Recently a yoga teacher who attends my classes asked me how to respond to students who complain of tight hamstrings, who are seeking ways to open and lengthen them. It is no exaggeration to say that I have heard the statement, “I have tight hamstrings” uttered thousands of times by hundreds of people since I became a yoga teacher. Indeed I said it plenty to myself over the years before I got it figured out. And I was quite miserable in forward bends before I expanded my understanding.
When one says that they have tight hamstrings, they usually are referring to what they perceive as an inability to fold forward deeply from the hips. This movement has somehow become the gold standard for what sets the flexible practitioner, often mischaracterized as being advanced because of this, apart from the inflexible one, often mischaracterized as being something other than advanced because of this.
The yoga culture has cultivated and propagated the message that being “good at yoga” means being able to fold forward deeply. That is a completely, 100% false notion that has been made worse with the yoga porn that is ubiquitous in social media and advertising. Fortunately, though, many people are beginning to see that an addiction to flexibility does not deepen the actual practice of yoga, and that it indeed can and does lead to injury, sometimes very serious.
So, the first thing to establish when responding to this query about lengthening the hamstrings is to ask why that matters. More often than not, what is fueling the desire to fold more deeply forward is attraction to the aesthetic of the pose, combined with a desire to be seen by self and others as a good yogi. While desires such as this can be useful in moderation, as they do get us on the mat, they can also be a hindrance to happiness, as they bind the mind to a vision of self that is not based on the present experience. Desire binds us to a preconception of the future. Yoga practice is based on binding the mind to what is currently happening, not what we want to be happening. So, too much of this desire literally stops the practice of yoga and replaces it with the practice of desire and judgement.
So the first step in this hamstring journey is to listen to your thoughts as you reach your limit in forward folding. Take it apart and examine it. Is it something your body needs or is it something that you want? Is it like buying nutritious food or is it like buying a nice, but unnecessary piece of jewelry?
Is this desire for increased flexibility actually a desire for the ego to pleasure itself? Or is this perceived inflexibility actually a hindrance to optimal functionality of the body?
After a careful inquiry into your motivation, the next step is to decide whether this is really something to work on. If you cannot sit on the floor with straight legs and a neutral spine, that may actually limit developing your practice and it may be beneficial to address that situation. You might benefit from lengthening the hamstrings and other extensors of the hip. But you might need instead to strengthen the muscles that stabilize the spine, or the hip flexors in the fronts of the legs. Let’s have look at those things.
When seeking to increase range of motion in a joint, there are three possible limiting factors, and they often present themselves together. They are: muscles and connective tissue that are not elastic enough to allow the movement, muscles that are not strong enough to make the movement happen or stabilize the parts that we don’t want to move, and knowledge about where and how to physically and mentally work.
In the case of folding forward from the hips, the muscles that must let go to allow greater movement are located in the back of the pelvis and legs, primarily the gluteus maximus and one of the hamstring muscles. In order to lengthen them, you must know where to work in order to isolate effort so that you move the thing you want to move, the hip- and so that you don’t move the things that need to stay stable so they can leverage the hip open- the lower back and the leg.
The muscles that make the movement happen are in the front of the leg. They are collectively referred to as hip flexors. They connect different spots on the low back and the front of the pelvis to the front of the thighbone. To move the hip, using direct muscular control, into a forward bend, called hip flexion, one must make these muscles shorter. Making them shorter brings the bones they connect to, the thigh and pelvis, closer together. So it is helpful to picture that happening. You will not accomplish much additional range of motion by simply plopping yourself forward and hoping for the best while you think about how tight you are. Instead, take action by contracting the muscles that move the hip into flexion.
At the same time, you must work to keep stable the other things that will want to move. Keep the knees straight and keep your low back stable so that you can use those parts as stiff rods that your hip flexors will leverage closer together via the pivot point of the hip joint. If the knees bend or the back rounds, you get your head closer to your legs, but you do nothing to help the hip increase range of motion. And you weaken the important muscles that stabilize the spine and make the legs strong.
The muscles that keep the legs straight extend from the front of the leg below the knee to the front of the leg above the knee. Picture what you want these muscles to do- which is to stay short enough that the knees can’t bend, and engage there so that your movement happens solely at the hip.
The muscles system that holds the spine stable is complex and multi-layered. But in the case of the forward bend, to isolate the movement at the hip, you seek to prevent the back ribs from moving away from the back of the pelvis, which is accomplished by the quadratus lumborum; and you seek to maintain a bind between the backs of the bones that form the the lower spine. That spine stabilization is accomplished by the lumbar multifidi and the erector spinae muscles, which run along both sides of the spine, one layer under another. So, as you fold forward, picture what you are trying to do there and do it. Seek to hold the area of the low back stable, preventing the back ribs from moving away from the back of the pelvis, using these muscles so that when you use your newfound hip flexors to move, that movement is happening primarily at the hip joint itself.
The last physical piece of the recipe for deeper hip flexion is accomplished with your brain. The physical component is to allow the muscles that prevent hip flexion to lengthen. Those muscles are collectively called hip extensors, and they connect the back of the pelvis to the backs of the legs. They must get longer to fold more deeply forward. When that happens, the sit bones will move away from the backs of the knees. The efforts above will provide the physical forces that make that happen, but your mind has a job to do as well. That is because a major factor that determines the maximum length of a muscle is provided by the nervous system, of which your brain is the boss. Your nervous system remembers how long each muscle has been able to get in the past, and when you get to that length, a pain signal is sent to the muscle that disallows further movement. Mentally here, we are trying to change the setting, like adjusting the thermostat in your house. Knowing this, thinking about it in the movement, and using your brain to tell that muscle that it can let go a little will indeed get it to let go a little. Your brain is very powerful. Don’t let it tell your muscles that they can’t lengthen. It is lying when it says that. Use your brain to help you.
Do not force this. Instead, coax it a little tiny bit each time. Invite the muscle to get longer. And remind yourself that you are a frequent practitioner who takes baby steps each day, and that you are taking a baby step in this moment by incrementally increasing the length that the nervous system allows, using your very powerful mind. It works.
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