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The Secret of Happy Hamstrings

From your individual experience, you may already be aware that yoga can require a lot of your hamstrings.

The hamstrings are the building blocks of a healthy asana practice. Most importantly, hamstrings need to be adaptable, actively engaged, and vital to support us in many asanas without causing any added strain.

This blog aims to dissect the anatomy of the hamstrings and how to keep them supple & strong.

So, What are the hamstrings & What do they do?

The hamstring is an influential group of solid muscles used in almost every human activity. It is a set of three muscles located at the back of the leg and below the pelvis. The hamstrings run down the back of the thighbone, cross the knee joint, and attach to the lower leg bones.

Happy Hamstrings in Yoga

There are three main muscles that comprise the hamstrings—the semimembranosus, semitendinosus, and the femoris (which is the long head of the biceps), which originates on the sit bones, and the short head of the biceps femoris, which originates at the thigh bones.

In a nutshell, hamstrings run longitudinally behind and along the length of the thigh bone & the femur. They are used for most daily, physical movements and activities like running, walking, climbing & work in coordination with the quadriceps to make movement happen.

These muscles are vital in the functioning of the knee joint. The key role of the hamstrings is to facilitate the flexing and bending of the knee, the extension of the hip, and, to a lesser extent, aid in hip rotation.

They are overall built to encourage movement when they receive signals from the brain through the Sciatica nerve.

The Hamstring Struggle is Real

Hamstrings are shortened in many activities in our modern-day routine—sitting, driving, walking, running, or cycling. These muscles easily stay ‘held’, losing their ability to release, and muscle tightness becomes inevitable. Stretching at this stage is not helpful. Release is needed first and foremost.

In the case of shorter hamstrings, the top of the pelvis gets pulled backwards, creating a posterior pelvic tilt. This, in turn, flattens the lumbar curve and places extra load on the discs between the lumbar vertebrae.

On the contrary, weak hamstrings allow the top of the pelvis to tip forward, creating an anterior pelvic tilt and shortening the hip flexors. In the long run, this impacts the spine, joints, and knees for practitioners.

How do you achieve healthy, happy hamstrings?

The ideal, healthy, happy hamstring situation is when hamstrings are free to engage and disengage when required and are free of tension.

This is definitely possible, and one can get there. In such a scenario the entire body moves and breathes as a whole, the body naturally stands tall, the lower body is more steady and grounded. Chances of lower back aches and strains are almost minimal.

At the core, hamstrings are designed to be neither too tight nor too flexible. Supple hamstrings are essential for the efficient functioning of the joints, this includes both the hip and knee joints which depend on the hamstrings for movement.

Some relatable examples of asanas to loosen tight hamstrings include – Adhmomukha svanasana, paschimottanasana, utthita trikonasana . supta padangustasana.

How can we improve hamstring elasticity through yoga?

1. Always maintain a neutral spine  Often, during standing or seated forward folds we subconsciously tend to round our back and feel more stretched in the back muscles. Being mindful of keeping a neutral spine is the secret sauce to healthy hamstrings.

2. Introduce a variety of hamstring stretches.  Different asanas yield different sensations in our hamstrings. Notice that in a standing, wide-legged forward fold (Prasarita series) & the same done seated (Upavishta Konasana), the stretch is mainly on the medial hamstrings, semimembranous and semitendinosus muscles. Standing asanas with the feet together, like uttanasna and pashchimottanasana have a larger bearing on the lateral hamstrings. Keeping the knee slightly bent is also beneficial since it releases the hamstrings at their insertions in the lower legs. Working towards the release of the hamstring tension in a series of asanas not only helps with boosting blood circulation but also encourages elasticity of the area between and around the hamstrings.

3. Strengthen the hamstring muscles & the Gluteus Maximus  ( Glutes) Muscles work better when they are able to contract easily and then relax. On the other hand, being stuck makes them less efficient, tight and tense. The Gluteus Maximus muscle (glute muscles) located in the buttocks and the hamstring muscles work together to create a hip extension. Sedentary lifestyles result in weak glutes that can manifest into lower back aches, hip instability and inefficient movement patterns. Apt asana examples to work on the glutes are the Virabhadrasana series, Utkatasana, Setubandasana, Ardha Chandrasana  etc

4. Maintaining the Pelvis: This can be done by tilting forward and contracting the quadriceps gently to straighten the knees slowly. Contracting the quadriceps causes the hamstrings to relax into a stretch.

5. Avoid Overstretching. Overstretching can result in soreness and cause micro tears in the muscles. Therefore, stretching the muscles in the region of micro tears can further aggravate injury. Altering the method of stretching to another healthy area of the muscle allows the injured part to heal without the burden of additional stress and injury in the long run.

6. Gender  Last but not least, did you know that gender also plays a role in hamstring health? Women tend to have a natural advantage due to the hormone relaxin, particularly produced during pregnancy and childbirth, to facilitate pelvis opening. What relaxin does it makes the pelvic ligament and other connective tissues more pliable, thus making hip openers more accessible. Men naturally have a higher level of testosterone, which is responsible for muscle bulk and can, therefore, result in tighter hamstrings.

 Like everything else, consistency is key and healthy hamstrings, irrespective of where we are in our yoga journey, can be achieved with practice, awareness & commitment.

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