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Reciprocal inhibition…secret to improve our flexibility

Updated: May 3

I have seen many students come to Yoga class with primary focus on improving flexibility. In fact, even I started with the same intention but later moved on. I used to push myself, or get pushed to become more flexible. I went to an extent, to find some magical herbs which could make me flexible 🙂 Least did I know the nature of human body. In this blog let us discuss one of the nature’s secrets to improve flexibility. In medical terminology it is called- Reciprocal Inhibition. Let us not get into too much of details about this medical nomenclature.

Polarity is nature’s nature. positive-negative, day-night, ascending-descending, active-passive and let us not forget male-female 🙂 etc. These forces are apparently contradictory, but essentially they go hand in hand and are harmonious. This is why I feel equality is myth, harmony is natural. Even in our body there are such contradictory forces, but at one given point of time, only one manifests over the other. There are forces that energize our body and that calms us down and that is how activity and rest is perfectly harmonised. Even to move a limb these forces act in a perticular way that some muscles contract and some muscles expand, to allow a smooth movement. For example- To bend our elbow joint, biceps contract and triceps expand. To bend knee joint, hamstring contracts and quadriceps expand.

Sounds very simple and logical, right? Exactly! This is so simple, that this action happens so fast and reflexively without involving our mind. If we contract some muscles (Agonists) to move a joint then there are always opposite set of muscles (Antagonists) which relax or expand, reflexively. The more we contract one set of muscles; the opposite set of muscles expand more . This is called reciprocal inhibition in medical terminology. So, the more we want to stretch a muscle the more we need to consciously contract the opposite muscle (In medical terminology it is called Agonist-Antagonist pair). This is the secret to improve flexibility. We can use this logic consciously in our Yoga practice. In our practice, we need to be attentive of our breathing as well, to make optimum benefit of this concept. We need to breathe in a controlled manner, and contract our muscles during exhalations.

A few Yoga asanas where we can apply this concept –

 Paschimottanasana, Janu Sirsasana, Uttanasana, Adho mukha svanasana or any forward bending: Consciously contract quadriceps to extend hamstring to improve forward bending. This is the reason why in Iyengar yoga traditional classes we are asked to pull our kneecaps up when we bend forward. I have explained the need and how to pull up the knee caps in my blog “Yoga tips: Should we pull up knee caps or not?“

 Bhujangasana, urdhva mukha svanasana: We contract buttock muscles, calf muscles to stretch your front body.

We cannot hasten the process of stretching, but, we can apply this method slowly, steadily, breath by breath, every minute. Although it appears simple, wrong application can cause complex injuries. It is advisable to practice this under the supervision of an experienced Yoga teacher. Let us discuss more about enhancing our flexibility in upcoming blogs. Having said this, it is vital to make our mind flexible to comprehend that Yoga is not mere body flexibility.

I thank my good friend, sports physiotherapist, Dr. Gladson Johnson ( under whom I learnt wealth of techniques related to human anatomy and its application to Yoga.

After all, an ounce of practice is always better than thousands of theories! This concept is applicable across asana practice and I would be eager to hear more from your practice 🙂


[1] “Anatomy of Hatha Yoga” by H. David Coulter

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