Could Your Yoga Be Making Your Hamstrings Tighter?

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Do you have sore hamstrings after yoga? This may be why.

“Tight hamstrings are extremely common for beginning yoga students. Even after a decade of yoga practice, some students find that hamstring flexibility is still a work in progress. Although, some gains are made, years of bad footwear choices combined with congenital anatomy can leave many yogis frustrated in poses like downward facing dog and seated forward bends” (Averinos, 2016)

Why are my hamstrings so tight if I’m stretching them so much in Yoga class?

The hamstrings are a complex muscle group. The hamstrings include several two-jointed muscles that attach at the knee and the pelvis at the back of the leg. The way they perfom at the hip depends on the position of the knee. Tightness in this area can make poses like seated forward bend, (“paschimottanasana”, shown above),  standing with one leg in full hip extension (“utthitta hasta padangustasana”) or supine single hip extension (“supta padangustasana”) really challenging for some people.

Do you wonder why you can flex at the hip to a full 90 degrees or more when your knee bent, but you can’t keep that hip position when you extend the knee out straight? Here are some things to consider:

Our muscles are too weak to support the positions in Yoga

Its a common belief that the practice of Hatha Yoga will improve flexibility. Many people walk into a yoga studio for the first time after a lifetime basic inactivity. Sometimes they come to us because they are in recovery after an injury or surgery. Sitting in chairs all day, participating in sports like running or cycling train your muscles to behave in a certain way. Your body gets used to the positions it experiences regularly.; it adapts to the forces it experiences day after day.

Sometimes, Physicians or Physical Therapists tell their patients “You are tight”. Practitioners send people to yoga to “stretch”…but muscles are not rubber bands. They don’t really stretch! Muscles contract and expand, which is different. They get stronger over time, allowing for greater contraction and expansion, resulting for greater range of motion in a specific space.

Many people new to yoga discover new feelings as they apply forces to their muscle groups in new and different ways. We are only as strong as the positions in which we train.

Our anatomy dictates our ability to move

We have three groups of hamstrings. They are comprised of muscles, ligaments and tendons. The First is the bicepshamstrings-aanhechting11 femoris. This is the lateral hamstring that has two heads. The long head attaches on the posterior (back) surface of the ischial tuberosity (commonly known as your “sit bones”) and the lateral collateral ligament. This muscle fits into the lateral tibial condyle (the larger of the two bones that make up your lower leg) .

The short head attaches on the middle third of linea aspera (lateral supracondylar ridge of the femur) and the styloid process of head of fibula (the smaller of the two bones that make up your lower leg). This muscle works to flex and laterally rotate the knee plus extend the hip.

The second head is called the semitendinosus which originates at the inner surface of the ischial tuberosity and sacrotuberous ligament and inserts at the medial tibial condyle. The third head, the semimembranosis, attaches on the ischial tuberosity and inserts itself on the posterior medial condyle of the tibiaThese muscles work to extend the hip. They also medially rotate the tibia when the knee is flexed.

In general, these two-jointed muscles are more complex than other muscles. The hamstrings tend to get overworked when the smaller supporting muscles around them become weak from stress, overuse, or injury. As we attempt “stretch out” these overworked, tight muscles in the hamstring group without investigating other weak areas in the surrounding muscles we make the problem worse.

Variability of expression from person to person

Photo by Megan ReschUsing mindful, progressive isometric resistance scenarios in a therapeutic Hatha Yoga practice helps you begin to strengthen the weaker muscles in a muscle group. When all the muscles in the group are working together as you anatomy intended you will begin to see changes in your range and in the way your muscles feel after your practice.

Students often assume tight hamstrings are the issue when maybe, its actually the hip flexors that are not fully contracting into the joint ranges they are are looking for. This is often the issue seen in the seated poses that are so challenging.

It is also important to allow for anatomical differences from one individual to the next.  Individuals might experience differences in the following areas:

  • Femoral head diameter
  • femoral neck angle and girth
  • orientation of the hip joint
  • condition of the hip joint / acetabulum
  • condition or structure of the individual facets in the vertebral column

These are all anatomical issues that can impact the way an individual experiences a pose. We discuss these issues at length in our teacher training program.

 

What is biomechanical force?

photo by Megan Resch

Our muscular system responds to force in any form of exercise, including Hatha Yoga.  When we attempt to flex one of our hips while lying down, we are able to press the body into the ground with the help of gravity. The further we raise our leg, the closer in line with the force of gravity we become. This makes the mass of the leg lighter and lighter.

When we attempt the same pose standing up, everything changes. When we attempt to lift one leg when standing, not only do we have to balance on one leg, we are also lifting the other leg in total opposition to the downward force of gravity. Now there is a greater amount of work for our hip flexors to perform in this position.

The standing version of this pose requires some serious strength in the core to help you balance, pluse the strength required to lift the leg and to support the body. These are the things you work on when you practice yoga!

Our hip flexors don’t work super hard when we are sitting in a chair! They work on a bike while pedaling or when we lift our leg to climb a flight of stairs or walk, but in yoga we are asking our hip to explore the END of its contractile range while under tension. At Yoga Integrated Science™, we work with our clients progressively to  become stronger in the ranges that are not normally used in common activities so that they can experience a feeling of stability and freedom.

We are in too much of a hurry!

The term Santosha means “contentment” in Yoga. This is such a complex concept. We have crash diets, extreme makeovers, extreme fitness workouts, fast food and pills that can take our pain away in an instant. We want to undo years of bad habits in a matter of months. Body tissues have a rate of adaptation. Many students push themselves too hard and too fast. Fitness model accounts on Instagram and Facebook show super flexible models in extreme versions of yoga poses.

These things create a false standard of what a body should be able to accomoplish. Our bodies are equipped with a huge proprioceptive system that is designed to protect us from injury and is always at work, constantly evaluating everything in our internal & external environment. When you feel tightness or pressure in a pose, that is your body telling you that it’s limit has been reached. Listen to your body.

A yoga-related injury or increased tension as the body tries to protect itself from excessive ranges is the end result of haste. When we experience pain or a tightening of surrounding muscles, it is our body saying “stop”. We can go get a massage, perform a deep stretch, or roll around on a foam roller or therapy ball, but what if that tissue needs to be tight? Often times, tightness is an indication that something else in or body is unstable or needs protection from that muscle group. Pushing past these protective mechanisms actually further burdens the body.

Mindulness: stay rooted in the present moment

People age. Our activities change. Maybe we didn’t know how to properly take care of ourselves previously. Maybe we have improper shoes or poorly progressed activities. Everyone has a different set of genetic influences. We all love looking at inspirational photos of fabulous yoga poses and want so much to be able to return to our former ability in our twenties.

Many want to be able to achieve instagram-worthy poses as quickly as possible. As a yoga teacher, I can attest that few people like to be told “why don’t you sit on this blanket or bolster” when they are in a seated “forward bend” because many have a distorted view of where they should be at the present moment.

The decision to improve one’s body is hard for a lot of people but the act itself teaches us how to love ourselves better. Who knows if joint range will improve for all the reasons listed above. Keep trying. Keep getting stronger. Today is a new day. Once we make this shift, maybe the hamstring range is no longer the focus.

Article updated 2/01/18.

 

References:

Avgerinos, Jennifer C 2015 found January 17, 2016 from: https://www.chopra.com/ccl/yoga-poses-for-tight-hamstrings

Kapandji, A. I. The Physiology of the Joints. Volume Two The Lower Limb. Sixth Edition. Churchill Livingstone Elsevier, English Edition 2011

Hamstring Anatomy Image

Found January 24, 2016 from: https://www.fitstep.com/Advanced/Anatomy/Graphics/hamstrings-anatomy.jpg