When Hamstrings Wreak Havoc—Yoga’s Bad Boy Muscle Group

In this interview, certified Iyengar Yoga teacher and physical therapist Julie Gudmestad discusses why hamstring issues are so important to pay attention to in our yoga practice. While tight hamstrings are the most common issue, overstretched and weak hamstrings can be a problem as well, especially for experienced yoga practitioners, Julie notes.

YogaUOnline: Julie, you have long pointed out that healthy hamstrings are a central part of a well-rounded yoga practice. Why are the hamstrings so important in our practice?

Julie Gudmestad: Well, the hamstrings are central to so many poses, not just in terms of flexibility, but also strength. We draw on the hamstrings for strength in standing poses and backbends. We need the hamstrings to be flexible for forward bends. If the hamstrings are weak, it will limit our abilities and our endurance in many of the standing poses and backbends. If they’re tight, it will limit our abilities in forward bends and possibly contribute to some serious injuries that can happen in forward bends.

YogaUOnline: Most people know that tight hamstrings affect alignment in forward bends but fewer people are aware of the range of poses that tight hamstrings can affect. Could you talk about that?

Julie Gudmestad: There are many standing poses that are affected by hamstring flexibility, but one that comes to mind immediately is Trikonasana, Triangle Pose. If the hamstrings are tight, people can’t get their hand down on to their ankle or even their shin without side bending their spine. This in turn means that they will compress one side of their back and overstretch the top side of their back in Triangle pose. Another example is Downward Dog, one of the most ubiquitous yoga postures. In this posture, tight hamstrings will pull down on the sitting bones when people go into the pose, causing the back to round.

There’s also an interesting effect of going into and coming down out of inversions. People that have tighter hamstrings have a much harder time kicking up into a handstand or getting their legs up in a headstand. And some of the arm balances are affected as well. So really, it’s not just the forward bends that tight hamstrings are going to cause limitations in, it’s a wide, wide variety of yoga postures.

YogaUOnline: Tight hamstrings are surprisingly common – why is that?

Julie Gudmestad: Well, there are a couple of factors involved. Firstly, if you sit a lot, especially if you sit with your pelvis, your sitting bones slid forward on the chair with the knees bent, it puts the hamstrings in a really short position. And the more time you spend leaving the hamstrings or any muscle in a shortened position, the more the length of the muscle will begin to adapt to the position that you’re leaving it.

People don’t know that they can counterbalance the amount of sitting by doing some hamstring stretching every day. So in a sedentary society, this means that a good proportion of people coming to a yoga class have not been stretching enough to counter the amount of sitting they do every day, and the muscles have just gotten shorter and shorter over the years. And, of course, some sports like running or weight lifting will also shorten the hamstrings, if they’re not being stretched regularly.

In addition, women have a hormonal advantage towards flexibility. In women, the hormone relaxin is released in small amount with every menstrual period and a lot as the body prepares for childbirth. Relaxin helps loosen up the ligaments so the pelvis can expand for childbirth, and it also loosens up all of the connective tissue through the whole body. And the hamstrings are full of connective tissue. In contrast, men have more testosterone, which tends to build bulk. So if men are not stretching enough, the tendency is for the muscles to get shorter, tighter and bulkier. There are always exceptions, but that’s the general rule.

YogaUOnline: Tight hamstrings are not just an issue for alignment in yoga postures, it’s often involved in low back pain. Is that correct?

Julie Gudmestad: Yes, it is. It’s not just how pretty is your yoga pose, but it’s a health issue whether people do yoga or not. As physical therapists, when somebody comes in with a low back problem, one of the first things we usually check for is the flexibility of the hamstrings and the hip flexors. Tight hamstrings are often a factor in chronic nagging low back pain, and even significant injuries that might require surgery.

It’s hard to diagnose, because it doesn’t show up on an x-ray, there’s no wound, no blood. There’s nothing that people can see. We call it mechanical pain: There’s some kind of soft tissue that’s either being overstretched or overworked, so it sends up a red flag, and that red flag is pain.

Unfortunately, this is often overlooked, because a lot of medical people, surgeons in particular, are trained to evaluate whether a condition needs surgery. If it doesn’t need surgery, they don’t have a lot to offer. So this is where we as physical therapists and yoga teachers have a lot to offer in terms of getting people to do a variety of healthy movements for their hips and backs. Unfortunately, most Westerners want a quick fix—one exercise to do or a pill that they can take to get rid of the problem.

YogaUOnline: Tight hamstrings is one of the most common reasons that people who are new to yoga get discouraged and don’t continue their practice.

Julie Gudmestad: Yep, that’s very, very true.

YogaUOnline: In your studio, how do you approach this issue to make sure that new students don’t get discouraged and give up?

Julie Gudmestad: Well, first you have to figure out who in your class struggles with hamstring issues. One of the ways yoga teachers can notice in a classroom setting who has tight hamstrings is by having people do Supta Padangusthasana. When people lie on their back and leave one leg straight out on the floor and hold the other leg up with a belt, you can get a pretty good idea just by scanning the room, who can’t hold their leg very high off the floor. Those are, of course, the tight hamstring folks. So to know what you’re working with, you have to scan the room and see how high people can hold that leg up off the floor.

From there, we have a whole series of modifications we put people through to gradually build flexibility. With our beginners, we often don’t show them the finished position, because there are always a certain number of people who just want to go straight to the hardest possible thing, irrespective of whether their body is ready for it or not. We grade our classes according to people’s level and we just show them modified or supported positions where they can’t try to push too far into it. There’s whole series of Utthita Hasta Padangusthasana with your foot up on a chair or a window ledge and Supta Padangusthasana with the support of the leg in a doorway, and so on. The emphasis is on yoga postures where the hamstrings get a good light stretch, but they do not get their low back torqued out of position.

YogaUOnline: Now, we have spent a lot of time on tight hamstrings, but this isn’t the only problem yoga practitioners run into, is that correct?

Julie Gudmestad: Yes, indeed. One of my concerns for the yoga community and experienced yoga practitioners is that people who have been doing yoga for a long time, with all the forward bends they do, tend to get very flexible hamstrings. But if the hamstrings also happen to be weak, if they have not worked to keep the hamstrings strong, people get vulnerable to hamstring-origin strains or tears at the sitting bone. I see or hear about way too many of those strains when I teach yoga workshops across the country. And a contributing factor most of the time is that the hamstrings are weak and overstretched.

YogaUOnline: So it shows up as a pain in the sitting bones?

Julie Gudmestad: Yes. The muscle doesn’t have enough strength to keep its integrity, and it gets these little microscopic tears. And then it hurts to sit on it, hurts to stretch it, it hurts to do just about anything.

Among experienced practitioners, this is a problem that is far too common. So in my course on Yoga U, I really want to focus on what you need to do in your practice, and how to balance your practice so that you’re not setting yourself up for that problem, and what to do if you have already developed the problem.

In the course, we will review the anatomy of the hamstring, and what is considered normal range of motion. Then we’ll look at the problems that can ensue from hamstrings that are flexible, but weak, as I mentioned. In part two, we will look at what tight hamstrings look like and the tools yoga teachers can use to help students progress, and what the steps you can take yourself to improve. So we’ll look at what it takes to actually improve hamstring flexibility. People need accessible tools that are appropriate for their level of flexibility—just modifying a pose by bending the knees or using a block is often not enough. So we will look at which stretches are appropriate to help somebody with really tight hamstrings progress. We will have pictures that really illustrate how the anatomy is affecting the position of the pelvis and back, and why it’s so important to pay attention to this issue.

Julie Gudmestad is the founder of Gudmestad Yoga in Portland, Oregon, where she also works as a physical therapist specializing in orthopedic problems, chronic pain, and stress-related problems. Julie has worked for many years to integrate the healing powers of yoga with her Western medical knowledge. She has created a unique teaching style and teaches workshops including Anatomy Awareness in Asana and yoga for physical therapists throughout the US, Canada, and in Europe. And she is particularly well-known for the series of columns she wrote for Yoga Journal on the Anatomy of a Yogi for seven years.

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