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

IMG_7734
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

Men and yoga
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

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.

IMG_6593
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.

IMG_6594

 

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.

IMG_6600

—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.

FullSizeRender(3)
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.

FullSizeRender(4)
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

 

Sequence: Snowga to Do When You’re Trapped Inside

In our Sequence posts, you’ll find a sequence for a specific purpose. This week, we’re looking at snowga! When we get snow in North Carolina (where Sage and I live), things really slow down. Businesses close, sidewalks stay icy, roads aren’t safe for driving for several days. Snow days are nature’s way of reminding us to slow down and do less. But doing less doesn’t mean doing nothing. That’s where this simple, short practice comes in. It’s easy to do anywhere: you don’t need anything except your body and a wall. Bookmark this post, and the next time the weather brings your active life to a halt, take 5 minutes to move. Your core, hips, legs, and shoulders will thank you. (We practice a lot of downward-facing dog at the wall in this video. For a tutorial on that, check out Sage’s Hack Your Down Dog.)

—Alexandra

Props: Three Uses for a Yoga Strap

Yoga props can make your practice more productive and kinder for your body. We looked at some of the uses of the yoga block already. This week, let’s look closer at the yoga strap and its three main uses. In poses, a yoga strap can help you connect, stretch, or stabilize.

Yoga straps are 6-10 feet in length, and for most bodies the shorter length is perfect. Straps are made of thick, woven canvas and have a plastic or metal buckle so the ends can be easily connected. If you don’t own a yoga strap, no problem: you can use a tie or a belt in its place.

In this video, I show how you can use a yoga strap to connect, stretch, and stabilize. Grab a yoga strap and come along!

Connect

Imagine the yoga strap as an extension of your arm. If you’re reaching for your foot and  your hand doesn’t quite reach, your strap can fill the gap of those last few inches and help you make the connection.

Stretch

Shoulder stretching and hamstring stretching are made most effective by using a yoga strap. For shoulder stretching, place the strap in each hand and open your arms shoulder-width or wider. Reach both arms overhead and explore your shoulders by moving your arms behind you or from side to side. For hamstring stretching, lie on your back and wrap the strap around your foot. Extend that foot skyward and feel your hamstrings get looser as you move your leg around in space.

Stabilize

Sometimes we want to hang out in a passive or restorative shape and use as little effort as we can. The yoga strap makes that possible. In a pose like bound angle pose, the strap can be utilized to keep your body in one shape while you relax.

—Alexandra

Hack Your Down Dog

Downward-facing dog offers a wonderful release for the back side of your body, from your calves up through the hamstrings, back, and shoulders. But it can be tough for aging athletes.

Problem

A range of issues can make downward-facing dog a bad idea in your body. These include both high and low blood pressure; glaucoma; a propensity for vertigo; problems with the wrists, elbows, and shoulders; or simple tightness along the posterior chain—the back side—of the body.

Solution

In this video, I offer ways to “hack” your down dog—to deconstruct it and customize it to serve your needs. The key is to avoid bearing weight in your hands, and instead to use a chair, counter, or wall for your hands. You can still take the classic L shape with your body, but without leaning much weight into your hands and without lowering your head below your heart.

—Sage