Any of you who have participated in my yoga classes knows that I love to make you stretch those hamstrings. But do you know WHY? I’m sure I have mentioned some of the benefits but I also know that sometimes what we hear goes in from one ear and immediately out from the other ear without leaving a memory mark in that important space between your ears: the brain. So let’s dive a little deeper into the hamstring muscle and recap some of those benefits.
One of my missions is to help people make yoga part of their daily life by teaching simple poses and short sequences that actually create change if you just practice them consistently. You don’t need to bend yourself into a pretzel in order to have a healthy body.
But let’s get back to the hamstrings.
Hamstrings job is to extend the hip and flex the knee but if the hamstrings are too tight they can’t do that job properly. Due to the big amount of connective tissue that hamstrings have, it takes a lot of time to make them flexible. We need to hold poses for a minimum of one and a half minute to two minutes in order to release and stretch connective tissue. I say it again: consistent practice is the key. A lot of patience and regular practice is needed to make your hamstring flexible. It’s not enough to lift your legs up into Supta Padangusthasana once a week in a yoga class but you should do that once (or even twice) a day. Might sound a lot but the good news is that actually, it takes only about five minutes of your time a day. We all have five minutes, right?
In a yoga class, we do different types of asanas that can be roughly put into four categories: standing poses, inversions, twists, backbends, and forward bends. Different asanas require strength and openness in different parts of the body. Hamstring strength is essential in backbends and hamstring flexibility is necessary in forward bends. This means that in order to do those poses effectively and safely you need to have strong and open hamstrings (among strength and flexibility in other parts of the body as well). Important to note here is that we need both: flexibility and strength. Flexible but weak hamstrings can lead to hamstring origin strains or tears which results in pain while sitting, stretching, and using the muscle. Now we don’t want that.
Imbalanced hamstrings can lead to a limited range of motion and even serious injuries. For example, tight hamstrings pull down on the sitting bones which can lead to nagging low back pain. I find this to be one very important reason why we should keep those hamstrings open by stretching them daily.
One of the key messages of yoga is:
“Future pain can be avoided.”
You just need to know how.
So how do you actually notice the state of your hamstrings in your yoga practice? Trikonasana and Adho Mukha Shvanasana are two very good poses where you can actually feel the effects of tight hamstrings in your body. In Trikonasana tight hamstrings can lead to compression on side of the back and overstretch the other side. In Adho Mukha Shvanasana on the other hand tight hamstrings pull on the sitting bones causing the back to round. If you do a forward bend like Janu Shirshansana and your hamstrings are tight, the sacrum tips backward creating a lot of strain to that area which in a long run can lead to injury.
Important to note here is also how gender affects the flexibility of the hamstrings. Women have an advantage toward flexibility because of the hormone relaxin which is produced especially in childbearing and birth to allow the pelvis to open. Relaxing helps to loosen the ligaments of the pelvis. Also during menstruation, this hormone is being released to make the connective tissues more flexible. This makes those menstruation days a perfect time to practice hip openers! This doesn’t only increase flexibility but hip openers also help to relieve cramps. Men on the other hand have testosterone which increases bulk and leads to tighter hamstrings.
So as you can see, we don’t (or shouldn’t) practice yoga just for the sake of a perfect pose but for the sake of a healthier and more enjoyable life! Keeping your hamstrings flexible and strong allows you to enjoy your daily activities with ease. That’s the only thing that truly matters. Being able to do fancy yoga poses is something extra where you can also physically challenge yourself but it shouldn’t be the driving force of your practice of yoga.
If you would like to learn ways to keep your hamstrings (and your whole body) healthy I welcome you to join my yoga classes in Gattikon/Thalwil or book a private yoga class where we can together create a practice that serves your specific needs. Private yoga classes can take place online or offline.