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Yoga for hamstrings is a popular theme. Tight hamstrings are a common complaint, especially among those who sit for work.
But did you know that the hamstrings are also especially vulnerable to injury in yoga and fitness? (And you don’t have to be a star athlete to get one.)
So how do you protect your hamstrings during yoga, and why do they always feel tight?
Let’s find out!
Disclaimer: Always seek proper instruction before initiating an exercise program. Not everything is great for everyone! Consult with your qualified health care practitioners for an exercise program tailored to your needs. Stay healthy and injury-free! Read the full disclaimer.
HAMSTRING ANATOMY & FUNCTION
Let’s start by going over exactly where the hamstrings are and what they do.
The hamstrings are a large muscle group located at the back of the thigh made up of 3 muscles; biceps femoris, semimembranosus, and semitendinosus.
From behind, the hamstrings are taking up a lot of real estate.
The biceps femoris is on the lateral (outer) side, and the semimembranosus/semitendinosus are on the medial side (inside). All three muscles originate at the pelvis, attaching to the sits bones.
The hamstrings cross the knee joint, making the primary function to flex (bend) the knee and extend the hip.
Because the hamstrings cross two joints, the position of your pelvis and knee can affect your perceived hamstring flexibility. This is why you can feel a more intense stretch when you hinge at the hips and pull your heart forward.
During walking or running, the hamstrings control the knee’s extension eccentrically as you propel forward to take the next step. They also help to stabilize the knee during standing and balance activities and help control the pelvis with forward bending.
It’s not hard to see how much use they get all day long (and in your yoga class) with all these roles.
Hamstring injuries can run the gamut from a slight twinge to a full-blown rupture.
THE SCIATIC NERVE
Another significant structure that runs with the hamstrings is the sciatic nerve.
Sciatic nerve anatomy varies, but generally starts around the piriformis muscle at the back of the hip and runs down the back of the leg, splitting off into smaller nerves behind the knee.
No doubt, you’ve heard someone say they have “sciatica,” which is a vague term for pain radiating down the leg.
Sometimes hamstring tightness is confused with sciatic nerve tension. If this is the case, “stretching” a sciatic nerve will only anger it more.
To determine the difference, get yourself over to a physical therapist for an evaluation.
COMMON CAUSES OF TIGHT HAMSTRINGS
Many think they have tight hamstrings and wonder why stretching or smashing them with a foam roller never improves their flexibility.
Here are some other reasons why your hamstrings always feel tight.
- Compensation for weak muscles elsewhere, such as the glutes
- Inactivity, too much sitting places the hamstrings in a shortened position
- Hamstring muscle weakness
- Overuse due to training
- The overall tone of the nervous system, which controls the stretch response to protect against injury
- A recent hamstring injury
Tight muscles can also be weak muscles; therefore, stretching alone is not enough for healthy hamstrings.
If you feel like your hamstrings are always tight, there’s probably something else in the mix.
YOGA FOR HAMSTRINGS
Now that you have all the background info let’s get back to how you can keep your hamstrings healthy during yoga.
Many yoga poses require a balance of strength and flexibility from the hamstrings.
COMMON HAMSTRING OPENING POSES
- Downward dog
- Seated forward fold/standing forward fold
- Pyramid pose
- Wide leg forward fold
- Half splits
(For my fashionistas who just need to know – the striped leggings are K-Deer, and yes, you should definitely check them out! Now back to hamstrings.)
In addition to flexibility, others require a lot of strength from the hamstrings, such as:
- Standing splits
- Warrior 3
Not only is the hamstring of the standing leg working in a stretched position, but the hamstrings need to work to stabilize and help you balance.
(This is why eccentric strength is important, which we’ll get into later.)
A hamstring cramp mid-half-moon spells disaster!
Check out the knee flexibility library for more yoga poses and stretches for the hamstrings.
HOW TO KEEP YOUR HAMSTRINGS SAFE DURING YOGA
If you’re starting to feel nervous, don’t worry! There are still many ways to keep your hamstrings safe and enjoy a yoga practice.
Here are some easy things you can start doing today to keep your hamstrings healthy.
MOVE INTO POSES SLOWLY
Take time with your movement and be mindful. Allow your body to adjust and breathe into the pose.
Moving too quickly into asanas (poses) can elicit a protective stretch response, stopping you from going further into the range of motion, making it feel like you’re fighting against your own body.
Hint: this is also why aggressive stretching does not work and puts you at risk for injury.
LISTEN TO YOUR BODY
Getting tuned in to sensations like stretch, pressure, discomfort, movement, etc. can help you listen to your body to improve form and decrease the risk for injury.
Pain should never be a part of the yoga pose equation, but different sensations are expected. Attention to these sensations will help you get to know your body and avoid overdoing it.
Related Read: How to Improve Your Body Awareness for Injury Prevention
LISTEN FOR ALIGNMENT CUES
The slightest change in angle can make a big difference in the safety of a pose. Alignment cues can help guide you safely through your practice.
Do your best to follow the basic alignment cues given by your instructor, even if this means you need to use props.
Yes, everyone’s anatomy is different but you might need a few tweaks here and there to make the pose your own. Discover what works best for your alignment while protecting your joints and soft tissues.
SAFETY WITH COMING OUT OF POSES
Getting into poses can be tricky, but the truth is, safety with coming out of poses is just as important.
Muscles are strongest in mid-ranges, meaning if you ask a muscle to work at extreme end ranges, you’re risking injury. *This is why bending your knees to come out of poses is so important.*
Make sure you’re rooted properly by pressing through all corners of the foot. This helps balance your weight evenly through all muscle groups.
Move one part at a time, just like how you got into the pose in the first place. Engage your muscles instead of just falling out of a pose.
Don’s shy away from props thinking they’re a crutch.
Props can significantly enhance your practice by giving you supported space to explore poses further.
There are a lot of reasons to use a yoga block. Here are some ways that yoga blocks can keep your hamstrings (and the rest of you) injury-free.
- Support range of motion (ROM) and proper alignment, allowing you to engage the right muscles to avoid injury
- Make yoga accessible to all levels
- Help deepen poses by bringing the floor to you to create space
- Blocks assist as stepping stones to learning more advanced poses
Read How To Use Yoga Blocks to Prevent Injury for all the details on this prop!
Instead of struggling to reach your foot, use a strap.
No shame in this game. Straps allow you to extend your reach while maintaining space and alignment as you move deeper into your pose, in a safe way.
Bonus, you’ll look brilliant for knowing how to work with your body.
USE A MAT WITH GOOD TRACTION
Imagine being perfectly balanced in a wide leg forward fold, and then your foot starts to slip!?
Yeah, that’s a scary moment.
Use a good quality mat with excellent traction to prevent slipping when you’re deep into your poses. This will ensure you have a safe surface to stay in (and get out of) different postures.
Check out some of these cult favorite yoga mats with plenty of padding and grip to keep you properly rooted.
- Jade Harmony Mat
- Manduka Pro Mat
- Clever Yoga Liquid Balance Non-slip Mat
- Alo Warrior Mat
- Lululemon Arise Mat
Some people like yoga towels as an alternative to place on top of your existing mat.
TAKE YOUR TIME
Don’t be in a hurry. Your hamstrings will open up when they’re ready.
Forcing a stretch can lead to injury as the body’s stretch response perceives a threat, instead of a safe space to let go.
Some days can feel tighter than others. While there are many different factors involved in flexibility, the overall tone of the nervous system regulates stretch responses.
If you’re having a stressful day, you might notice it’s more difficult to get deeper into your pose.
Keep in mind that you’re not in competition with the Instagram yogi next to you.
If you’re late to class, you may have missed the warm-up, careful as you jump in to only do what you can until your tissues warm up.
KEEP A SLIGHT BEND IN THE KNEE
Bending the knees can help take some of the pressure off of your hamstrings and provide better alignment. In standing poses, avoid locking or hyperextending your knees.
A slight bend can also be useful if you’re feeling very tight. Bending the knees in poses like downward dog or standing forward bend can allow you to go deeper into the pose in a safe way to explore the benefits for other areas, instead of fighting with your hamstrings.
During seated forward fold, placing a rolled blanket under the knees can help with tight hamstrings.
Deep breathing is a natural hack into the nervous system.
Deep breathing has a connection to the vagus nerve, the longest cranial nerve in the body, running through the throat, chest, and abdomen, helping to elicit a relaxation response to decrease heart rate, blood pressure, and reduce the concentration of stress hormones circulating the body.
Slow, controlled breaths can signal to the nervous system that everything is fine and help your body relax and move deeper into poses.
Stay hydrated on and off the mat.
Adequate water intake helps all systems of the body function optimally, including muscles. Dehydration can cause muscle cramps.
GLUTE WEAKNESS & HAMSTRINGS
The glutes are the most powerful hip extensors in the body. When the glutes are weak, the hamstrings will try to overcompensate.
While the hamstrings have a hip extension role, they’re just not as good at it due to their location.
Maintaining good glute strength can help give your hamstrings a much needed break.
Poses such as bridge can cause hamstring cramps if performed incorrectly. Pushing through the heels and engaging the glutes before lifting from the mat often alleviates this.
FOOT POSITION AND HAMSTRING TIGHTNESS
What do my feet have to do with my hamstrings?
A flexed foot will put more tension on the posterior chain and sciatic nerve and may feel like you can’t stretch as far, like pulling a rope from both ends.
If you’re feeling very tight, try relaxing the foot and stretching the hamstrings and calves separately instead of tugging on the whole chain at once.
CAUTION WITH HOT YOGA
Hot yoga has a cult following, but it can also lead you to think you can stretch further and put you at risk for injury.
The same safety tips apply no matter what style of yoga you like to practice.
ASK FOR MODIFICATIONS
Let your instructor know if you have injuries and ask how to modify them.
No one wants you to get hurt in their class. They’ll be more than happy to help you work within your capabilities and provide more specific modifications for you.
HAMSTRING STRENGTH IS JUST AS IMPORTANT
Hamstring strengthening is essential and can help you get even better at yoga and improve flexibility.
A healthy combination of flexibility and strength (sometimes referred to as mobility) leads to healthy muscles and movement.
Eccentric strengthening, which involved loading a muscle as it lengthens, helps with functional strength. All those standing poses where you’re hinged forward at the hips (like warrior 3) require good eccentric strength.
If your hamstrings are chronically tight, and no amount of stretching ever seems to help, they’re probably weak and need strengthening.
For best results, make sure you build a balanced fitness program.
Read Anatomy for Exercise – Lower Body Muscles for glute strengthening ideas.
HAMSTRING SAFETY TIPS FOR YOGA TEACHERS
ONLY DEMONSTRATE WHAT YOU’RE COMFORTABLE WITH
When you’re teaching, you’re probably not doing all of the poses your class is.
Your body may not be as warm as you think, so use caution when demonstrating poses and make sure that your body is ready and only demonstrate poses that you’re comfortable with.
USE GOOD BODY MECHANICS WHEN HELPING STUDENTS
There may be times you’re offering a slight adjustment or need to come down to the mat to provide additional cues or help with set up of props.
Be mindful of your own body when assisting students.
LIMIT WEAR AND TEAR ON YOUR BODY
If teaching yoga or fitness is your full-time job, you may be doing many classes per week. Be mindful of the wear and tear on your body and make sure that you’re getting a balanced fitness program as well.
You don’t have to demonstrate everything all the time. Use modifications and descriptive cues to guide your class through their workout while honoring what your body needs.
FINAL THOUGHTS ON KEEPING YOUR HAMSTRINGS HEALTHY
Hamstring “tightness” is a common complaint. However, there’s often more to the puzzle.
The hamstrings are a particularly vulnerable muscle group to injury no matter what the sport. Take these extra steps to keep them healthy. Many of these tips apply to other muscle groups as well.
Yoga is an accessible practice to all ages and fitness levels. Listen to your body to ensure you can continue to enjoy your practice!
Visit the exercise library for more yoga pose and flexibility ideas with step by step instructions.