Hamstrings and Yoga
Hamstring Anatomy and Description
Before looking at the hamstrings and their place in yoga practice, it’s worth considering thigh anatomy and the different muscles that are involved.
Hamstrings refer to a group of muscles and their tendons that are located at the back of the upper leg. There are three hamstring muscles; the biceps femoris, semitendinosus, and semimembranosus. They have a three-fold function, namely to:
- Extend the hips (bridge pose).
- Flex the knee joint.
- Move the leg.
The hamstrings are primarily employed in actions such as running and walking. Like most other muscles in the body, the hamstrings also have origins and inserts, which is where they are attached to the skeleton. The muscles in the hamstring have their origin on the ischial tuberosity of the hip (sitting bones) and the linea aspera of the femur (upper leg bone).
All three of the muscles run down the back of the thigh to their various insert points. The sciatic nerve also supplies them.
Biceps FemorisThe biceps femoris is located on the outer edge of the thigh. It’s a two-headed muscle and has a long head and a short head. The long head is attached at the sitting bone, and the small head is connected to the lower part of the femur.
Both the long and the short heads have the inserts on the tendon of the outer knee, which is called the fibula. The biceps femoris extends the hip and bends the knee. The way you can stretch it is during forward folds where the legs are close to each other or close to the midline, such as seated forward bends, standing forward bends, pyramid pose, monkey pose, standing splits, etc.
SemimembranosusLike the other hamstrings, this muscle has its origin at the sitting bones. At its origin, it is a thick and membranous tendon. This muscle inserts on the inner knee and has three primary functions, namely:
- To serve as the fascial anchor for the adductor Magnus, the largest inner-thigh muscle,
- To extend the hip.
- To flex the knee.
SemitendinosusThe semitendinosus also originates at the sitting bones and inserts on the superior part of the medial tibia, which is the front of the knee.
This muscle extends the hip as well as knee flexion. To stretch both semimembranosus and semitendinosus you need to focus on widelegged forward bends such as upavistha konasana or janu sirsasana.
Why do You Need Hamstrings?Your hamstrings muscles are necessary to carry out many different basic movements, including running, jumping, and walking. At the start of each step, the hamstrings flex the knee and extend the hip. In the decelerating of knee extension, the hamstrings work against the quadriceps muscles which locks the knee.
Hamstring InjuriesA hamstring injury can either be a pull, partial tear or complete tear. Since hamstrings are muscles, these injuries are graded from one to three, with one being a mild strain with a relatively quick healing time expectancy and three being a complete tear that can take weeks or months to heal.
Most hamstring injuries are caused by muscle overload. If you force yourself into an intense stretch with tight hamstrings or when you extend a load-bearing muscle, you lengthen the tissue while it is busy contracting. These injuries are often called “eccentric contraction.”
Risk Factors for Hamstring InjuryA muscle imbalance can increase your risk for a hamstring injury. A muscle imbalance is when a muscle group is stronger than its antagonist muscle group (opposite muscles). If your quadriceps muscles at the front of your thigh are stronger than your hamstring muscle group, the imbalance can result in hamstring muscle strain.
If your muscles are tight, you may also be vulnerable to muscle strain. To prevent stress from muscle tightness, do stretching exercises or Yin Yoga for hamstrings every day.
Several specific activities and athlete age groups carry an inherent risk of hamstring injury. If you are:
- An athlete that participates in team sports like football, basketball, or lacrosse,
- A runner,
- An adolescent athlete that hasn’t stopped growing, or
- A dancer,
You may be at a higher risk of hamstring injury. Teenagers that go through growth spurts are particularly vulnerable to a hamstring injury as their skeletons grow at a quicker rate than their muscles. (Hamstring Injury, n.d.)
Relationship Between Strength and FlexibilityIf you’re an advanced yoga practitioner, you may find that one deep stretching with forwarding folds is one of the things that is often difficult to achieve. Many yoga practitioners do some severe damage in the form of microtears to their hamstrings in their attempts to stretch and increase the length of their hamstring muscles.
Although flexibility and hamstring muscle length is an objective worth working for, you don’t want extremely flexible hamstrings as it will inhibit your control over their range of motion and increase your risk of injury. On the other hand, you want a degree of flexibility to do leg stretching yoga while ensuring optimal knee, legs, and hip health.
A healthy hamstring has muscle fibers that can completely expand and contract without tearing. Whether your hamstring muscles are short or long, you should do a concentric exercise called Hamstring Slides.
Hamstring SlidesThere are many yoga poses for strengthening hamstrings, but this exercise is crucial for promoting your hamstring muscle health.
- Start by placing your yoga mat on a slippery surface and lie down with your head, back, and bottom on the mat and your legs extended on the floor. With your heels as an anchor on the ground, pull your bottom towards your feet utilizing only your hamstrings.
- As you pull your body to your feet, keep your knees parallel to each other and pointing upwards. When your bottom reaches your feet, straighten your legs and repeat this exercise until you are tired.
- If you struggle with this exercise, it’s a sign that you need to strengthen your hamstrings. Hamstring flexibility without strength can lead to shortened hip flexors, muscle imbalances and, as a result, a forward pelvic tilt and back pain.
Yoga for HamstringsThere are several yoga poses to increase your hamstrings' range of motion and strength. By practicing these poses, you will increase your ability to carry out complex yoga poses for hamstrings without risk of injury while keeping control over your hamstring muscles’ range of motion.
UttanasanaIf you have limited flexibility in your hamstring, this posture will stretch your lateral hamstring muscle, the biceps femoris.
Stand with your feet hip-width apart. Put a slight bend on your knees and hinge from your hips to fold forward, if you can not touch the ground you can place a block under your hands. Let your belly touch your thighs and stay there for at least five breaths. After that, try to straighten your legs more as you fold forward while still keeping your belly on the thighs.
Now to strengthen the hamstrings transfer the body weight to your right foot and pull your left heel back without leaving the ground as if you were trying to bend your left knee. That will contract your hamstrings, bringing in the strength part of it. Take a couple of breath then switch leg.
Upward Plank PoseThis pose aims to strengthen the hamstrings as well as the glutes, calves, and back muscles. Start this posture by sitting in the staff pose with your upper body upright and your legs extended in front of you.
Place your palms about ten inches behind you with your fingers pointing towards your feet.
Then, place the soles of your feet on the ground, and use your back-body muscles to raise your body from the floor into a reverse-incline plank position.
Use your hamstrings to lift your hips and push your thighs toward each other. Try to keep this pose as long as possible.
Variation of the Reclining Hand-to-Big-Toe Pose
With this pose, you can determine the current length of your hamstring. Start by lying on the floor with one foot against a wall. Then, place a strap around the center of the sole of your foot, engage your core, and lift your leg by bringing your right hip into flexion. Try to keep both legs straight.
While you carry out this pose, your spine should be neutral, and your pelvis should not tilt or shift. As soon as you feel your hamstrings stretch, stop pulling your leg up with the strap and take deep breaths. Wait until the stretching sensation disappears before switching sides. (Miller, 2017)
ConclusionGenerally speaking, it’s best to warm up your hamstrings before doing intensive stretches. You can warm up your hamstrings by walking and doing the poses listed above. If you want to improve your yoga practice, but find that you are limited by your hamstrings, focus on doing your hamstring slides to improve hamstring health and strength and increasing hamstring length.
If you’re suffering from a hamstring injury, strengthening is essential to increase blood flow and to prevent muscle tearing in the future. Other postures that you can include during asana sessions including the Warrior I, Warrior II, and bridge poses. As always, take care as you practice and let yoga teachers at your yoga studio know you have an injury before taking their class.
If you can, supplement your yoga practice with walking, running, and weight training to strengthen your hamstring muscles and increase blood flow through the muscle tissue. If you Can't go for a walk or a run, try some online courses or yoga videos with a strengthening focus.
When it comes to stretching, be patient. Don’t push it too far. A hamstring injury can be painful and debilitating. If you experience pain during poses and exercises, it may be a sign of microtears or muscle pulling.