Flexibility vs. Range of Motion

Studies polling beginner students asked them what compelled them to start practicing yoga. The majority said they came to get “more flexible.” This isn’t surprising. We see pop culture depicting Lycra-clad bendy Wendys posing comfortably in positions that would break the average Joe. Meanwhile, we’re struggling to get up and down off the couch without grimacing. We think, “she’s got something I don’t,” and it seems like “flexibility” must be that something.

While we have no interest in judging other’s personal goals, when we hear that a student would like to become “more flexible,” we get curious. And our curiosity drives us into deeper inquiry.

What does flexibility mean to you? How will you know when you have it? What will you do with it?

More often than not, these questions reveal that student are actually pursuing an overall increase in “range of motion.”

But aren’t range of motion and flexibility the same?

No. Not necessarily.

Flexibility typically refers to static mobility of a tissue at the end of one particular vector angle. In other words, how far a tissue can be stretched in a direction before it stops or breaks.

Range of motion however, refers to the spectrum of movement potential held within a given joint.

To us, understanding the difference illuminates the role aesthetics and cultural programing play in our yoga/movement practices.

We see displays of flexibility and often we aspire to emulate them. But aside from appearing impressive, physical flexibility is actually not all that useful.

Range of motion (ROM), on the other hand, is something we definitely can and do use every day. Range of motion means moving ourselves (active ROM) or being moved (passive ROM) in and out of the stretch, from one end range to the next.

When we pursue range of motion as opposed to flexibility, we can cultivate more mobility throughout a joint’s full spectrum of action potential. We can expand into new territories of movement; reaching new boundaries of what we can do and where we can go in our movement. We become more diverse in our abilities. We gain agency.

This differentiation matters because our goals are meant to determine our approach. But if we don’t clarify our goals over time, outcomes remain cloudy as well.

If we’re trying to become more flexible, we might very well end up exploiting our mobility at one particular range of motion (in yoga it’s usually the hamstrings), while completely neglecting the other end.

If we’re maintaining and generating greater ranges of motion over time, we can stay mobile and enjoy all the benefits mobility brings, into our elder years.

To get more info and to learn how you can increase your overall range of motion, check out our FREE class on YouTube entitled “Find Range Of Motion.”

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