By Dr Yogi
Tight hamstrings are something I hear about multiple times in class as well as outside of class – the amount of people who say, ‘I can't even touch my toes, so there's no way I can do yoga!’…
I totally get it, the tightness feels chronic and like it will never disappear. However, once you understand why your hamstrings 'feel' tight then you can start to find the freedom in your legs.
Dissecting the hamstrings
The hamstrings are a collection of three separate muscles that lie at the back of the thigh; biceps femoris, semitendinosus and semimembranosus.
All three muscles originate from the sitting bones (ischium)
The image below shows each separate muscle and then all three muscles together:
The hamstrings are polycarticular, which means that they cross more than one joint. They are involved in both flexion of the knee joint and extension of the hip joint.
What’s going on?
Tight hamstrings can cause posterior (backward) tilting of the pelvis that impacts our posture and can lead to the lower back becoming strained. In yoga it is beneficial to treat a forward fold (or a backbend) as a whole body movement. So the gross movement is coming from an accumulation of movement from the hips, pelvis, lower and upper back and shoulder girdle.
When the hamstrings are tight, forward folding is then often initiated from the lower back and not the hips or pelvis, potentially leading to further strain in the lower back.
Hamstring strains are common and frustrating injuries. The symptoms can be persistent, healing can be slow and the rate of re-injury is often high. One common factor that has been linked to hamstring injury is hamstring tightness.
Why is it happening?
The hamstrings can become tight due to overuse, whether that’s from a high volume physical activity like running and cycling or from prolonged sitting at a desk or in a car.
When the hamstrings are weak, from a lack of adequate loading, the nervous system can tighten them in an attempt to create stability. The hamstrings can also tighten if they have been compensating for weak gluteal muscles or weak hip flexors.
Once we have an understanding of why a muscle is tight we can then make a more informed attempt to lengthen it. Traditional yoga practices tend to focus much more on stretching the hamstrings and less on strengthening this muscle group. If a muscle is tight because of weakness then stretching it will only make it weaker. The focus here instead should be on strengthening. If in doubt, add a mixture of strengthening and stretching into your yoga practice.
When stretching the hamstrings it is important to isolate the full breadth of the muscle group. Forward folds with the feet hip-distance apart will target the more central area while forward folds with feet wide apart will target the medial area. Standing forward folds with feet crossed will target the more lateral aspects.
How to add hamstring strengthening to your practice
Engage the hamstrings gently while stretching them.
Co-contraction involves equally contracting muscle groups across a joint. You can try this in Staff Pose, Dandasana: draw your knee caps towards you to engage your quadriceps and, while maintaining this action, press your heels down to engage your hamstrings.
In Bridge Pose, Setu Bandha Sarvangasana, try stepping your feet further away from you to promote more hamstring engagement.
In the classic standing quadriceps stretch where you bend your knee and draw your heel towards your sit bones, release the hold of your foot for a few breaths and then slowly release your foot to the ground.
Focus on also strengthening the gluteal muscles and the hip flexors.
Monkey Pose is a challenging asana that often forms the peak of a yoga practice. It relies on great hip joint mobility and also stretches the hamstrings and hip flexors.
Since it can take a long time to develop the required range of movement in the hip joints, practising this asana can really help us to become more patient with ourselves and learn to work with our bodies.
Stretches the hip flexors, hamstrings and groin
Helps to improve hip mobility when practised with control
Develops core stability when performed with hands lifted
Improves focus and concentration
Helps to develop patience and resilience
Contraindications to practising Monkey Pose
It is suggested that the full expression of Monkey Pose may not be an appropriate asana to practise if you have an existing hamstring, groin or hip injury, although variations and modifications are always available:
If your hamstrings feel particularly tight, stay in a ‘runner’s lunge’ position.
Top tips for practising Monkey Pose