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

Yoga for Your Feet, Part 3

In my last posts, I wrote about how important it is for your feet to stay strong and flexible, and I discussed the ways your yoga practice already helps your feet. This week, I’ve included a short video that gives you a few movements to include in your yoga practice to strengthen your feet and create greater flexibility. These simple additions require no special props, and they’re easy to do.

Problem

As we age, we rely on our feet to keep us stable and secure. Our feet get stiffer and weaker over time, and although our yoga practice helps, there are additional ways we can build strength and keep our feet healthy.

Solution

Strengthen your feet with quick and easy movements you can add to your yoga practice or do every morning.

—Alexandra

Yoga for Your Feet, Part 2

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Having strong and flexible feet is important for healthy aging. If your feet are pain-free, you’re more likely to continue hiking, walking, or jogging. Feeling steady on your feet can help you avoid falling, too. Genetics play a role in the sort of feet you have, as I talked about in Part 1. But even if your feet feel strong, age takes a toll. As we age, our feet get wider and flatter, stiffer and weaker. The good news is that your yoga practice is already helping fight back against these age-related foot changes.

This week, let’s look at the best yoga poses for your feet. You’re probably already regularly doing many of these! In my next post, I’ll show you a few things you can add to your yoga practice to get your feet in even better shape.

Foot-Stretching Poses

Downward-facing dog offers a fantastic bottom-of-the-foot stretch, especially if your heels don’t touch the ground. (For most of us, they don’t.) If they do, you can find this  same stretch in a high lunge pose with your back heel lifted. Stretching the bottoms of your feet will feel pretty good, and it can also help relieve the tension that causes plantar fasciitis. The seated pose hero pose gives you the same benefit but without standing up on your feet.

Arch-Strengthening Poses

Standing poses like Warrior I, Warrior II, triangle pose, and extended side angle pose require you to lift your back-foot arch while shifting weight into the pinky-toe side of that foot. This can feel especially challenging if your arches are weak or flat. If you’re newer to yoga, it can be easy to overlook this small nuance, so listen for that cue in your yoga class and lift your arches.

Balance Poses

Any time you practice a balance pose, you’re building foot strength. That gentle burning sensation on the bottom of your foot is a good thing! Tree pose and Warrior III are especially good balance poses, as they are simple (but not easy) which allows you to stay longer.

If you’re great at balance, try making it more challenging by practicing your balance poses on a doubled-up mat. An unstable and soft floor makes your foot work harder; the harder your foot works, the more you’re increasing its ability to hold you up safely over time.

Glutes-Building Poses

There are several poses in yoga that help you build glutes strength, like chair pose and bridge pose. Strong glutes allow you to move with ease and grace and help you feel lighter on your feet. You can also practice donkey kicks and outer-hip leg swings to build strength in your seat.

In my next post, we’ll look at small additions you can make to your yoga and movement practice to keep your feet strong and flexible at any age.

—Alexandra

 

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

 

 

One Quick Move to Strengthen Your Glutes

A few weeks ago, I wrote about chair pose, a glutes-strengthening pose. When you practice chair, you should feel the pose working muscles of the quads, glutes, core, and back. If you try this pose and you can’t feel it in your gluteus maximus at all, you may be experiencing gluteal amnesia. This means that the glutes aren’t activating as well as they should.

Problem

Even though you’re active, you may also sit a lot. All that sitting means the hip flexors get shorter and the hip extensors (primarily glutes and hamstrings) get elongated, weaker, and atrophied. After a while, the muscles of the glutes stop working effectively and other muscles compensate—particularly the muscles that comprise the hip flexors, hamstrings, or low back. This creates imbalance, and it’s also incredibly inefficient: the gluteus maximus is the largest muscle in the body. We want that muscle doing its job!

Solution

Donkey kicks are the perfect solution to the problem of gluteal amnesia. Start by coming to your hands and knees and moving in and out of cat-cow to warm up your spine. Next, find a neutral spine and deeply engage your core. (As you do this movement, you will to keep your core engaged to protect your lower back.) Extend your left leg about level with your hip and bend your knee, as if you were stepping your left foot on the ceiling. This is your starting position:

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Chris O, 51, models the starting position for donkey kicks.

Keeping your belly engaged, lift your left thigh a little higher, “kicking” your foot up toward the ceiling:

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As Chris’s left thigh lifts higher, his hamstrings and glutes activate.

Move in and out of these two positions, making sure to breathe. Continue this movement until you need a break—maybe 10-20 kicks. Rest afterward in child’s pose, and then set up on hands and knees and repeat with the right leg lifted. Try to do this movement a few times a week or add it into your daily yoga practice.

As we age, it’s especially important that our glutes are strong and that they’re activating when they should. We need them for yoga, balance, and athletics, but also to simply stand up from a seated position—something of utmost importance for independent living in our golden years.

—Alexandra

One Quick Move for Outer Hip Strength

When we think about strength in our lower body, we should think first about the most superficial muscle of the glutes: gluteus maximus. But strengthening your seat isn’t the only important focus for hip stability. In fact, there are some smaller muscles of the outer hip (the abductors) that keep you stable in balance poses and sports such as running, tennis, hockey, and skiing. Yoga offers some good poses for abductor stretching, but the quick move offered in the video here is a strength-building variation on a Pilates movement. You can do it just about anywhere: all you need is a wall or chair for a little stability, and you’ll be on your way to stronger outer hips. This two minute video will get you started:

 

—Alexandra

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

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

 

Just One Pose: Warrior III

Our “Just One Pose” posts answer the question: “If I have time to do just one pose, what should it be?” If your time to do just one pose is right before or just after your workout, Warrior III is your answer.

Anne Wander, Christine Cotton, and Mimi O'Grady, all fast runners in their 50s
Anne Wander, Christine Cotton, and Mimi O’Grady, all fast runners in their 50s

Why

This pose strengthens your lower leg, thighs, hips, and core, while stretching your hamstrings. Practicing it dynamically—pulsing in and out with the breath—will warm up and loosen your hip and thigh, a good preparation for movement. (Such warmups are increasingly important as we age.) And holding the pose for several breaths after your workout will improve your balance and core strength, setting you up to perform even better in the next workout.

How

Shift your weight into one foot, lifting the other foot behind you while holding your body in a long line from your raised foot through your head. Work to keep your hips square—don’t let your top hip lift—and your spine long and supported by your core. If you’re feeling stiffer or wobbly, keep your back foot near or on the ground. If you’re feeling loose or steady, lower your chest and lift your back leg toward parallel with the floor.

Variations

For a dynamic warmup: connect the movement with your breath. Exhale to lift your leg and lower your chest; inhale to lift your chest and lower your leg. Repeat for 10–20 breaths on one side before doing the other.

For a core/balance challenge: come to Warrior III and hold for 5–15 breaths. To sweeten the pose, rest your hands on your hips or in prayer position. To add spice, spread your arms to a T, or stretch them overhead, creating a long line from your raised foot to your fingers. Switch sides.

—Sage