One of the most common complaints I hear about the body is a tight hamstring. The reality, for most of the human race, is a slightly tight hamstring. Our lifestyle, our lack of movement and our footwear are all contributing factors.
But what is a hamstring?
The hamstrings are a collection of three separate muscles that lie at the back of the thigh; Biceps femoris, Semi tendinosus and Semi membranosus. We don't tend to refer to the hamstring as these because they are difficult to say and you would all be confused! Most people feel the tightness the most in the back of their knee but this can radiate up the thigh into the butt and go all the way down and into the ankle or soul of the foot.
When someone is suffering from very tight hamstrings they can get a lot of tension in the lower back. This is because the hamstring are pulling the pelvis in a posterior (backward) tilt which causes strain into the lower back. When someone's hamstring are really tight they avoid forward folding from these muscles and instead bend from the lower back only exacerbating the back strain.
Why do so many of us have tight hamstring?
Overuse of the muscle - if you play a lot of sport, are a runner or spend a lot of time on your feet. As you use the muscle you are strengthening it, shortening the muscle fibres, but this them requires balance and stretching
Compensation - if another muscle or area of muscles are weak the hamstrings might have to pick up the slack, this is common with weak glutes
Underuse - if you are not using the muscle enough, let's say you sit at a desk, drive home and then watch TV. If your body senses the muscle is weak it will start to tighten it in an attempt to strengthen
Injury - if you have injured a muscle the body tightens the muscle to protect it from gaining any further injury
Can you practice yoga if your hamstrings are tight and you can't touch your toes?
The answer is YES! I always, always, always say to those who think they are too much of a tin man to do yoga : 'Saying you're too inflexible to do yoga IS LIKE saying you're too dirty to have a shower.' Ridiculous right? If anything you are an ideal candidate for the practice.
Yoga ISN'T for contortionists. It's main goal is to get people moving, breathing and finding ease in their bodies. Yoga is also about starting to understand your body, where it is tight, where is is strong, where it is weak - this is called PROPRIOCEPTION and is one of the most important things you can learn to develop to keep you safe. Speaking of safety here are important things to keep in mind while practicing yoga with tight hamstrings:
Bend your knees in forward folds to relieve stress in hamstrings and to avoid pulling lower back
Use a block. Sitting down can be difficult when the hamstrings are tight. Sit on one or two blocks to lift the hips, ease the hamstrings and position the pelvis in a anterior (forward) tilt
Use a strap. You have no idea the benefit a strap can have when your hamstrings are tight! You can use this in MANY ways (full posture breakdown with props to come) but just start by laying on your back one leg in the air with the strap around the foot. Ease the foot toward you with the leg straight. Presto!
Pain is not your friend. Listen to your body. If you can't breath or are contorting your face in a pose you've gone TOO far.
Breathe. It really is that simple. If you can breath into the body through the stretch you will gain more progress in the muscle
Don't just stretch the hamstring. Make sure you focus on the glutes too. Do exercises that both stretch and strengthen this area
How do you get started?
You've never been to a yoga class. Or maybe you've been to a couple but felt completely out of your element and like everyone else's bodies were made of jello...
Simple sun salutes. Not so simple if you've never done them before BUT if you practice these poses then you've got a pretty good framework to get started with. These are great to do in the morning and I PROMISE you that you will start to see a difference in your hamstrings AND other parts of the body too!