awareness to work joints at their end range of motion because this is an area in which they are vulnerable to injury. Mobility work requires us to understand exactly what we’re working on and what movements will safely allow us to increase range of motion.
Two ways to Increase mobility
So how do we actually increase mobility in our Yoga practice? Here are two simple ways:
The first is moving from passive shapes to active stretches. Active stretching gives you the functional flexibility and strength that’s needed to safely and stably bring your joints through their full range of motion. This is because with active stretching you’re engaging antagonist (opposite) muscles instead of using external forces such as gravity. To find an active stretch, think about what muscles groups are opposite of the ones you want to stretch. For example, let’s take the hamstrings. Opposite the hamstrings are the quadriceps and hip flexors. Therefore, a passive hamstring stretch, as noted earlier, would be a forward fold that uses gravity to pull the upper body down. An active hamstring stretch would then be Standing Hand to Big Toe, where the quads and hip flexors are engaged to pull the leg up. You can also look into lightly engaging the muscle that is being stretched by checking out our article on PNF stretching here or researching facilitated stretching on your own.
The second way is performing isometric contractions at one’s end range of motion. Isometric contractions are those in which a muscle is engaged without shortening or lengthening (such as plank position). Isometric work can be helpful for mobility because it holds the potential to build strength within a very small but targeted range of motion. Therefore, it can allow us to slowly and safely build strength in positions that we may otherwise have difficulty training. My favorite example of an end range isometric exercise is standing with your back against the wall, then lifting the arms overhead and pressing the backs of the hands into the wall for 3-5 seconds at a time. In this position, you’re most likely at your end range of shoulder flexion. This can be a great exercise for building the shoulder mobility necessary for a straight handstand.
Ultimately, to build mobility we need a movement based practice that creates active flexibility and strength at our end ranges of motion. This will often require us to go beyond finding a static posture or stretch. We need to repetitively move in and out of challenging positions using our own strength.
Have any great RoM-building techniques of your own? We’d love to hear about them in the comments below!