Yoga and Myofascial Release: For Healthy Hamstrings, Stretch Your - Neck?

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Whether you’re a yoga practitioner or a yoga teacher, chances are that your yoga practice has made you learn more about your hamstrings than you ever wanted to know. Tight hamstrings make correct alignment difficult in numerous yoga poses, in particular forward bends, but other poses are affected as well. And even if you are blessed with flexible hamstrings to begin with, for most of us keeping the hamstrings flexible as we get older is a constant challenge.

Strangely, increasing the flexibility of the hamstrings may involve not just yoga stretches targeting the hamstrings, such as Padangusthasana or Downward Dog. According to one study, yoga stretches for the neck could possibly make a difference as well.

The hamstrings are vital to our structural health. If the hamstrings aren’t flexible enough, their tension pulls the pelvis into a tilt, which flattens the lumbar curve of the spine. This places strain on the muscles and intervertebral discs of the lower back, which over time can cause various problems, particularly lower back pain. Therefore maintaining and quite possibly improving our hamstring flexibility is crucial to our long-term wellbeing.

The hamstring is actually a group of three muscles – the semitendinosus, the semimembranosus, and the long head of the biceps femoris. These muscles run along the back of the thigh, crossing both the hip and knee joints. They can contract in ways that straighten the hip and bend the knee. The word “hamstring” is often also used to include the short head of the biceps femoris muscle, which is only involved with the knee and not the hip, a portion of the adductor magnus muscle on the side of the thigh, and the tendons behind the knee. Our hamstrings are a fundamental part of many of our daily activities, like walking, running, jumping, and controlling movement in the torso.

So what does this have to do with your neck? The connection is the suboccipital muscles, which attach from the top of the spine to the skull. These muscles form a triangle called the suboccipital triangle, which consists of the rectus capitis posterior major (the top of the triangle), the obliquus capitis superior (the side of the triangle), and the obliquus capitis inferior (the bottom of the triangle). The suboccipital muscles also include the rectus capitus posterior minor, which isn’t part of the triangle. This area contains key nerves, and is covered by dense, fibrous tissue. These muscles control fine movement of the head.

Researchers Henry Pollard and Graham Ward conducted a study in which they found that stretching the hamstrings directly created a 9% increase in the length of the muscles, but stretching the suboccipitals created a 13% increase in hamstring length. Their explanation lies in the suboccipital muscles’ neurological role. The suboccipitals contain the most muscle spindles of anywhere in our bodies – in fact, the most of any creature on Earth. These are important to our sensory functions, especially our bodies’ compensation for the effects of gravity. Pollard and Ward suggest that through the Tonic Neck Reflex, a reflex shared by most mammals, extension of the subocciptals will cause a release of tension in the hamstrings.

For most people, if we shorten the upper neck, our hamstrings will stay short no matter how much we stretch them. Whereas if we lower the tonus of these upper neck muscles, lengthening our hamstrings and increasing hip flexion range of motion will be much easier.

Yoga neck stretches, of course, are a great way to relieve tension in the neck in general and suboccipitals in particular. In addition to yoga stretches, the suboccipitals can be stretched using structural bodywork, myofascial release, ideokinetic movement facilitation, alternative stretching, and/or a Ben’s Block (a specific kind of block designed for applying therapeutic pressure to the neck). Many chiropractic adjustments also focus on releasing tension in the suboccipitals to ease muscle tension in the legs and pelvic area.

So, next time you warm up your hamstrings during yoga, why not throw some deep yoga neck stretches in to see if it makes a difference? Who knows, you might find that adding yoga neck stretches to your daily routine won’t just help avoid neck tension, it could even improve the flexibility of your hamstrings, the alignment of your pelvis and lower back, and the overall health of your body.

See the video below for a great, relaxing neck stretch routine that will also help you wind down in the office or after a long day’s work.