Do your hamstrings feel tight and tense sometimes?
For a reasonably flexible person, my hamstrings have always felt stiff, but how can this be resolved bearing in mind that “stretching” tight, short muscles is generally ineffective? Just the other day I read an article detailing the results of a recent experiment that demonstrated stretching made no notable differences in any of the control groups involved. I concur with these findings and would argue that the only reason my hamstrings feel a little more naturally flexible these days is simply because I no longer spend 40 hours or so a week sitting at a desk!
So What are Yoga Exercises Then?
We may have an idea in our head that yoga is about stretching, but it isn’t. Think about it; most traditional yogis would have had incredibly natural bodies so it’s unlikely a posture or pose would have felt “stretchy”. Physiologically/physically, yogasana is far more about circulatory energetics – moving blood and information (prana/qi) around the body. This is enhanced when we move in certain ways with our breath, apply “bandha” and execute resistance-based exercises. Working this way also means that shorter, tighter muscles may naturally release and blood will flow WITHOUT the need for painful (and/or ineffective) intense stretching. You can tell blood is flowing when you start to feel warm – hot even – no matter that the exercises you are doing are not necessarily fast or furious! So relax when that happens. It’s working! It’s also important to remember that any sensation of “stretch” is our nervous system shortening the muscle so as to avoid injury. How is that for counter productive? This is called the “stretch reflex”* and it’s really just our body issuing a warning.
Poses like the one on the right in this image are always difficult for me if I come into them cold, so I never would and I never do! Instead, I plan my sequences mindfully by placing exercises that tend to naturally release certain muscle groups BEFORE the stronger and deeper poses that are ideally suited for super flexible people with longer muscles (who are these people 😂?).
So, try the exercise on the right first, just to see how it feels (don’t overstretch, just note when the hamstring starts to feel uncomfortable). Then, try doing the exercise on the left (same leg lifted or in front). Execute the lift of the leg on an inhalation, visualising the pubic bone lifting, the tailbone dropping and the abs pushing forward. Visualise it and see if you can gracefully and slowly lift the leg of the floor. The standing leg can be bent, but hold that balance for a while – 30 secs to a minute – if possible. The lifted leg doesn’t have to be high, but it does have to be straight. Then try the pose on the right again. Easier? It is isn’t it? 🙏🕉️ In short, the pose on the left naturally releases and relaxes the hamstring and that’s why it shows up regularly in class. This is Vinyasa-krama – intelligent sequencing.
*Moving slowly tricks the nervous system and it takes longer for the stretch reflex to kick in. Hence why most people pull muscles when moving quickly, not slowly.