Men and Yoga, Part 2: Tight Hamstrings

“My hamstrings are really tight.”

If you’re a guy in a yoga class, chances are you have uttered this phrase at some point, whether to yourself, a friend, or your yoga instructor. The complaint of “tight hamstrings” is pervasive in yoga, and it’s a comment we often hear men make. In part 2 of my series on men and yoga, let’s look at why tight hamstrings are more common in men and what you can do to make hamstrings-heavy poses friendlier for your body.

Why

Generally, women are more flexible than men, but this is certainly not the only reason men experience tighter hamstrings. An additional exacerbating factor is sitting (a common element of modern jobs.) Sitting for long stretches, over time, results in tighter, shorter hamstrings muscles. But genetics play a role, too: if you’ve been plagued by less flexibility in the backs of your legs since you were young, then you may simply have shorter hamstrings than your peers.

The sensation of tight hamstrings can also be a symptom of tightness or imbalance in other places, like calves, hip flexors, glutes, or your lower back. Sometimes stretching these other areas can create noticeable space and loosening in the hamstrings. The good news is that yoga targets your whole body, so your yoga practice over time will serve a goal of creating more flexible hamstrings.

What to do

If you have less-flexible hamstrings, forward-folding poses might be uncomfortable. So here’s what not to do: don’t just push through, shaking and sweating and gritting your teeth. Instead of pushing your muscles into submission (which won’t happen, anyway, but could result in injury), patiently coax them to slowly and steadily relax and release, by asking less of them. How? Bend your knees.

Bending your knees is the simplest fix for tightness in the backs of your legs. By bending your knees, you can control the intensity of the stretch. Aim for a level 3 or 4 intensity (out of 10), at least for the first half of your yoga practice. As you feel warmer, experiment a little, but always stay below the shaking, teeth-gritting point. (There’s greater risk of injury when you push. Practice patience—make that your intention for your yoga!)

When you bend your knees in a pose, you’re still doing the pose! You’re doing a version that is appropriate for your body and your needs. It’s not cheating to modify. It’s not weak or wimpy. It’s intelligent yoga to make wise decisions that better serve your body.

Here are three common poses modeled with bent knees. This allows your hamstrings to release gradually over time. Less is more!

Downward-facing dog

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Bob L., 59, models a strong downward-facing dog with knees bent.

By bending his knees in downward-facing dog, Bob can get the full effects of the pose in his upper body. The integrity of the pose isn’t compromised by this modification. The bend allows his hamstrings to gently stretch, and he probably also feels a stretch in his calves here, too.

Standing forward fold

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Bob in standing forward fold.

In this version of standing forward fold, Bob’s bent knees allow his glutes to stretch, too. Notice that he’s brought his hands to his elbows. Don’t worry about touching the ground in your forward folds. There’s no need to arrive at any particular destination.

Seated forward fold

In the picture on the left, Bob is showing what not to do. Don’t sacrifice your back (rounding it, as he’s doing here) in order to keep your legs straight. Instead, follow his modeling on the right: deeply or lightly bend your knees. Be sure to sit on a blanket. Lean forward from the chest, keeping your back long and your spine straight. Don’t worry about where your hands go. (No one cares if you touch your toes. Don’t compare yourself to the 21-year-old. You’re not her.)

In my next post on men and yoga, I’ll answer some common questions you might have if you’re a guy beginning a yoga practice.

—Alexandra

Breath to Support Stillness in Your Yoga Practice: Back Bends and Forward Folds

We’ve been looking at how your breath supports your movement in your workouts—see “The Right Breath for Now,” “Breath to Support Movement,” “Breath to Support Movement in Your Yoga Practice,” and “Breath to Support Stillness in Your Yoga Practice: Balance and Twists.” Let’s look at how the breath relates to the movement of your spine forward and back.

Breath and Backbends

Use inhalations to extend your spine even longer.
Use inhalations to extend your spine even longer.

In general, we use inhalations to support lifting actions. This holds true in backbends, as well. A full inhalation will decrease the curve of your thoracic spine, extending your back. As you hold a backbend like the chest lift depicted here, notice the sensation of length that rides on every breath in, and try to maintain it as you breathe out.

Breath and Forward Folds

Use exhalations to help you settle in forward folds.
Use exhalations to help you settle in forward folds.

As the spine moves forward, exhalations become your friend. As you hold a forward fold, you’ll notice that every breath in floats you slightly up, then every breath out will settle you deeper. Notice that exhalations can encourage you to round your upper and mid-back. Be careful with this movement, as too much forward flexion can be rough on the spine and disks. Keeping a longer spine is generally a good idea—even if that means you don’t fold very far forward.

—Sage

Be a Desk Chair Yogi

This week I have been sitting a lot. Between writing and catching up on end-of-summer paperwork, I’ve logged more time in a chair than I usually do. Yesterday I ran in the morning and later I put down my mat for a lunchtime yoga practice. But today I didn’t have the luxury of extra time, and after a morning of sitting, my body was calling for yoga. Sound familiar? When you have an unusually full day and you’re trapped behind a desk, this 5-step simple sequence is the answer.

Step 1: Go for a 5 minute walk. If you’re home, go check your mail or wander into your backyard. If you’re in an office, take a lap around the building or mosey into the parking lot. Take these 5 minutes alone and with no electronic devices. While you move, bring your attention to your breath. Aim for steadier, deeper breaths, and allow yourself to get curious about your habitual breathing patterns.

Step 2: Seated side stretch. Come back to your desk chair. Sit tall in the middle of your chair. Allow your right arm to settle onto the armrest or relax into your lap. Reach your left arm overhead, and find a side stretch that feels ahhh to you. (Add more: look up toward your left hand and allow your neck to get a stretch.) Hold for 10 breaths. Switch sides and repeat.

Step 3: Seated twist. Wrap your right arm around the back of your chair. Sit tall, and look over your right shoulder, twisting from your core. Your left hand can hold onto the right side of the chair or the right-side armrest to help you twist deeper. Hold for 10 breaths. Switch sides and repeat.

Step 4: Seated forward fold. Take your knees and feet wider than hip width. Settle your hands onto your thighs and sit tall. Engage your core and lean forward, keeping a long spine. You don’t have to go far: a few inches may be all you need. If you have any bone density issues, skip this move altogether. (Add more: take your hands to the back of your chair, and you’ll feel an additional stretch in your arms, shoulders, and upper back.) Hold for 10 breaths.

Step 5: Seated extension. Slide to the front edge of your chair. Reach your hands to the back of your chair and hold on to the seat. Engage your core, and extend your sternum skyward. Draw your shoulder blades down. (Add more: lift your chin and find a front-of-the-neck stretch.) Hold for 10 breaths.

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From upper left clockwise: side stretch, twist, forward fold, and extension, all seated.

More yoga is better than less, but some yoga is definitely better than none. This took me just under 12 minutes, including my walk. It was the perfect midday reset for my body and mind. This is simple to do and simple to remember. The next time you’re stuck at your desk, be a desk chair yogi!

—Alexandra

Just One Pose: Bridge Pose

Our “Just One Pose” posts answer the question: “If I have time to do just one pose, what should it be?” If you sit a lot, deal with tight hip flexors, and want to make sure your glutes are activating when they should, bridge pose is the answer.

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Diane Joseph, 61, models a beautiful bridge pose

Why

Bridge pose builds strength in the glutes, hamstrings, low back, and core. In bridge, your glutes support much of your weight, so deep glute activation occurs. Strong glutes are vitally important for healthy aging and correlate with fewer injuries. Strong glutes mean better balance and more stamina in running, hiking, and walking. We rely on our glutes to help us get back to standing from a seated or recumbent pose, which becomes more and more important for independent living as we age.

How

Lie on your back on the floor with your knees bent. Your knees should be directly over your ankles. Lift your hips skyward. Focus on squeezing your seat to keep your hips nice and high. At the same time, hug your belly inward, engaging the deepest layer of your core. Keep your knees hip-distance apart, but activate the inner thigh line by drawing your legs toward one another. To add the upper body component, roll your shoulders under your body, one shoulder at a time. Your hands might hold the sides of your mat, rest on the mat, or clasp under your body.

Variations

Make it spicier for your glutes by stabilizing your hips and then lifting one leg skyward. You can hold your leg still, draw circles in the air, or even add dynamic action by lifting and lowering your leg or your pelvis.

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Encourage the engagement of the adductors (inner thigh line) by placing a block between your legs and squeezing. You can squeeze and hold or try gently pulsing.

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—Alexandra

 

 

Hunchback, Begone! Relief for Your Upper Back, Part 1

Let’s talk about the hunch! It’s been on my mind both over time—I have a prominently rounded, or kyphotic upper back, and have since childhood (one doctor called it “front to back scoliosis,” not what you want to hear as a teenaged girl)—and recently, as a picture of me in a yoga pose with the label HUNCHBACK caught my attention over the weekend. (Don’t worry: it was followed by a picture of me in an extension pose labeled BEGONE!; you can read the full story, and get a yoga philosophy takeaway, on my blog.)

Problem

While a round in your upper back is a normal position of your spine, it can grow more pronounced with age. This hunch is compounded by time spent with your hands on a keyboard, bike handlebars, or tennis racquet. If it’s left to progress, it can create stress in the upper back and neck and, even worse, affect your breathing.

Solution

In this and the next few posts, I’ll offer a three-part approach to warding off the hunch. Happily, the first step is to stretch your chest, and this is a relaxing thing to do.

In this video, I show how you can set up for a passive backbend using yoga props or materials you have around the house (a blanket and a book). Drape your spine against this support, close your eyes, and breathe—the first step toward unhunching is that easy! Enjoy it most days for about five minutes. It makes a nice prelude to bed, or a break in a busy day.

—Sage

Just One Pose: Chair Pose For Chair Relief

Our “Just One Pose” posts answer the question: “If I have time to do just one pose, what should it be?” If you’re looking for a pose that’s the antidote to sitting, the answer is chair pose.

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That’s right: one of the best poses to counteract sitting a lot is indeed chair pose. Chair pose helps fire key muscles of your torso and legs. In this challenging pose, your core has to support you, your shoulders activate, and the muscles of your seat and thighs have to work.

The Sanskrit name of this pose is utkatasana, which translates to fierce pose. It’s commonly referred to as chair pose because it mimics the shape we take seated. If you find the pose spicy, though, it might help you to remember its real name.

Why

This pose challenges balance and strengthens the glutes, quads, and core. It also strengthens the muscles of the shoulders because you must actively draw your shoulder blades down.

How

Take your feet hip width apart, and inhale to sweep your arms overhead. As you exhale, bend your knees and sink down, as if you were sitting into an armchair. Try to keep your seat far back and your shins perpendicular to the earth. (Shifting your body weight into your heels will help keep your knees over your ankles.) On your next inhale straighten your legs, and as you exhale release your arms next to your body. Repeat this, moving in and out of the pose, 5-10 times. As you feel warmer, you can move into the pose and hold the squat position for 5-10 breaths.

Variations

Your elbows can be bend, your arms can be wider, or your arms can be lower—or all three. Don’t let your shoulders be the limiting factor of doing the pose. Keep your shoulder blades sliding down your back and keep a lot of space between the tops of your shoulders and your ears. Adjust your arms accordingly.

You can make it spicier by lifting one foot. Lifting one foot makes this a bigger balance challenge and offers a serious wake-up for the glutes. Try one foot for 3-5 breaths and then switch.

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Make it sweeter by using a wall. Doing this pose against a wall (or a tree!) allows you to focus on alignment and makes it less load-bearing for your knees. Over time, you can build up to practicing it without support.

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—Alexandra

Sweet and Safe Lower Back Stretches

In my last post, I wrote about the perils of rolling up from a forward fold position. Many of our students commented that they knew rolling up wasn’t particularly safe, but they loved how good it felt to stretch their lower back. There are more effective ways to find that same sensation. This week, I offer three easy ways to find a sweet (and safe!) low back stretch.

Problem

Rolling up to a standing position from a forward fold is not generally safe for the lower back, but for many people it feels good.

Solution

In this video, I offer several effective movements and poses that offer release for tight lower back muscles. These are safer than rolling up, although forward folds are still best avoided if you have bone density loss. Try exploring back stretching at a wall or in a doorway, try wiggling around in cat-cow on your mat, or sink back into a wide-knee version of child’s pose.

—Alexandra

Your Guide to Standing Up

A common cue you may hear in a yoga class is to “roll up to standing” as you move from a forward-folded position back to standing. But for those of us with athletic builds or aging bodies, there are better and safer ways to return to a standing position.

A couple of weeks ago, I posted about osteoporosis and yoga, and we looked at the poses and movements you might want to avoid if you have low bone density. In particular, forward folds should be avoided by anyone with osteopenia or osteoporosis. But even if your bones are healthy and you practice forward folds, you should still avoid rolling up.

Rolling up to a standing position creates disc compression and stresses the back of the pelvis and sacrum. Rolling up also requires the lumbar spine (five vertebrae, located between the ribcage and the pelvis) to support the entire upper body for the duration of the roll up, with very little support from the relaxed abdominal muscles.

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Warren, 68, demos rolling up before we discussed the issues with this movement.

Rolling up probably won’t result in acute, instant injury, but over time it can cause disc problems and pain. When your instructor cues the class to “roll up,” here’s what you should do instead:

In your forward-folded position, bend your knees, and slide your hands onto your thighs. Lengthen your spine. Keeping your knees bent, begin to ascend to standing, leading with your chest.

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When you return to a standing position this way, your glutes to do the bulk of the work and your spine doesn’t bear all the weight of your upper body.

When I discussed this in a recent class, many of my students lamented the loss of rolling up because it feels like a pleasant way to stretch the muscles of the low back. There are safer and more effective ways to get that stretch. Look for future posts on that!

—Alexandra

 

Hack Your Sun Salutes, Part 1

Sun Salutations are a standard feature in most yoga classes, and a given in vinyasa or flow classes. They serve to build heat, stretch the back of the body, and connect body and breath. To that end, they can be a good dynamic warmup before a workout or at the start of your yoga practice.

Problem

Sun Salutations are heavy on the forward folds, and thus can exacerbate issues with blood pressure, vertigo, or injury along the back and in the hamstrings.

Solution

In this video, I show you how to modify the front end of the sun salutation—sometimes called the “half salute”—to alleviate the strain on your vestibular system, blood pressure, and back. You can use a chair or countertop as a prop if you want to keep your head above your heart.

—Sage

Just One Pose: Paused Roll Down

Our “Just One Pose” posts answer the question: “If I have time to do just one pose, what should it be?” This week, the pose to try is paused roll down. This variation on the Pilates roll down doesn’t rely on upper-body support, so if you’re recovering from a shoulder, elbow, or wrist injury, it’s the perfect core-focused pose.

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John, 71, holds paused roll down

Why

If you want to continue to run, bike, and play for the whole of your life, having strong abdominal muscles is key. You can explore plank pose as a stabilizing pose to build core strength. In plank, the spine stays long. In paused roll down, the spine articulates. This is another important way to build core strength and maintain spinal health, and it’s a good alternative to plank when your upper body needs rest.

How

Sit with your legs extended. Draw your shoulder blades down your back and reach your arms forward. Take a breath in and deeply engage your core. (Not sure what “engage your core” means? Check out Core Engagement 101.) Moving with a neutral spine, start to roll down toward the ground. Pause about halfway to the earth—or when it starts to feel a little challenging. Stay here and breathe. Keep your core engaged and deepen the engagement on every exhalation. The “work” of the pose should happen in the front and sides of your body, not in your back. Hold for 5-10 breaths.

Variations

If you have tight hamstrings or hip flexors: Bend your knees. This will give your hip flexors and hamstrings a reprieve, and you’ll still get the benefit of core work.

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Be kinder to your legs: bend your knees

For more support: Hold on to your legs. This will lessen the load on your core.

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Start with holding your legs to build strength

For more spice: Pause with your body closer to the earth. Things may get a little shaky!

If you have disc concerns or stenosis: Instead of rolling down, lean back with a long spine. Don’t lean back very far: pause just a few degrees back. If this pose still doesn’t feel right for you with that change, simply don’t do it. (Not all poses are for every body, but that’s another post.)

—Alexandra