Strengthening and lengthening should put you back in balance
The human ageing process begins much earlier than any of us suspect. As yoga teachers, we see evidence of its presence in children ages 9 and 10 who can no longer touch their toes. Growth spurts, overuse and underuse can limit muscular flexibility and strength, particularly where hamstrings are concerned. This group of three muscles (inner, middle and outer) attach to the sitting bones, run down the back of the legs and insert behind the upper calf muscles. By the time many adults arrive at a yoga class, a lifetime of sitting in classrooms or in front of computers has, often severely, shortened and imbalanced their hamstrings.
Depending on one’s daily habits, physical activity, or level of stress, one or more hamstring muscles may be shorter and weaker than the others. Feel the backs of your thighs. If you have tight, uneven hamstrings, you will feel ridges and valleys. When the back of your thighs feel like one smooth band of muscle, then all three hamstrings are working evenly and together. When these muscles are tight, they pull the back hips down, which tightens the buttocks and can create pressure on the sciatic nerve. Unbalanced hamstrings, where the outer or inner are shortened, can also create knee issues and back pain as a result of thigh bones pulled out of alignment with shinbones. Sit in Dandasana (see main image above) and check to see if your thigh bone in your upper leg and your shin bone in your lower leg run in a straight line.
Strong, long hamstrings are able to do their work of supporting the thigh bone as it moves into the back of the hip socket. This “grounding” action is fundamental for both physical and psychosocial well-being.
If these beginner poses feel too advanced for your tight hamstrings, consider doing a more basic lengthening action that involves lying down, lifting one straight leg toward the ceiling while holding a strap around the toe mounds. Imagine you are breathing into the location of the tension. You could rest your lifted leg on a chair if the tension in the hamstrings is unbearable. Remember, there is no gain if you feel pain. Sensation that takes you to your edge is fine, but moving beyond your edge is likely to tear the hamstring at its most vulnerable place — the attachment to the sit bone. Be gentle with yourself to prevent this injury from occurring as it takes a long time to heal, which will diminish any gains in flexibility you may have already achieved.
Most importantly with hamstring work, first relax the muscles before you attempt to lengthen them. Many yogis want to stretch themselves into forward bends by forcing their muscles to co-operate. Nothing about that experience is yoga — calm-abiding and clear-seeing. Therefore, as you begin to work with the forward bends below, remind yourself they are relaxation poses, not stretch poses, and consciously relax your hamstrings, outer hips, groins and quadriceps.
Action: Breathe into the belly of the hamstrings and broaden (relax) them to the sides of the legs. Then lengthen the hamstrings from their belly down toward the back of the knee and up toward the sit bones. To build strength, repeat a contract-release cycle with the hamstrings while lengthening them. For more advanced practitioners, repeat the broadening and lengthening actions for each individual hamstring muscle, i.e., the inner, the middle and the outer.
PARSVOTTANASANA (Intense Side Extension pose)
Place a chair in front of your mat (not on it). Take Tadasana with your right heel into the wall. Turn your right leg and foot out (10 o’clock), then step your left foot forward about three feet. Exhale, fold at your hip creases and reach for the chair, pushing it away to keep length in your spine. Keep your hips parallel to the floor and in line with each other. Find the actions, especially in the outer hamstring of your back leg and the middle hamstring of your front leg. To come out of the pose, press into your feet and inhale to standing. Repeat on the other side.
PRASARITA PADOTTANASANA (Wide-legged Standing Forward Bend pose)
From a standing position (Tadasana), step your feet wide apart with toes pointing forward. Have blocks or a chair in place for your hands should they not reach the floor. Exhale, fold at your hip crease and find your hand supports. With your legs straight, lengthen into the outer edges of your feet. Find the actions, especially in the outer hamstrings. To come out of the pose, inhale and press into your feet to stand.
UTTANASANA (Standing Forward Bend pose)
Rest your sit bones against the wall and walk your heels about 10 inches away. Toes point forward. Place two blocks or a chair in front of your feet for your forehead to rest on. On an exhale, fold at your hip creases (the top of both legs) and lower your head to your supports. Keep your legs straight. Find the action in both legs, especially in the middle hamstrings. To come out of the pose, bend your knees slightly, press into your feet and inhale as you curl up to standing.
DANDASANA (Stick pose)
Sit with your legs as straight as possible and your feet into the wall. Sitting on a folded blanket may help you straighten your legs more. Take your hands to the back of one of your thighs and feel the three sets of hamstrings, noting if one or more are tighter than the others (i.e., ridges and valleys). Repeat on the other leg. In both legs, find the breath, broadening, lengthening and strengthening actions outlined above.
Winnipeggers Helen Maupin (www.righttojoy.com) and Candace Propp (www.natureofcontentment.com) are 500-hour certified yoga teachers and authors of the Creating Space: Yoga Actions book series. To purchase their print or ebooks, visit here. For yoga teacher training with them and Stacy Schroder, register at www.sereneyogastudio.com.