Range of motion is a term that has recently gained popularity in yoga communities…and for good reason. As more and more people come to yoga to gain flexibility, it’s important for teachers and students alike to have a few basic facts to prevent overstretching and hurting ourselves.
So what is range of motion (ROM)? Range of motion is basically a measure of how flexible we are at each joint in our body from a neutral, standing position – referred to as anatomical position. From this position, movements for each joint are broken down and assigned a range that is considered normal or average. For example, if you were to lift your arm straight up, it should lift up 180° (right besides the center of your ear). For a basic ROM list for each joint, you can check out this link. However there are few things you should consider if you’re looking to gain more flexibility:
1. There are two types of ROM – Passive and Active. Passive range of motion is what we typically think of when we think of stretching. It’s using gravity, our body weight, props or even assistance from someone else to create the most movement we can at a joint. Active range of motion is when we use the strength of our muscles to create as much movement as we can at a joint. Active ROM is often considered to be more desirable because it means that the muscles are strong enough to lend our joints support as well as flexibility. When we focus on active ROM, we are less likely to overstretch or injure ourselves.
2. ROM can be limited by much more than just muscle tightness. There are lots of factors that limit our range of motion that have nothing to do with tight muscles. These factors include individual variances in bone structure, age, dehydration, soft tissue approximation, an injury or previous injury, arthritis, nerve damage, shortened ligaments, joint replacement and more.
3. ROM numbers are guidelines, not rules. Because of the variances in individual bodies, ROM numbers should be taken as approximations. In addition, guidelines from different sources can vary slightly. So while it’s okay to go a few degrees beyond normal ROM provided you take it slow and listen to your body.
4. When we go way beyond what is considered normal ROM, we risk losing stability. Muscles are not always the only things stretched in yoga. Oftentimes, when we go beyond our natural range of movement, we pull on our ligaments as well. Unlike muscles, ligaments have a very limited ability to stretch. They only stretch about 6% and after that they start to tear. And because they don’t have much blood supply, they often don’t come back to their original length. This means that the overstretched joints are less stable and more prone to recurring injuries in the future.
5. Increasing ROM requires good technique, consistency and time. Believe it or not, overstretching can actually prevent us from gaining flexibility. In other words, don’t go too fast too soon. Your body will respond better if you warm up your joints, go slowly, and breathe deeply. For best results, you should stretch a little bit every day, feeling no more than a mild to medium sensation. If you’re straining and your breathing becomes stressed and shallow, you’re less likely to get the results you’re looking for.
While flexibility allows us to perform every day tasks with ease, decrease pain through good posture and body mechanics and even helps to prevent some injuries and illnesses, it’s easy to have too much of a good thing. Many yoga positions require much more range of motion than normal, so it’s best to work slowly and with caution. Ask yourself if you’re working on a certain pose because it contributes to your overall health in your everyday life. If the answer is “no,” you may want to rethink your yoga practice.