What is the impact of age on flexibility in yoga?

This post discusses the impact of age on flexibility within the realm of yoga. Lack of flexibility and aging are, unfortunately, commonly perceived as obstacles to the beautiful practice of yoga. Therefore, it is important that the impact of age on flexibility is addressed, so that more people feel able to begin practicing yoga in a way that suits their unique needs.

Jump ahead to:

Addressing misconceptions in yoga

Two things I often hear as a yoga teacher are “I’m not flexible enough to do yoga” and “I’m too old to do yoga”. I could wax lyrical about how neither of these is true. Instead, I’ve created a handy little reference guide that addresses these two (and more) pervasive misconceptions about yoga.

When I think about it, though, I find that these “reasons” often come from the same people. This suggests that many of us perceive these variables as inextricable.

“Too old” could mean many things in reference to the context of yoga. “Old” often is synonymous with “stiff”, “busy”, “modest”, and “unsure”, among many others.

Likewise, “not flexible enough” could also be interpreted as “old” or “busy”. It’s no secret that we lose flexibility as we age, especially if our busy lifestyles keep us sedentary. The impact of age on flexibility does not work in our favor unless we diligently keep up a fitness routine that we mindfully adjust to suit our body’s evolving needs.

A note about the term “yoga”

Cultural appropriation of yoga has meant that for many of us in the West, the term “yoga” is synonymous with “fitness”, “exercise” or “stretching”.

To put it bluntly, this is a drastic minimization of an ancient practice whose scope reaches far beyond simply stretching out a few muscles.

Yoga is a way of life harking from the Indian subcontinent and spanning thousands of years. It is a practice of self-liberation, through movement, breathwork, meditation, internal reflection, contemplation, and so much more. Yoga is a science that has served generations.

It is not a few forward folds, push-ups, and backbends.

What we refer to as “yoga” these days, is in fact one small component of the bigger picture. In Sanskrit (the language of yoga), that component is called asana. 

So, in this post, when I refer to flexibility as it applies to “yoga”, what I am referring to is the physical practice of yoga that we are all familiar with, asana​.

A woman is practising yoga in a field. She is silhouetted against the purple and orange sunset.

The effects of aging on our physical flexibility

To understand the effects, we must first define “aging”. There are many things that age us, besides the linear passing of time:

  • A poor diet high in processed foods
  • Unhealthy habits like excessive alcohol consumption and smoking
  • Consistently high stress levels leading to a weakened immune system
  • Lack of exercise

A sedentary lifestyle (one where our daily life consists of sitting at a desk for hours on end), means we have little opportunity for much physical activity. As a result, this leads to loss of muscle mass and tight muscles. Poor flexibility is the direct result of weak, tight muscles.

​Sitting for long periods of time essentially speeds up the aging process.

Why do we lose flexibility and mobility as we age?

Despite well-intentioned fitness goals, our flexibility decreases naturally. This is due to a loss of fluid in our soft tissues and connective tissue, as well as a loss of elasticity in our muscles:

“[Flexibility is] increased rigidity of the tendons and ligaments around the joint. This is caused by changes in connective tissue collagen fibers which make up these structures. These changes include tightening of the cross-links which makes the joint less able to bend. Another cause is a reduction in elastin content which gives these structures elasticity. There is also a general deterioration in cartilage, ligaments, tendons and a reduction in fluid within the joint (synovial fluid) along with tightening and dysfunction of muscles surrounding the joint.” (Bataineh, 2021)

Why is flexibility important for our health?

​There is good news, though, for older people and younger people, and everyone in between.

Knowing the importance of flexibility for our overall health is the first step in slowing down any deterioration. Essentially, the impact of age on flexibility can be reduced.

There are many health benefits to maintaining our flexibility:

1. Good flexibility means we must engage in regular exercise. Therefore, if we have the goal to improve flexibility, we immediately reduce the time spent sedentary.

2. Muscle strength is a prerequisite to muscle flexibility. We need to stabilize the muscles first before pushing them into stretches. Regular strength training that targets your lower body, lower back, chest, shoulders, and arms, has been shown to positively impact our immune systems as well as lead to good balance.

3. Stretching certain groups of muscles, like the hip flexors, improves our range of motion. According to Dr. Leython Williams in this article, “Increased range of motion, balance, and mobility are all linked to flexibility and contribute to overall strength and fitness”. This potentially reduces our risk of injury: the old adage “I bend, so I don’t break” comes to mind.

4. Involuntary stretching (pandiculation) is thought to be our nervous system telling us to either wake up, or calm down and release tension. Conscious strengthening and stretching also correlate with reduced stress.

5. Stretching to improve flexibility increases blood supply to the target muscles. That blood brings with it vital nutrients and oxygen to support the function of the muscles.

What effect does yoga have on improving flexibility?

CAVEAT: When I refer to “yoga” here, I am specifically referring to the physical practice of yoga, including asana (yoga poses) and pranayama (breathing techniques). 

If you are an avid yoga practitioner, or even just yoga curious at this stage, then I come bearing good news. It is no secret that consistent yoga practice over time results in greater flexibility. This is true regardless of age.

A well-rounded yoga practice that targets numerous areas of the body is a great way to alleviate the impact of age on flexibility. Most yoga classes will include a combination of static stretching and dynamic stretching. Static movement in yoga is where we hold a pose for a few breath counts.

Dynamic movement is where we move in connection with the pace of our inhales and exhales. Movements and breath are connected in dynamic stretching.

Static and dynamic stretching in yoga

Static stretching allows for opposing muscles to stretch. Our muscles are roughly arranged into pairs – when one stretches, the other flexes. For example, In order to stretch out the hip flexors (running from the pelvis to the top of the thigh), the hamstrings will need to flex. Tight hip flexors will restrict the range of movement of the hamstring. In a static stretch, the target muscle is extended and its opposing muscle is flexed.

Think of a simple standing forward fold. We flex (contract) the front thigh muscles (often cued as “lift your knee caps), to allow for the hamstrings to stretch a little more. In a low lunge, we keep the hamstrings slightly flexed so the hip flexors can stretch. In fancy science terms, these are called “antagonistic pairs”.

Dynamic stretching is where the muscles and joints a continuously active, in connection with the breath. The full range of motion is applied. In a breath-based Hatha Yoga class, dynamic movement occurs before static movement, as dynamic movement will warm up the target muscles by using them in the way they would be held in a static stretch.

Let’s take Warrior 2 as an example.

The dynamic movement would look like exhaling as the front knee bends and the arms come to shoulder height, followed by the front leg straightening and arms raising up on the inhale.

The static stretch is where we hold Warrior 2 in position for a few breaths. In this situation, the stretch occurs in the muscles of the inner thigh, calves, and hamstring of the back leg, and in the arm flexors and chest muscles.

The opposing muscles (the upper back, triceps, quadriceps, glutes, and so on) are flexing.

A woman in black leggings and a black tank top is performing Warrior 2 yoga pose against a beige-grey backdrop.

The impact of the breath on flexibility

You’ll notice the importance of breath in a yoga class, too. Our focus on deep inhales and exhales is not just for fun. Some yoga poses are tough, regardless of age and experience. Holding any pose that is troublesome for you can trigger feelings of nervousness, fear, and frustration.

This is our sympathetic nervous system kicking in. In this fight-or-flight state, we inadvertently tense up our muscles ready for combat or escape. This is not conducive to increasing flexibility, so awareness of the breath is paramount. Lucky for us, those wise yogis of ancient times knew this and developed a wide variety of breathing techniques to help. Some of these (not all) can be applied to our asana practice.

Focusing primarily on deep inhales and exhales stimulates the parasympathetic nervous system, our rest-and-digest response. In this state, our mindset and our muscles relax, allowing for a greater range of motion, and therefore greater flexibility.

Is stretching important for my health as I get older?

In short, yes. Can yoga help with this? Yes. The physical practice of yoga serves to increase our strength, flexibility, and mobility, which are all indicators of age (or, should I say, youth).

So, to bring this back to my original gripe with the misconceptions that you need to be young and nubile to practice yoga, we can now see that age is but a number. It’s the life in our years that keeps us young.

Maintaining an active lifestyle is key. You could do this through any number of forms of exercise including weight training paired with a regular stretching routine. Consistently incorporating regular stretching exercises into your everyday activities will increase your recovery time.

In my rather biased opinion, though, a well-rounded yoga class (beyond even purely the asana practice) will tick off most of the boxes concerned with the impact of age on flexibility and then some.

If you’re interested in hearing more from me each week about all things yoga, follow me on Instagram, sign up for my weekly newsletter for some useful tidbits, or hop over to my Facebook group where you can ask your burning yoga questions. We are a friendly bunch over there, and there is no such thing as a foolish question.

Until next week, much love,