Raise your hand if you’re sitting down. Now raise your hand if you’re wearing shoes that have a heel height of an inch or more (running shoes and men’s dress shoes count).
What do these two seemingly unrelated things (your shoe choice and the likelihood you’ll be sitting most of the day) have to do with your hammies? Here are a couple basic things you need to know to connect the dots:
- The three muscles that make up the hamstrings run from the sit bones (ischial tuberosities) to the bottom of the knee joint. Meaning, your hamstrings attach your pelvis to your shins.
- If you regularly bend your knees and/or tuck your pelvis, you are forcing your hamstrings to shorten. Why? Any habitual body position that moves the muscle attachments closer to each other causes those muscles to shorten in order to counteract all that extra length so that they don’t wobble around like a loose sail.
- When you sit in a chair, your knees are bent.
- Positive-heeled shoes pitch your weight forward and force your knees to bend to accommodate the load.
Luckily, yoga is great at stretching hamstrings. Right? Well, kind of ….
Yoga does incorporate a lot of Forward Bends — seated (Paschimottanasana, or Seated Forward Bend), standing (Uttanasana, or Standing Forward Bend) and reclined (Supta Padangusthasana, or Reclining Big Toe Pose) — which open up the backs of the legs. Except when they don’t. The problem, according to biomechanist Katy Bowman, star of the Restorative Exercise series produced by Gaiam, is that these poses only stretch the hamstrings a fraction of the time.
How can it be possible that bending forward and touching your toes (as in Uttanasana) doesn’t stretch the hamstrings, you may ask? (I certainly did.)
Let’s imagine doing a Standing Forward Bend (Uttanasana). So you start in Mountain Pose, sweep your arms overhead, swan dive over your legs with a nice flat back, then fold all the way over your legs so your fingertips reach the floor, your head dangling and your chest moving toward your legs.
For most people who sit all day and wear shoes with heels, their hamstrings are tight, Bowman explains. And so they either keep the knees bent while folding forward, meaning the hamstrings aren’t truly being stretched, or they tuck the pelvis and fold forward from the spine instead of the hips, which means that hamstrings aren’t being stretched and the lower spine is getting stretched inappropriately (which explains why tight hamstrings and low back pain often travel in pairs).
Yoga poses and props for tight hamstrings
So how in the heck can we truly, deeply — as well as safely — stretch the hammies, I asked Bowman.
Her answer is simple, but it’s not pretty. Basically, we’ve got to give up the idea of looking like a model on the cover of a yoga magazine in our Forward Bends, and only go as far as we can with straight knees and an untucked pelvis.
“My suggestion for the tight-hammed is to do their Forward Bends within the boundaries set by the hams — meaning as soon as the pelvis stops bending forward, so do you,” Bowman says. To figure out where that is, the next time you’re swooping down into Uttanasana, place your hands on your hip bones and feel them rotate down toward the floor as you fold forward. As soon as you feel them stop moving, that’s when you stop too. “Any more of a forward fold brings the lumbar spine in to hyperflexion, which is damaging to the discs — and the main reason tight hamstrings contribute to chronic low back pain. It also prevents your hamstrings from stretching, so it isn’t doing you much good.”
When it comes to respecting your hamstrings, props are your best friends. Placing blocks under the hands in Uttanasana will reduce the urge to reach for the floor. Using a belt in Paschimottanasana and Supta Padunghustasana will help you keep the knees straight and make it more comfortable to rest at the edge of your hamstrings’ current flexibility.
Over time, these shallower forward bends can create more length in the hamstrings and bring more mobility into the hip joints. Couple them with reducing the height of the heels you wear every day and finding ways to reduce your total hours sitting, and you’ll gradually find your way to “prettier” forward bends without risking your lower back.
Watch Restorative Exercise for Spinal Alignment on GaiamTV.com free with your 10-day trial.