Hamstrings holding you back? The key to their release may lie not in longer, deeper stretches, but rather in healthy weight-bearing and alignment habits in your yoga practice and throughout your life. These good habits will serve to release the connective tissue binding the hamstrings.
Your hamstrings themselves are probably not tight. Fascial adhesions—”stuck” areas in the connective tissue around the hamstrings—are likely preventing the hamstrings from sliding and gliding the way they need to. This can make forward folds a challenge.
Fascial adhesions can be caused by sports injuries and accidents, and then worsened by stress, poor diet, and dehydration. But more commonly, such adhesions are the result of repetitive stress, i.e., microtraumas that come from poor habits of posture, weight bearing, and alignment of the bones of the legs. These problems often stem from lifelong chair-sitting—which encourages, among other things, a rounded lower back, a posteriorly tucked pelvis, and chronically contracted hamstrings. Chair-sitting also interferes with circulation of blood and lymph necessary for the nutrition, cleansing, breakdown, and repair of the fascial and muscle tissue. Additionally, it deprives us of the opportunity to bear weight well in our feet, and to practice aligning the bones of the legs and the spinal column.
No wonder so many of us feel “stuck” when we forward fold or feel strain just underneath the buttocks (the telltale signal of hamstring tendonitis at the origins of the hamstrings on the ischial tuberosities, or “sit bones”), as we try in vain to stretch hamstrings tightly bundled by fascia. It’s not easy to send the stretch through this clumped tissue, so we end up tugging over and over again at the “top of the curtain”—just where it’s liable to tear off the rod—instead of working our way through the adhesions.
Fortunately, a mindful yoga practice can re-pattern our inner architecture in a way that invites the hamstrings to slide and glide in their grooves, slowly releasing stubborn adhesions and preventing future adhesions from forming. By creating healthy alignment with great specificity in as many different poses as possible (not just forward folds), as well as throughout our daily lives, the aligned hamstrings will melt the fascia that has bound them.
To get the hamstrings to move “in their grooves,” we want to create an elongated neutral spine as often as possible. We also want to encourage our feet (when standing) to fully accept our weight, with the knees and middle toes pointing in the same direction.
We can practice this alignment in many different yoga poses—from trikonasana to crescent pose to vasisthasana—and even in movements like walking and sitting. To bring us in the direction of a forward fold and a more direct encounter with the hamstrings, let’s explore the details of this skeletal alignment as we practice a carefully constructed dandasana (staff pose). To set yourself up for this, sit on your yoga mat a leg’s-length away from the wall, facing the wall. Roll up half your mat and place the mat roll underneath your knees as you straighten your legs; place the soles of your feet against the wall with middle toes pointing up and feet hip-distance apart. The mat roll will help prevent hyperextension of the knees, and will also allow you to perceive the exact placement of the backs of your knees.
1. In order to create an elongated neutral spine, imagine a yardstick behind your back. Lengthen your tailbone and back of your head away from each other, and move them toward the “yardstick.” Gently curve your lower back in toward your belly, and maintain this lumbar curve as you build your dandasana.
If you find that you round your lower back in this pose, try this: Instead of trying to bring your spine perpendicular to the floor, lean back, walking your hands back behind your hips until arriving at a place where you can untuck your tailbone and gently curve your lower back in. Drop weight into your hands and legs to help you create a back-slanting version of a neutral spine there, moving the tailbone and back of the head into the same diagonal line. After practicing holding a neutral spine at a backslant, gradually—perhaps over the course of a single long hold, but more likely over the course of weeks or months of practice—try moving your spine closer to perpendicular with the earth, but prioritize keeping the gentle curve in your lower back.
An elongated neutral spine is important because it engages the core muscles, stabilizes hypermobile tissues, and creates the leverage to move the stretch from superficial and vulnerable points in our muscles into deeper and wider-spread tissue fibers.
2. Align and reach through your feet. Point your middle toes up, so that the centerlines of your feet are parallel to each other. (The centerline of the foot runs from the center of the heel to the space between the second and third toes.) Press the backs of your heels into the mat and press the full dimensionality of the heel and the ball of each foot into the wall.
3. Track your knees carefully. (Hint: For the greatest precision, find the knee not by looking at the kneecap, but by following the line of the thighbone from the ASIS (frontal hip point) down.) Align them not only from side to side (lining the knees up with the middle toes, instead of letting them veer right or left), but also front to back:
Touch the backs of your knees with your hands for a moment, to ensure that the cords at the right and left sides of the “eye” of each knee are level with each other: when your knees are balanced in this pose, the inside and outside corner of the back of each knee will be moving evenly toward the mat roll. (For those of us who hyperextend—i.e., are prone to moving the inner corners of the knees back faster than the outer corners—finding this evenness might leave us feeling like we have to spin the knees out while “microbending” them.)
4. Re-align your feet. Did your effort to create balance in your knees cause your feet to turn in or out, or to disconnect from the wall? Chances are it did. Re-align your feet and re-root the heels and balls of your feet into the wall. As you press the bases of your big toes into the wall, make sure the outer corners of the backs of your knees are still moving toward the mat roll as much as the inner corners of your knees are. If that is easy, then press through the bases of the little toes, and make sure your inner knees are pressing into the mat roll as much as your outer knees are.
5. Hold for at least two minutes. Continue to lengthen your spine, align and animate your feet, and track your knees.
After about two minutes, you may notice an important shift: your sensorimotor system may come to "own" your legs in a new way, making you aware of your legs as “wholes,” instead of as discrete points of engagement; the work your legs are doing may become integrated neuromuscularly with the movements of your respiratory diaphragm, meaning that the alignment of your bones will not falter even through the shifts in pressure as you breathe. In short, you may be able to hold the same alignment with greater ease.
To explore this pose further, give yourself a break to bob your knees out, stomp your heels, and sway your legs from side to side, and then try dandasana without the wall. Scoot back, and this time work to hold your feet in neutral while you practice the alignment points above—continuing to reach out through the balls of your feet and your heels as if you are still pressing them into a wall.
Then try creating the same shape on your back. Lie down and stretch your feet up toward the ceiling, tailbone tipping down into the mat, lower back gently curving away from the mat. (If your lower back has flattened against the earth, move your legs forward, away from your face, until you regain your lumbar curve.) Now align your feet as if you were standing on the ceiling. Check occasionally to make sure your knees are still in line with the centerlines of your feet, and touch the backs of your knees to confirm that the insides and outsides of the backs of your knees are balanced.
Then try standing on your feet, in a high version of ardha uttanasana (half forward fold), with your hands on blocks or your thighs as you project your elongated neutral spine forward. In this relationship to gravity, you are still working to creating a right angle between your spine and thighbones, while giving your weight to your feet and tracking your knees well.
Once you’ve reached the point in these poses where you can create a neutral spine perpendicular to your thighs, and hold healthy alignment there for two minutes while you breathe full breaths, you can begin to come deeper into your forward fold. Move degree by degree, letting each exhale assist you in bringing your spine closer to your thighs.
Checking the tracking of your knees and your feet at every degree, move from dandasana into paschimottanasana (seated forward bend), ardha uttanasana into uttanasana (standing forward bend), and when lying on your back, draw your legs nearer to your torso.
Once the angle between your spine and your thighs decreases (somewhere between 90 and 120 degrees for most people), your back will round, but as it rounds, be sure to maintain the lengthening intention of reaching your sitting bones and the crown of your head away from each other. There will come a point in every forward fold at which it becomes challenging to hold the alignment of your knees and feet without collapsing the spine: that is a valuable place at which to pause and breathe.
Still feeling pain underneath your buttocks? Check: Have your heels lost their rootedness? Have your knees rotated in or out without your conscious consent? To channel movement through the tight spots and invite more muscle fibers to the party, back off the pose and work to move the stretch lower—into the belly of the hamstrings—by giving more weight to your heels (or, if your heels are not on the floor in the pose, by reaching through your heels), and then re-tracking your spine and legs.
Have you given weight to your feet? Are your toes and knees still on track? Is your spine long?
If you wish to proceed to complex dynamic movements like sun salutations, continue to integrate this alignment by remembering this: If someone called a “red light” at any moment in a flowing sequence, you want to be able to stop and hold exactly where you are. To make sure you are moving with healthy alignment from a stable base, you might challenge yourself to pause en route to the forward folds that are part of the sun salute. As you pause in mid-descent, you have an opportunity to assess your groundedness and your alignment. Have you given weight to your feet? Are your toes and knees still on track? Is your spine long?
As you come deeper into a forward fold after practicing the alignment described above in dandasana, ardha uttanasana, and lying on your back, you might notice whether the strong effort you created through the deep, slow work of aligning your bones has paid off in more ease anywhere else. Have you facilitated more depth or breath in your pose? Have your hamstrings relented at all? Imagine them settling into the grooves in which they can slide and glide freely.
When you have brought your spine as close to your thighs as you can while maintaining this healthy alignment, you can be assured that you are working at an appropriate depth. Allow yourself to feel that you have found your groove: the place that is right for you at this moment. That you are right where you belong.