How to increase flexibility in your hips and hamstrings while avoiding injury

How to increase flexibility in your hips and hamstrings while avoiding injury

Avoiding injury is a tough topic!  It really depends on your own innate ability to listen to internal cues.  Have I gone too far?  What is enough?  Can I back off when I see the goal so close?!

Increasing flexibility takes time.  I have been stretching since I was 7 and still can’t do the splits.  Everyone’s body is different.  So, “detaching from the outcome” is not only part of the journey but also part of the reality.  Not all of our bodies are designed to contort in ways others can.  Some of us have a narrow hips, wide shoulders, short torso, etc.  I can backbend for days but ask me to press from crow to handstand and I fall flat on my face.  For me, this is actually the most beautiful part of the practice, knowing that everything is temporary and to stay present to what is, in the current moment.

So, really, how do you do it?  I would say, balance out your flexibility work with stability training.  Yep, you need to increase blood flow into certain areas in order to rejuvenate the muscles.  You see, when you stretch, you are actually tearing tissue.  If you stretch in a responsible way then you’ll discover a greater range of motion, which is what we are looking for in Yoga.  We want you to be able to move around comfortably throughout the day and medicate certain ailments with basic movements. 

If you are looking for more flexibility in your hamstrings then try this…

  • Lay flat on your back, legs forward and spine long
  • Take a strap and place it over the sole of one foot
  • Extend that leg up towards the sky.  If your leg does not straighten all the way, that is okay.  Oftentimes it is healthier for the hamstring to keep a slight or big bend in the knee to prevent any unnecessary tearing in the tissues behind the knee joint.
  • You want to feel something in the hamstring.  There are three muscles that make up the “hamstring” (from medial to lateral: semimembranosus, semitendinosus and biceps femoris). You can feel each one by rotating the toes in and out which actually rotates the femur (leg) bone in the hip socket.
  • Soften the front of the hip crease!  This is an important step because it releases the psoas muscle.  So often I see clients who are eager to touch their toes but they are gripping the psoas.  You psoas is a fight or flight muscle, constantly reacting to tense situations.  It is the one that tells you to get up and run in the face of danger.  When you let it go, then it will allow the back of the leg, aka hamstring, to extend.  It will also give you a nice stretch in the lower back since the psoas inserts all the up to your mid back.
  • Keep the bottom leg extended forward, toes flexed back towards your face, or leg bent with the foot flat on the ground (like bridge pose).
  • Roll the bottom leg’s inner thigh toward the ground.  You are looking for neutral in the hips.  I spent years training in external rotation and it only stretched one part of my hamstring.  When you find neutral you increase the range of motion for healthy alignment of the femur (leg) bones.
  • Soften the shoulders, be sure you are not tensing in unnecessary areas of the body, including the jaw or face.
  • Breathe deeply. Watch the breath dissipate the tension and one exhale at a time, extend a little further.  Listen to your bodies internal cues as to when it is appropriate to go further.  Do not push, it will only cause increased tension which leads to injury and unnecessary tearing.
  • Hold for as long as you like, exit out the same way you came in, nice and slow. 

*A note about transitions.  Most injuries occur entering in and out of certain poses rather than in the pose itself.  Oftentimes we “check out” as soon as the pose is over.  “Op, that’s done and on to the next.”  We are destination thinkers, constantly working towards one goal and then the next.  When you smooth out the transitions, make them more elegant and graceful, then you discover holding patterns that are preventing you from finding the full expression of the pose.

Take Ardha Chandrasana for example.  I see a lot of students with an internally rotated standing leg, tense psoas muscles which comes from inauthentic external rotation of the standing leg, and slight backbend in the lower lumbar spine.  If you watch the tracking of your bottom knee as you enter in and out of this standing balance you will see if you are in external rotation of the standing leg and, as you step up, engage the core muscles to lengthen the lower spine so you have the stability necessary to balance in the pose.* 

Moving onto hips.  They usually go hand and hand.  If you have tight hips then try this variation from the pose described above.

  • Repeat all of the steps from the pose above, let’s say with the right leg
  • Now, externally rotate the right leg, turning the toes out.  Stop and notice, did my psoas tighten up? outer glut? – release unnecessary tension in the body.
  • Begin to lower the right leg towards the ground slowly, lifting the toes up towards the right shoulder.  You are better off keeping the leg higher than allowing the left hip to lift off the floor.  Keep everything else the same as you isolate the lifted leg.  You can use the left hand to hold the left hip down if that is helpful.
  • Breathe deeply.
  • Bend the right knee and come into “ankle knee” pose or “thread the needle”.
  • Before you lift the left leg up first notice the right psoas muscle.  Is the top of the hip crease tight?  If so, release it before moving any further.  If you have a hard time with this action then take it to a wall and place the bottom foot against the wall at a 90 degree bend.  This will give your body the support necessary to soften.
  • With the bottom leg bent you can interlace the fingers around the left hamstring, threading the right arm through the keyhole of the legs, or around the shin if your body allows for this range of motion WITHOUT the lower back lifting off the ground.
  • Extend the spine so the lower back stays on the ground. 
  • Keep the left knee over the left shoulder.  If it starts to bend towards the center of the chest then you have lost neutral rotation in the bottom leg. 
  • Keep breathing, softening, and releasing the outer right hip until you find space in the pelvis.
  • Repeat on the left side.

The hips are a very vulnerable place in the body.  We can feel a lot in our hips.  You might recall certain memories, feel certain emotions, experience frustration, anger, resentment, joy, happiness…so many things.  Our hips are known as our “emotional center” because it is the home of the sacral chakra.  When we release unnecessary tension in this area of the body then you may feel very vulnerable, for a while.  Again, come back to your breath, try not to label the sensations, instead just notice, feel, and allow it to clear.  Take breaks.  Exit out if your body tells you it is too much (watch out for shooting pain, that’s a signal to come out).  Stay gentle with yourself through the process.

The more extreme version of this pose is Pigeon.  I love Pigeon.  I personally have a motto, “a pigeon a day keeps the doctor away” but it is not available to every body and certainly not in the beginning of your practice.  It is oftentimes practiced incorrectly, which leads to injury of the knee.  Pigeon can release sooooo much emotional tension in the body.  The hips, which is your emotional center, and your psoas, which is your fight or flight muscle.  Basically, it puts you into a state of rest and relaxation, which prepares you for the best pose of all, Savasana.

Take your time with these exercises.  Try other ones that work for you.  Stick with a schedule and “stretch” everyday for a month.  You’ll notice a huge difference with consistency.

Lots of love,

Ali


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