Exploring the Physical Practice
Three Times Your Yoga Teacher is Reminding You of the Hamstring, Low Back Connection
(and why you should listen)
By: Megan Brock, PT, DPT, RYT-200, MPH
Many of us have experienced low back pain, tight hamstrings or both. These issues are so common, that cues to protect the low back and optimally stretch the hamstrings are used regularly by yoga teachers. In this post we’ll dive deeper into this connection and learn how to keep our backs healthy! But first, some important background information.
The link between the hamstrings and the low back is the pelvis. The pelvis connects to the low back via the sacrum (flat triangular bone at the base of the spine) and the position of the pelvis influences the joints and muscles of the low back. The pelvis has three main positions (pictured from left to right) the anterior pelvic tilt (think cow pose or “cheerleader butt”), posterior pelvic tilt (think cat pose or “tucking the pelvis under”) and neutral.
The lowest portions of the pelvis are two projections known as the ischial tuberosities or “sits bones.” They are indicated by the arrow in the picture.
The hamstrings are the group of muscles on the back of the thighs that originate at the ischial tuberosities or “sits bones” and extend down to insert on the lower leg just below the knee.
The actions of the hamstring muscles are hip extension (left) and knee flexion (right).
A muscle is maximally stretched when it is placed in the opposite direction of its actions. Therefore, hamstrings are maximally stretched when the hips are flexed and the knees are extended, as they are in forward folds. But, of course forward folds involve the entire body and we can accomplish the forward folds by predominantly stretching either the hamstrings or the low back, depending on our technique.
If we push ourselves too far into a forward fold, before we have adequate hamstring flexibility, the low back will take the strain. Additionally, when the hamstrings are tight they “pull down” on the ischial tuberosities. This action can create a posterior pelvic tilt, which is actually fighting against the motion of a forward fold and in turn pulling on the sacrum and low back.
Now let’s look at three times your yoga teacher is reminding you of this hamstring, low back connection!
- “Sit on the edge of a rolled blanket.”
During seated forward folds a rolled blanket placed just under the ischial tuberosities keeps the pelvis neutral to slightly anteriorly tilted, rather than letting those tight hamstrings pull the pelvis into a posterior pelvic tilt. You’ll notice that you sit up taller, may not be able to fold forward as far and will feel a stronger stretch through the hamstrings…and these are all good things! When we align our spines properly and hinge from the waist, we’ll lengthen the hamstrings and continue to de-stress the spine.
- “Bend your knees as you fold forward”
Bending the knees is a way to place the hamstrings on slack. Remember this tug of war between hamstrings and low back once again. As we move into forward folds, if the body meets with resistance from tight hamstrings, the back will take the greater strain to achieve a forward position of the body. The best way to give the low back a break is to simply bend the knees. This will decrease the strain on the hamstrings (remember they are maximally stretched when knees are extended), which allows more openness through them and less straining on the low back.
- “Inhale lengthen, exhale fold.”
In a variety of forward folds your teacher may cue you to lengthen the spine with every inhale and fold a little deeper on the exhale. This reminds us to continuously lengthen the spine into its ideal position and then hinge from the hips so that the forward fold is accomplished by stretching hamstrings rather than rounding the back.
I hope this post helps each of you to continue to practice safely and mindfully. I’d love to hear from you and practice together. E-mail [email protected], check me out at www.meganbrockyoga.com or join me Wednesday nights 7:45 for All Levels Heated Power here at Yoga East. We’ll keep learning about how our bodies work and most importantly, how we can keep them safe!
Photo Sources (accessed 11/26/17)