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

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

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

The Grandparent Game

It takes fitness and stamina to be a grandparent—it’s practically a sport. After a few days of watching my parents with my daughter, I came up with a short, simple sequence that  prepares you for the physical requirements of grandparenting. Practice this sequence ahead of a visit with babies or before a family vacation with little kids— it only takes about 5 minutes. We’re standing on a yoga mat here, but it’s not needed. You don’t need any props for this sequence, and you can even do it with your shoes on. My dad (Umpa, to his grandchildren) filmed with me and did a great job of demoing!

Problem

For a weekend with grandchildren, you need stamina, a healthy spine, and strong glutes (for picking up those little kiddos).

Solution

A simple, short sequence you can do anywhere and anytime.

—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

 

 

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

Basics: Build Better Balance

Here are some simple tips on how to build better balance.

Why

Balance is increasingly critical as we age, and especially so for aging athletes. A sense of where your body is in space will not only reduce your risk of falls, it will help keep you nimble.

When

Spend some time challenging your balance every day. This can be as simple as standing on one leg as you brush your teeth, or as complex as enjoying a lengthy string of balance poses in your yoga practice. Hold your single-leg stance until you feel pleasant fatigue in your lower leg or hip.

How

Start on a hard, smooth surface, with something nearby to rest a hand or fingertip on. Having a chair back, counter, or doorknob close yields a strong placebo effect and makes balance easier. Move to a carpet, rug, or yoga mat for greater challenge. Folding the mat, or balancing on a folded blanket, makes it tougher still, especially for your lower leg. For more, try standing on a yoga block—being slightly higher in space will test your vestibular system. In any of these positions, a slow blink of your eyes, or holding them gently closed, will enhance the work, as will shaking your head from side to side.

—Sage