Creating Flexibility with Strength

Standing-Separate-Leg-Stretching-Pose“Stretch your arms out wide to the side: building strength with intention.” ~ Sara, one of Susan’s beloved yoga teachers

After practicing Nia for almost 15 years, I totally get the idea of creating strength with strength. By moving energy in, packing tight around the bones, I can increase my muscular strength by using the strength I already have.

Cool for sure.  But it took my yoga classes to show me that I can also use that same strength to safely and effectively create more flexibility, too. Love that.

Dandayamana-Bibhaktapada-Paschimotthanasana. Standing Separate Leg Stretching pose.
A Sanskrit name so long that I takes our teacher almost as long to say it as it does for us to do it.

In my yoga practice, I am challenged to execute any of the 26 postures in the series skillfully. But this 8th posture in the series is mine. I can almost really do it.


On the surface, it looks like a venture of straight flexibility. But like yoga itself, it is the perfect balance of both strength and flexibility, yang and yin. It is the body’s way and it is an impeccable example of how we can create more strength with our own strength and more flexibility with that same strength.

Standing-Separate-Leg-Stretching-Pose 1

The pose sets up with legs straddling the mat, toes gently turned in, and arms extended long, Leonardo’s Vitruvian Man.

Students Practice The Unique Bikram Yoga

Then it’s a swan dive forward

standing separate leg stretching swan dive

with hands reaching around the heels to, in its full expression, place the hairline on the floor between the feet.

standing separate leg stretching from side

At first, I just let myself swing gratefully into the stretch and hang out. I’m naturally flexible, so getting my head on or near the floor wasn’t a challenge.  But I wasn’t really doing the pose.

Step by step, my teachers helped me feel the balance of strength and flexibility that build on each other to create more of both.

First, Sara pointed out the full-on engagement in the arms before the swan dive. “In this practice, we don’t do a lot of Downward Dogs or Chaturunga [poses in which the body’s weight is in the hands]. Here, we build strength with intention.” Right on, say I. Just as we do in Nia.

With that reminder, I’d shoot my arms out with strength and intention and then gratefully swing down into the stretch, just letting myself hang. Then, during a class with Cecily, she walked behind me as I hung there, and wordlessly drew her fingers up my legs from knee to thigh. Ah, engage the fronts of the legs. Don’t just hang. Right. By actively drawing in the thigh muscles and pulling down with the hands, the backs of the legs — those notoriously tight hamstrings — released even more.

As my hairline quivered deliciously close to the floor in a class with Amy, she suggested I engage my middle and upper back to lengthen my spine. “By engaging muscles on one side of the body [in this case, the back], the others can more fully release. It’s called ‘Reciprocal Inhibition.’”

Reciprocal Inhibition, it turns out, is not the description of two painfully shy people on a date. Instead it is a reflex in the body that we can use with awareness to build both strength and flexibility. By consciously contracting muscles, we increase their strength, but also, we allow the opposing muscles to release safely and more fully.

You can feel this yourself with opposing muscles: contract one side of the body (quadriceps or biceps, for example) and sense for the length on the opposite side (in these cases, hamstrings or triceps). Reciprocal Inhibition can also happen in the core. Contracting the upper back, for example, stretches the chest; engaging the abdominal muscles helps the low back to release.

Right there inside your own skin you have what you need to create more strength and more length. How cool is that?

    • Right on, Carolyn! Isn’t it great to have exercise that is both fun and good for the body? Love that.

  1. joy said:

    I love that I have been in the “fitness” industry for 25+ years and only today have I heard “reciprocal inhibition.” Brilliant! Thanks and great post (as usual) 🙂

    • Right on, Joy! When my yoga teacher said those words, my ears perked up like, well, Turk’s! xo

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