Just like I naturally start dancing whenever I hear Gloria Estefan, so too, do I immediately drop into a butterfly stretch once I finish a workout. Both are reflexes of mine—and the result of both just feel so good. Seriously though: The butterfly stretch, which is probably one of the most popular seated stretches in the stretching universe, instantly opens up your lower body and hip flexors, making them feel divine.
If you don’t know it by name, the butterfly stretch is when you’re sitting down with your feet together in front of you and your knees are splayed open. “There’s a reason we all sat in a butterfly position in preschool,” says Toni Melaas, method architect and partner at Outer Reach. “The butterfly posture is a perfect example of how it takes strength and mobility in equal measure to create stability and alignment in your form.”
It’s specific to opening up your lower body, which is where so. much. tightness happens. “This can be a great exercise for people who want to find more flexibility in their hips and inner thighs, and is fantastic to undo the slumping that’s typically done at a computer all day,” says Rebecca Lubart, Pilates instructor and founder of Dynamic Body Pilates. “The pressing of the soles of your feet together combined with the pull of the arms and a long, neutral spine means that you’ll not only get a great stretch sensation in your hips, but as you press your thighs down with your hip muscles, it creates a really great anchoring of your thigh bones into your hip sockets.” That’s especially important because, she points out, we lack that when we round over our desks practically 24/7.
To do it for yourself, get seated on the floor or on a mat, and literally make your legs look like a butterfly (hence the name). Once your feet are pressing against each other and your knees are out to the side, gently fold over them while keeping your back long. You can add pressure with your elbows on your knees for a deeper, more gooey stretch. Having trouble? Lubart has three things to keep in mind, along with some modifications you can try.
1. Open up instead: If you can’t sit in the butterfly stretch position without rounding your lower back, you might not be getting the intended muscle release, says Lubart. “For a modification, try reaching your pubic bone to the ground and your chest to the ceiling as you pull with your arms and press the legs down,” she says, noting not to fold forward.
2. Use a chair: Having too much trouble sitting in this position? Lubart suggests using a chair instead, sitting up tall with both feet planted on the ground. “Cross one ankle over the opposite thigh for a figure-four, then with your hands on your knee and foot, hinge forward from the hips,” she says. “Go only as far as you can maintain a neutral and not rounded back.” Do both sides for the same benefits you’d get from the butterfly stretch.
3. Get deeper into it: For those who are really bendy yet always tight, Lubart recommends doing the seated butterfly stretch—but try challenging yourself to “find the hip activation of your legs being open as equal as possible in both hips.” Make sure the entire surface of both feet are pressing against each other, and hinge forward with a neutral spine—no rounding, rib splaying, or neck crunching, she says—and hold for six full counts. “Hold when you have all of those things active,” she says. “Then release. This will help you strengthen your way into the stretch, which will give you a greater relief from your tightness.”
Also useful? These yoga stretches that boost your flexibility and give you even more of a lower body release.