I have been teaching yoga for about 15 years and much of that to runners with tight hamstrings. Even better, I was one of them! Touching my toes was a pipedream when I started yoga but I don’t recall it being a big deal. Luckily I fell in love with the practice and had excellent teachers to guide me to healthy hamstrings today.
Attention to detail and alignment is paramount in my teaching, both for safety and in order that one gets the maximum benefit from the pose. I regularly remind my students: “you are in the pose anyway so not get the maximum benefit from it”.
Out of this attention to detail and my personal experience comes one of my pet peeves…….bent legs while stretching hamstrings. It is often taught this way and sometimes it is justifiable – as when there is low back pain, disc herniation or a hamstring injury. For sure in these cases bending the legs is the healthy thing to do.
However, often bending the legs has just become a habit, and we may not even be aware that we are doing it. Habitually keeping the legs bent while stretching the hamstrings will stretch the upper muscle fibers while the lower ones, above the knees, will remain tight. When this has become our pattern, straightening the legs creates ‘pain’ at the back of knee so we continue to keep the legs bent because we’ve also been told that we shouldn’t be in pain.
So we find ourselves in a situation where our hamstrings are not getting the full benefit that yoga offers. Tight hamstrings compress the knee joint so limiting the stretch of the lower muscle fibers is not helpful for the knees. Furthermore we are creating a further muscle imbalance, putting more stress at the hamstring insertion (sitting bones) and compromising the state of wholly healthy hamstrings.
Unless you are suffering from one of the conditions described above, become aware of when your legs are straight or bent, even if just a little bent. Straight means the back of the knee is open – NOT hyperextended so the back of the knee bulges and is hard – but open nonetheless. The ‘pain’ that you may be experiencing is likely the stretch sensation of the lower hamstring muscle fibers that have not been stretched. If there is pain in the knee joint, then bend the leg as perhaps you have gone too far.
Muscles in the body never work in isolation. True teamwork is in effect – one muscle stretches and another needs to contract. In the case of stretching the hamstrings, the quadriceps need to contract. If the quadriceps are contracted, your knee is naturally protected against hyperextension and you are strengthening your quadriceps at the same time (more on this in a future blog).
If you are an experienced yogi, bring your complete awareness to all the poses that require straight legs and reinforce this work – contract the quads and straighten the leg(s). It’s attention to detail and patience to change a deeply ingrained habit.
If you do need to keep the legs bent, know why and when and consider it a temporary modification.
If you are newer to yoga, don’t get into the habit of bending your legs. Keep them straight so that the full length of the hamstrings stretch evenly.
Healthy hamstrings are essential to healthy running!