Many people believe that they are unable to practice yoga because they are “not flexible enough.” And while many yogis know this to be simply untrue, it can still be a huge deterring factor for many practitioners that have tighter hamstrings because a large portion of the classical asanas incorporate hamstring flexibility of some sort.
So, is it possible to practice yoga and have tight hamstrings? The answer is YES, of course! There are many options for modifying postures to compensate for tighter hamstring muscles.
The following is a list of some of the best and safest ways to modify yoga poses for tight hamstrings. And, due to the fact that hamstring injuries are some of the hardest and longest to heal, I highly encourage yogis with tight hammies to actually use these modifications to keep your body and asana practice safe.
Bend Your Knees
The first and foremost option for tighter hamstrings is also one of the most commonly offered modifications.
Bending the knees during forward folding postures (or any poses that require hamstring flexibility) is an excellent option to modify poses for tighter hamstrings.
Some people think that bending the knees lessens the stretch in forward folds, but this is completely inaccurate. When the hamstrings are tight, these muscles tend to “tug” on the lower back. This action causes a significant rounding of the spine in forward folds, which in turn, removes the stretch targeting the hamstrings and replaces it with a stretch (or sometimes strain) of the lower back.
And while stretching the lower back is great, and has its place and significance in yoga, it won't help you gain progress if you're specifically targeting the muscles of the hamstrings and hoping to lengthen them — even after three years of consistent forward folding.
Therefore, bending the knees (from slightly to significantly – whichever option feels better for you) allows the stretch to be reallocated to the back of the legs, targeting those pesky hamstring muscles that seem to take forever to actually lengthen. This also helps to keep the insertion points of the muscles safe without “tearing” the muscles through overextension.
So, when in doubt (or especially when in pain!), please please bend your knees.
Elevate Your Hips
Another great modification for tighter hamstrings can be performed during seated forward bends. Elevating your hips creates a greater angle for your body to bend in relation to gravity, allowing your torso to naturally surrender its weight to the forces of gravity to be able to fold forward with greater ease.
This action also places the pelvis in a more neutralized position, which will allow you to forward fold from the hips rather than from the lower back (which can cause a straining and compression of the very vulnerable discs in your lumbar spine).
To prevent this, sit up onto a block or stack of books to bring the floor “closer” to you. As you fold, think about the action of “hinging” from the hips rather than rounding your spine.
The ultimate goal (and there’s no rush to get there) is to reach your chest toward your thighs, not your forehead. So, keep your spine as neutral as possible without rounding into your lower or upper back. A huge step in this process will be to…
Lessen Your Bend
Many people believe that in order to reach the fullest expression of a forward fold, you need to: 1) touch your nose to your knees, 2) hyperextend your knees so that your legs are “locked” out and stick straight — and then, and only then, will you be “properly” stretching the hamstrings. This could not be further from the truth.
The best, safest and most beneficial way to practice a forward fold is to back off from the fold. To most efficiently target the hamstrings, the spine should ideally be in a totally neutral position, as opposed to rounded — which is what happens when you both move past the hip joint and when you stretch beyond the capabilities of your hamstring flexibility.
To keep the spine in a neutral position, you need to maintain the natural, soft S-shape curvature of the spine. Naturally, the upper back rounds out (a kyphotic curve) and the lower back rounds in (a lordotic curve).
In order to maintain this neutrality in the spine, you need to forward fold much less. So, the moment your spine starts to round in a forward fold, you know you’ve gone too far and you will start to stretch muscles beyond the hamstrings that you are aiming to target.
So, back off of the fold a bit. Hinge from your hips as you fold your torso forward and only come as far as you can maintain the neutral shape of your spine. This may look a lot different from the forward folds you’re used to seeing, but it will effectively target, stretch, and lengthen your hamstring muscles.
Yoga is not about the aesthetics of your asana practice, but how you and your body feel. Remember that there is never ever any shame in opting for modified yoga postures, regardless of your abilities or limitations.
Happy hamstrings helps to create a happy practice, so keep them safe and strong during your yoga and you will enjoy the benefits for many, many years to come.