Uncomfortably tight hamstrings are common amongst athletes. Unfortunately, there is no simple, catch-all solution because of the myriad causes and manifestations. For example, if you have an excessive anterior or posterior pelvic tilt, hamstrings can be long and tight or short and tight respectively and the types of poses recommended and contraindicated for each situation differ. The implications for each case are also not the same—whether pain shows up in the lower back, at the hamstring attachment or behind the knee.
In this article, I’ll try to untangle the intuitions that may be leading you astray and offer some solutions that you can apply to your yoga practice.
WHAT ARE THE HAMSTRINGS?
- The hamstrings are a group of 3 muscles—the semimembranosus, semitendinosus and biceps femoris, that run down the back of the thigh, from the sitting bones (ischial tuberosity) to the top of your lower leg, crossing behind the knee.
- The hamstrings flex the knee and extend and rotate the hip.
- The antagonist muscle is the rectus femoris (one of the four quadriceps).
COMMON CAUSES OF TIGHT HAMSTRINGS
- Muscular imbalances (exacerbated by your sport).
- Sitting for prolonged periods.
- Excessive anterior or posterior pelvic tilt.
In yoga, we have a category of poses, called forward bends, that stretch the hamstrings. In fact, they lengthen the entire back of the body, as backbends open up the front of the body. You can practice forward bends supine (lying on your back), standing and seated. Examples include Reclining Hand-To-Big-Toe, Standing Forward Bend and Head-To-Knee, respectively.
THE PROBLEM WITH SEATED FORWARD BENDS
Although it may seem counter-intuitive, seated forward bends are not necessarily advisable for those of us with tight hamstrings. This is, in large part, because the seated position restricts the movement of the pelvis.
If you have an excessive anterior pelvic tilt, your hamstrings are perpetually lengthened and you risk tearing the muscle or aggravating the attachment. And if the tendency is for your pelvis to rotate posteriorly in forward bends (perhaps your hip flexors are also tight), you risk putting tremendous pressure on your lower back.
MODIFYING FORWARD BENDS
Here are a few ways that you can modify forward bends to protect yourself from injury.
- Bend your knees. Flexing the knee allows your hips to rotate forward, taking pressure off your lower back. This works especially well in standing forward bends including Standing Forward Bend/Ragdoll.
- Use blocks. Bringing the ground closer to you can also reduce pressure on the hamstrings and lower back. This is particularly effective in Triangle, Balancing Half Moon and Wide-Legged Standing Forward Bend.
- Sit on a bolster. In seated poses, including Head-To-Knee and Folded Butterfly, raising your hips up allows the hips to rotate forward, relieving the pressure at your lower back.
YIN YOGA FOR TIGHT HAMSTRINGS
Dynamic hamstring stretches are an integral part of yoga. For example, stepping forward from Downward Dog into Low Lunge or transitioning between Runners Lunge and Side Lunge. These movements improve your range of motion and, over time, can help to reduce the sensation of tightness in the backs of the legs.
However, we can go one step further with a style of yoga called Yin Yoga. The Western sports physiology equivalent is static stretching, typically holding postures for 90 seconds or more. Add conscious breathing, smart sequencing and deliberate relaxation to this practice and you have an effective way of releasing muscular tension.
SOME TIPS TO GET THE MOST OUT OF YOUR PRACTICE
- Sequencing. In yoga, there is a recognition that all parts of the body are connected. So, when the hamstrings are tight, it’s likely that other muscles in the area are also tight—for example, the ankles, calves, quads, groin, glutes, hips and lower back. I have designed this sequence to cover all these areas, systematically.
- Conscious breathing. When you are familiar with the poses, I encourage you to extend your exhalations to at least twice the length of your inhalations. For example, you could inhale for the count of two and exhale for the count of four. You will find that this becomes increasingly automatic over time.
- Relax. In each of the poses, rather than trying to stretch your muscles into greater suppleness, close your eyes, focus on the internal sensations and visualise letting go of tension. Also, aim to keep the rest of your body relaxed—your jaw, neck, shoulders, chest, all the way down.
- Be patient. The hamstrings are comprised of particularly tough connective tissue so take your time in the poses and accept that it may take several weeks or even months to restore suppleness to the backs of your legs.
A YIN YOGA SEQUENCE TO RELEASE TIGHT HAMSTRINGS
Ideally, aim to practice this sequence a couple of times a week but you can also break it down into postures, and take them one or two at a time. At the end of the day or right before bed is the best time for this type of stretching.
Swing your legs up against the wall, scoot your butt as close as you can get it and bring your arms out in the shape of a T—palms face up to the sky. Seal your lips and start to breathe long, slow breaths, in and out through your nose. Try to keep your attention trained on your inhalations and exhalations. To the rising and falling of your belly and your chest. Allow your hips to completely relax. Stay in the pose for 3 minutes or more.
2. DEAD PIGEON
Lie on your back with your feet flat on the mat. Cross your left foot over your right thigh, thread your left hand through the triangle between your legs and pull your right thigh in towards you. Keep your left foot flexed to protect your knee. Let go of tension in your hips and let your lower back relax. If you have the flexibility, reach through and take hold of your right shin. Hold the pose for at least 3 minutes on each side.
3. RECLINING BUTTERFLY
Bring your feet together and drop your knees out to the sides in the shape of a diamond. You can prop up your mid-back to open up your chest and put cushions or blocks underneath your knees for support. You should find that this allows you to relax deeper into the stretch. Close your eyes and stay in the pose for 3 minutes or more. Tune back into the rising and falling of your breath.
4. SUPPORTED BRIDGE
Bring your feet flat to the mat and check that they are hip-width apart, knees and toes point straight ahead. Walk your feet back until your fingertips graze your heels. Lift your hips up and place a block underneath your sacrum. Roll your shoulders underneath you to open up your chest. Relax into the pose for 3 minutes or more to open up the hip flexors and release tension at your lower back.
5. RECLINING SPINAL TWIST
Hug your knees into your chest and rock a little from side to side. Lower your left leg to the mat and draw your right knee across your body as far as is comfortable. Bring your arms out in a T and look to the right. You can support your right knee on a bolster or two if that allows you to relax more deeply into the stretch. Stay in the pose for at least 3 minutes on each side.
6. RECLINING HAND-TO-BIG-TOE
Hug your left knee into your chest and loop a strap around the ball of your left foot. Press through your heel and straighten your leg up to the sky. You can bend your right leg if that is more comfortable. Try to keep your hips level, press your lower back into the mat and relax your upper body. Visualise your hamstrings letting go of tension on every exhalation. Hold the pose for at least 3 minutes on each side.
7. FINAL RESTING POSE
Release your arms and legs and lie back in Final resting pose. Turn your palms up to the sky and let your feet fall out to the sides. Scan your body from your feet all the way up to your head—part by part—consciously releasing tension as you go. Allow your body to feel heavy as you melt into the mat. Bring your attention back to the rising and falling of your belly and your chest. Stay in Final Resting pose for at least 5 minutes if you can.
I’d love to hear how you find this sequence and about your own experience with tight hamstrings. Let me know if you have any questions in the COMMENTS below and I’ll do my best to answer them.
Photo credit: @pbdrone