“I’ve been doing your videos for a few weeks and my hamstrings already feel more flexible!” I can’t tell you how many times I’ve heard this, which in itself is testament to the immense power that yoga has to improve your flexibility where it counts.
Now that is not to say that practising 15 minutes of yoga a day is going to miraculously allow you to touch your toes, if you’re a lifelong athlete with hamstrings as a tight as a drum. What we can achieve, however, is excellent functional hamstring flexibility, which will restore the speed, power and lack of discomfort you enjoyed as a younger athlete.
In this article, we’ll look at some of the common causes of tight hamstrings and how yoga can help you to improve your hamstring flexibility.
- 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 to the hamstrings is the rectus femoris (one of the four quadriceps).
COMMON CAUSES OF TIGHT HAMSTRINGS
- Frequent exercise, especially involving running and cycling.
- Sitting for prolonged periods of time.
- Tight quads, hips and calves.
- Weak core and glutes (as hamstrings compensate to stabilise the pelvis).
- Excessive anterior or posterior pelvic tilt*.
* If you have an excessive anterior or posterior pelvic tilt, hamstrings can be long and tight or short and tight, respectively.
YOGA HAMSTRING STRETCHES
In yoga, we have a category of poses, called forward bends, that stretch the calves and 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 standing, seated and reclining (lying down on your back). Examples include Standing Forward Bend, Head-To-Knee and Reclining Hand-To-Big-Toe.
SEATED FORWARD BENDS
Although it may seem counter-intuitive, seated forward bends, like Head-To-Knee, are not necessarily advisable if you have tight hamstrings. This is, in large part, because the seated position limits the movement (tilting forward and back) 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 (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 tilt forward, taking pressure off your lower back. This works especially well in standing forward bends including Standing Forward Bend/Ragdoll and Standing Wide-Leg Forward Bend.
- Use blocks. Bringing the ground closer to you can also reduce pressure on the hamstrings and lower back. Examples include Triangle and Balancing Half Moon.
- Sit on a bolster. In seated poses, including Head-To-Knee and Folded Butterfly, raising your hips up allows your hips to tilt forward, relieving the pressure at your lower back.
A YOGA SEQUENCE TO IMPROVE HAMSTRING FLEXIBILITY
This sequence of 5 poses is a classic yoga progression designed to improve functional hamstring flexibility. We begin by stretching the soles of the feet, which are connected to the ankles, calves and hamstrings. We then tilt the pelvis forward and back in Cat-Cow to set up for correct alignment in Downward Dog, where we stretch the backs of the legs, one at a time. We then come into Revolved Standing Forward Bend—a more intense, active hamstring stretch. And finish with Reclining Hand-To-Big Toe—the safest and most effective passive stretch for the backs of the legs.
None of these poses should cause you pain. Please work within a safe limit for you and speak to your doctor if you have any concerns.
1. SCREAMING TOE POSE
We begin in Screaming Toe pose to stretch your toes and the soles of your feet. Try to line up your ears, shoulders and hips and gently contract your abs.
Tune into your breath for 5-10 rounds of diaphragmatic nasal breathing.
Try to alternate between full anterior and posterior pelvic tilt. Unlocking your hips will set you up for the correct alignment in Downward Dog.
3. DOWNWARD DOG
Walk your hands forward to the top of your mat and lift your hips up into Downward Facing Dog. Keep your knees bent, tilt your pelvis forward and lift your sitting bones up to the sky.
Drop your chest back towards your thighs and aim to make a straight line all the way from your wrists up to your hips. Slowly walk out your feet to stretch the backs of your legs.
4. REVOLVED STANDING FORWARD BEND
Walk your hands slowly back to your feet for Revolved Standing Forward Bend. Bring your right hand to the mat or to a block directly underneath your right shoulder.
Inhale, bend your right knee, sweep your left hand up to the sky and look up to your fingertips. Exhale, relax into the pose for 3-5 breaths. Release the pose and repeat on the other side.
5. RECLINING HAND-TO-BIG-TOE POSE
Come down onto your back. Grab a strap and loop it around the ball of your left foot. Straighten your left leg up to the sky and push through your left heel. Walk your hands up the strap and draw your left thigh in towards your chest.
Hold the pose for up to 10 breaths on each side. Breathe in and out through your nose and keep your neck and shoulders soft.
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 increase your flexibility so that you can do the sports and activities that you love without restriction.
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