The hamstrings are three long muscles (semitendinosus, semimembranosus and biceps femoris) at the back of the thighs. Their job is to flex (bend) the knee and extend the hip, though it might feel at times as if their primary responsibility is to stymie our attempts to forward fold!
Sitting in chairs, an activity in which these muscles are both inactive and at their shortest length, is a primary culprit for tight-feeling hamstrings. A lack of flexibility in and around the hamstrings can cause postural problems, and can set the stage for spinal disc injury by pulling the ischial tuberosities (sitting bones) down and forcing a posterior (backward) tilt of the pelvis. That posterior tilt flattens the curve of the lumbar spine (lower back), and makes it hard to hinge safely into forward folds like uttanasana (standing forward fold), prasarita padottanasana (wide-legged fold), and dandasana (staff pose).
Many practitioners come to yoga hoping to release their hamstrings. After years of only slight improvement, we may tell ourselves that more patience and more forward folding is what is required. But classes that promise to “lengthen” “tight” hamstrings through a program of diligent forward folding may not necessarily lead to the release we are hoping for. In addition, many of the safeguards often recommended for those with hamstring limitations or injuries—like bending the knees, sitting on blankets, or avoiding forward bends altogether—are only part of the whole picture, and they do not address the imbalances that keep the hamstrings locked year after year.
Classes that promise to “lengthen” “tight” hamstrings through a program of diligent forward folding may not necessarily lead to the release we are hoping for.
Challenging the following prevailing myths about the hamstrings may empower us to make revisions to our movement habits and yoga practices that will eventually enable us to deepen our forward folds and ease our lower backs.
1. My hamstrings are tight.
The problem is often not tight hamstrings. You see, it’s often not your muscles that are tight, but rather the fascia, or connective tissue, around the muscles. Fibrous adhesions (“stuck places”) and micro-entanglements (minute knots) in the fascia are clumping your hamstrings together, essentially holding them in a “Chinese finger trap.” In other words, the knotted sticky places in the connective tissue around the hamstrings are often what keep us from going deeper into our forward folds.
2. My goal is to get my hamstrings to lengthen.
Your hamstrings are probably long enough. They need to be able to widen and spread from side to side in the course of their engagement—like a curtain being pulled across a rod. The knotted sticky places in the connecting tissues surrounding the muscle are often preventing that lateral play. Because of the interconnectedness of fascia, if a muscle doesn’t have side-to-side wiggle room, elasticity is going to be limited in all directions (and this includes the more obvious “lengthening potential”). But once that side-to-side wiggle room is available and your bones are well aligned for hip-hinging, the tissue can broaden and you can safely move more deeply into your forward fold.
3. The only way to release my hamstrings is to stretch the back of my thighs through poses like forward folds.
Actually, when any movement or posture is created with healthy skeletal alignment, the bones will guide the hamstrings along their intended lines, gradually releasing the adhesions binding the hamstrings in order to mobilize the fascia and muscle tissue. Healthy alignment assists the hamstrings to “find their grooves,” where they will be able to slide and glide freely.
The keys to hamstring release (applicable to a wide range of poses and movements) are to drop weight into the feet, track the knees toward the middle toes, and create an elongated neutral spine. Think well-rooted feet, whose balls and heels both bear weight evenly; knees that move toward the centerlines of the feet (right between the second and the middle toes); and a spine arranged so that the back of the head and the tailbone move equally far back, while lengthening away from each other.
Many patients come to physical therapy with hamstring-related injuries. The key to their recovery is to examine how they are positioning themselves through their feet, where their knees are in relation to their toes, and the shape of their spines. Once they learn to balance weight more evenly through the balls and heels of the feet, track their knees toward their middle toes, and lengthen their spines, the root pathology is undone and their hamstring tension releases.
For a quicker fix, many body workers (like physical therapists, massage therapists, structural integrationists, and ROLFers) are experts at freeing adhesions in connective tissue. Self-massage can work as well. Try sitting on a firm chair, place a tennis ball under one thigh, lift that foot slightly, and move the leg from side to side to “strum” the hamstrings, pressing down into the ball as much as possible. When you find a tight spot, hold and breathe.
However, freeing adhesions manually does not address the underlying movement issue strategies that may have led to the adhesions forming in the first place. It may even set the stage for injury, if that increased mobility is not accompanied by increased stability and postural changes. A yoga practice that emphasizes healthy weight-bearing habits is one way to foster that stabilizing alignment.
In addition, establishing healthy habits such as drinking plenty of water, eating nutritious food, and moving continually throughout the day (as opposed to sitting for hours on end) can help establish a good context for hamstring release!
4. I may have stretched the same way for years, but if I’m patient, my hamstrings will eventually release.
Not so. It’s likely that doing what you’ve always done, the way you’ve always done it, will continue to get you what you’ve always gotten. Continue to forward fold without addressing underlying alignment and weight-bearing issues, and you’ll probably keep feeling stuck. To find the release you’re looking for, try rooting the feet well and tracking the knees and feet with greater care, while moving with an elongated neutral spine in as many different poses as possible and throughout your daily activities. Applying these principles to your forward folds might serve to make the same old poses feel newly productive!
5. If I experience hamstring tendonitis (pain at the origin of the hamstrings, just underneath the buttocks) I should avoid all forward folds.
It’s not what you do, but how you do it. Often, hamstring tendonitis occurs because of an imbalance in the weight-bearing and alignment in a pose, and not because of the pose itself. The tendonitis (called tendonosis when chronic) usually means that one part of the hamstring group is overstretching or overworking. This is a symptom of an underlying movement dysfunction. It’s an indication that you need to build the strength and coordination that will enable you to share the stretch load of a forward fold throughout the whole leg and its connective tissue. Doing that will often get you out of the repetitive strain cycle.
For self-treatment of hamstring tendonitis, come into a standing forward fold until you are just above any sensation of pain. For two minutes, hold your forward fold at that pain-free depth; continue to lengthen the spine, track your knees toward your middle toes, and relax your weight into each foot with great sensitivity. Then come back up with a long spine. The two-minute hold facilitates tissue remodeling and neuromuscular re-patterning (leading to enhanced coordination and strength), which will likely allow you to fold deeper without pain in your next forward fold.
6. As long as I activate my quadriceps when stretching my hamstrings, the stretch will be safe.
While the inclination to stretch actively instead of passively is a good one, activating the quadriceps (the muscles at the front of the thighs that work in opposition to the hamstrings to extend the knee and flex the hip) guarantees very little. The bones can be misaligned, even with the contraction of the quadriceps. In this case, the tracking issues will remain unaddressed, potentially causing limitations and injuries. Rather than focusing on activating any particular muscle, if you focus first on skeletal alignment, you’ll get the muscle engagement for free! By tracking the bones of the legs and feet during a forward fold, for instance, you will get the oft-coveted contraction of the vastus medialis (the medial or innermost quadricep, just above the knee toward the inner thigh)—which tends to be harder for many of us to engage than the other quadricep muscles, but whose activation can aid in healthy knee alignment.
7. If in a pose like dandasana (staff pose) I cannot lengthen my spine because of tightness at the back of my thighs, my only recourse is to sit on a pile of blankets.
Blankets can certainly help you to elongate your spine. But you might meet with more success by keeping your legs in the traditional pose, while modifying by walking your hands back and leaning your trunk back. In this alternative, you retain the advantage of the floor underneath your legs, which may make it easier for you to align your knees. You will get more feedback about your knee alignment with your knees on the ground instead of lifted (as they would be if you were sitting on a stack of blankets).
From dandasana, try leaning back, walking your hands back as far as you need to in order to gently curve your lower back in. Bear weight through all your limbs—pressing not only your hands, but also your heels and thighbones into the floor—to help you untuck your pelvis, curve your lower back in gently, and broaden across your collarbones. As in the more traditional upright version of the pose, aim to move your head and tailbone to the same imaginary yardstick behind you, and to elongate them away from each other. Since you are leaning back, the “yardstick” has to tip back with you, bringing your head and your tail to a back-slanting diagonal line. Here you can practice maintaining your lumbar curve, and reinforce healthy actions in your feet and legs: Arrange your feet as though they are pressing against a wall (or better yet, actually do press them against a wall!), and point your toes and knees straight up. Gradually, breath by breath, put more weight into your legs and less in your arms, bringing your spine closer to perpendicular with the earth.
8. Bending my knees in forward folds makes forward folding safe for my hamstrings and lower back.
Bending your knees does not ensure safety, especially if the knees and feet aren’t tracking well, or you haven’t balanced your weight in your feet. To keep a standing forward fold safe, you may bend your knees or not, but be sure to drop your weight evenly into the full surface area of your heels and the balls of your feet, and track your knees toward the space between your second and third toes while elongating your spine toward neutral.
9. My goal is to keep a flat back/neutral spine all the way down into a fold.
Not necessarily. Your goal is to elongate your spine over well-tracked legs. Most people will have to round their spines at around 90 to 120 degrees of hip flexion (the angle between the lines of the spine and thighbones). For example, if you move from standing into a forward fold over straight legs, shortly after your spine lowers past parallel to the earth, your spine must round. (While hypermobile yogis may be able to keep their spines neutral past that mark, that can simply indicate an excessive range of motion in the ball and socket joint of the hip, which does not guarantee a long spine or well-tracked legs.)
Rounding or flexing your spine in a forward fold is fine if the rounding is evenly distributed throughout the bones of the spine and supported by the core. To best engage your core-stabilizing muscles, aim to hit that 90- to 120-degree mark while maintaining a neutral spine; after that, forward fold gradually, with the intention of lengthening your spine over well-tracked leg bones. If, as you go down deeper into a fold, you lose the alignment that anchors you, come back up to re-root and re-lengthen.
10. If I can forward fold easily and deeply, I should always go to the end of my range, moving as far as possible into every stretch.
Yogis often benefit from less focus on mobility and an increased focus on stability and form—backing off from end-range stretches, and doing the humbling work of stabilizing and breathing. Hyperflexible yogis can gird core strength and benefit their connective tissue by refining the weight-bearing in their feet, tracking their knees toward the centerlines of their feet, and lengthening their spines, in what will feel like “midranges” of flexibility to them (at a depth in the pose where they might feel only a hint of a stretch).
If they are hungry for more sensation there, they can attune themselves to the feeling of the breath moving in and out of the body, and work to retain the groundedness of the feet, the tracking of their knees, and the length in their spine—all while allowing the expansion of each inhale and the gentle contraction of each exhale.