Doug Keller: Hampered By Hamstrings? Tips and Tricks for Healthy Yoga Stretches

yoga hamstring stretchesThe hamstrings are a common source of frustration for many yoga practitioners. In this interview, Doug Keller, author of Yoga as Therapy and a featured Yoga U Online presenter discusses some of the reasons why the hamstrings are so important to a rewarding yoga practice and gives tips and tricks for healthy hamstring stretches.

 Q. You teach yoga workshops all over the world just focusing on the hamstrings. Why are the hamstrings so important to people’s yoga practice—and structural health in general?

Doug Keller: The hamstrings are intimately connected to the health of the lower back and pelvis. Many back injuries and low back pain issues are related to the hamstrings. Also, the way people stretch the hamstrings can sometimes cause an injury to the connective tissue in the lower back. So back pain and tight hamstrings are often related.

But it’s not just people with tight hamstrings, who have issues. Yoga practitioners with very flexible hamstrings sometimes suffer lasting injury because of the way they stretch. They assume that because they are very flexible, they can go very far in the stretch without having to worry about it. However, they sometimes cause themselves injury from the way they do the stretch. The injury in that case can be both to the leg and the lower back.

These are the kind of issues I discuss in my online course on yoga for safe hamstring stretching. Injuries to the ligaments can last a long time, if they are not treated properly, so it’s a pretty important topic for yoga practitioners.

We will be looking how to stretch in a way that first of all stretches the hamstrings effectively, because the way most people stretch actually limits their ability to stretch effectively. We will go into depth on the specific actions in yoga poses that help people make more progress in stretching the hamstrings. It really starts with the recognition that there are other muscles involved than just the stretching of the hamstrings.

Q. Could you give a few more details?

Doug Keller: For most people with tight hamstrings, the inner thigh muscles, the adducters present real limitations. In many cases, people who think they have tight hamstrings are actually limited by tightness in the adducters. If they don’t stretch those, they can go for years trying to stretch their hamstrings and really not feel they are making any progress.

Q. How common are tight hamstrings in yoga classes?

Doug Keller: Tight hamstrings are quite common, particularly in beginning level yoga classes. But you also find many people, who are in good shape, like runners and athletes, with tight hamstrings. Most of them recognize that what they’re doing creates tight hamstrings, which can lead to injury or limit them in their sports, if they don’t learn how to stretch the hamstrings effectively.

In more advanced yoga classes, however, you find the opposite problem. What is more common for experienced yoga practitioners are people who are very flexible in their hamstrings, but the way they are stretching is causing injury, especially to the attachments of the hamstrings at the sitting bones.

There are two sets of hamstrings –the semitendinosus and semimembranosus running along the inner leg, and the biceps femoris, which runs along the outer leg to the knee. People with flexible hamstrings tend to overstretch the hamstrings on the inner leg, which can eventually start to cause pain at the inner knee or the sitz bones from the overstretching, which tends to stress the tendons or the attachment.

Further, if people stretch in a way that doesn’t stretch the outer hamstring, it affects the rotation of the leg. So it becomes a vicious cycle, from the imbalance between the two sets of hamstrings, they end up stretching the inner hamstrings more and more and the outer hamstrings actually become a bit tighter over time. But most people don’t notice it, because they can go deeper into the pose, and that increases the strain on the tendons. 

Q. So you are saying that this predisposes people to injury? 

Doug Keller: Yes, when people hyperextend, they are not really stretching the hamstring anymore, they are just pulling on the hamstring tendons. And the tendons are not really built to stretch that much, so what happens is instead of stretching, they start to create micro tears in the tendons. That builds up scar tissue, and that becomes a persistent injury with persistent pain. It’s harder to heal, because the tendons don’t have as much circulation as the muscles, and they have a different kind of tissue that heals more slowly. 

Q. It sounds like people with flexible hamstrings are at greater risk for injuries?

Doug Keller: Both sides are at risk. I think it’s the experienced yoga practitioner or the flexible practitioner, who is more at risk for causing injury at the attachment which will lead to pain. 

If you take a survey of yoga practitioners, you will see that quite a few of them have pain at the sitting bones, which is the attachment of the hamstrings, and quite a few of them have pain at the inner knee. 

People think of hamstring injuries as coming from tight hamstrings. But the truth is that people who have tight hamstrings are somewhat safer in their stretching. They are not going to overstretch them unless they try too hard. Of course, they have another problem: they tend to injure their lower back in the process of trying to stretch their hamstrings. 

The tight people will pull too hard at their lower back in trying to stretch the hamstrings, and they often start to get low back pain from that. Stretching the hamstrings is actually meant to relieve you of back pain, but if you stretch too much, you end up possibly creating some low back pain for yourself. 

Q. Why are tight hamstrings so common? 

Doug Keller: The hamstring muscles have a lot of connective tissue. They are very tough muscles with a lot of fascial tissue, so it takes more dedication to keep them supple or flexible so they don’t tighten up over time. Also, many people stand in a way where they hang on their hamstrings, and that tends to tighten the hamstrings even more.

Q. What should yoga practitioners with tight hamstrings be particularly wary of?

Doug Keller: People with tight hamstrings, and the yoga teachers, who work with them, need to really focus on proper alignment in yoga postures. Otherwise, the hamstrings pull the body out of alignment in a way that puts more strain on the muscles in the low back than there should be.

Q. Most all beginning yoga students think that going deeper is better, so they round the back to get the head closer to the legs. It takes a long time to wean them of that habit.

Doug Keller: It’s true, most people are in a hurry to bend forward. The problem is, the way they bend forward, because the hamstring and inner thighs (the adductors) are tight, there is not room for the sacrum to tip forward, there’s not room for the hip to tip forward. So they try to go deeper, but like you say, they end up hanging on the lower back. It’s not the hamstring’s fault. When they don’t open up the lower back, they are not stretching the hamstrings effectively either. So try as they might, they will find that they’re not making much progress and getting more flexible over time. 

Rounding the back is the lazier form of doing the posture. People hang on the ligaments rather than really stretching. So it’s an important challenge for yoga teachers to work with students to get beyond this.

Q. You’ve studied the concept of Anatomy Trains with Tom Myers. How does that relate to the issue of tight hamstrings?

Doug Keller: The concept of Anatomy Trains shows how tension in the lower body, particularly the soles of the feet, the calves and the hamstrings translates up the whole body. Tension in the hamstrings or lower legs tends to cause tension in the lower back and the neck and even tension around the head that is related to tension headaches. In my webinar on the hamstrings, I will give some simple exercises that people can do to experience what the Anatomy Trains are all about.

In speaking of the hamstrings, we’re talking as if we’re just stretching one muscle, but the body doesn’t function according to just one muscle. So the Anatomy Trains really shows how the whole body is influenced by whatever happens in one part of the body. So stretching the hamstrings is not just for the benefit of your legs, it’s really for the benefit of your whole body.

Q. I know that you will be discussing this in your webinar, but what would you recommend to keep hamstring stretches safe? 

Doug Keller: Basically working the legs in a way in which you make space for the pelvis to move. That then opens up the possibility to start to stretch the hamstrings in a more balanced way, working both sides of the muscle equally.

If you don’t do that, you tend to both limit how much the back can move, and it also tends to isolate the action in certain parts of the hamstrings instead of stretching the whole configuration of them.

So it’s an action that creates a relief, so you can go deeper into the pose and feel it’s easier on your lower back and it also stretches the hamstrings more effectively. But there are a number of actions involved, which of course are hard to describe in a short statement—that’s one of the things we will focus on in the webinar on safe hamstring stretching in yoga.

More information on Doug Keller's Online Course: Healthy Hamstrings - Unraveling the Knots