The Challenge of Tight Hamstrings
Since posting a photo on instagram a few weeks ago about my struggle with tight hamstrings, it has been so amazing to hear how many people are working with the same thing. I don't want to say it is a curse because our bodies are awesome no matter the length of the muscles in our legs, but let's call it a challenge at least! I know in my own practise it has been a constant factor in how each and every movement feels and unlike other muscles and joints which seem to open up quite noticeably over time, my hamstrings are particularly stubborn! The hamstrings are actually a group of three muscles on each leg, running along the back of the thigh. For those of us that run, cycle or sit at a desk all day (aka most people), we are likely to have tight hamstrings, some of us even more so than others. In reality, most of us could do with a little extra love to the hammstrings but in reality, few of us spare more than a few seconds at the end of a workout for a quick stretch. Even if you are a frequently practising yogi, the chances are we could still spare some extra moments to focus on developing a little extra length in the back of the body, and in particular the hamstrings.
The trouble is that tight hamstrings put us at risk of injury in yoga as well as our other daily sports and activities. If you are suffering from back pain, it could in fact be linked to tightness in the back of the thighs because of course the whole body is connected and tension in one area can impact the tissue and the alignment of adjoining parts of the body. Specifically in yoga, the frustration comes due to the fact that tight hamstrings lock the pelvis, making it difficult to keep correct alignment, particularly in poses such as forward folds.
It's also worth noting that overly flexible hamstrings can also pose a risk due to allowing students into postures in an injurious way.
So why do our hamstrings get so tight?
The hamstrings are responsible for lifting the heel to the bum (flexing the knee) as well as extending the hip. In modern day life, we tend to have a limited range of motion (ROM) where the hamstrings stay shortened with the knees bent.
To add to it, sitting down can also cause the hip flexors (the muscles in the front of your legs) to get tight too. This means the pelvis tilts forward and your hips lift at the back and while this does lengthen the hamstrings themselves, it causes the back and glutes to to tighten and we therefore can feel as though the hamstrings are being pulled.
So not only is it a good idea to focus on lengthening the hamstrings themselves, but perhaps we should also try to spend some time working on the hip flexors too. There is already a video on my YouTube all about the hips, and keep your eyes peeled this weekend - I'll be bringing you a hamstring focused video to help those of you who are just like me, looking to create a little bit of extra length in the backs of our legs!
Really, the only answer is to keep stretching. And for more than a few minutes every so often. If you really want to make a difference, in my own experience regular and consistent focused stretching is the only way. In my day to day practise I do still get frustrated and question if it is worth it as progress is so negligible that it is hard to notice at all. But if I look back over the last few years I have come a long long way into a more comfortable practise. The most important thing is to not push to hard, to take it slowly but to hold the stretches for as long as possible, a couple of minutes is great. There is a temptation to back out after a couple of breaths, but it is easing in to the stretch over a longer time that I have noticed makes the biggest change.