How to Improve Forward Fold with Better Flexibility

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If I had a dollar for every time a yoga student or friend bemoaned his or her tight hamstrings, I would be pretty wealthy. It seems that people are super concerned about hamstring flexibility, and strain hard to touch their toes. Frankly, this ability is overrated.

Located on the back of the legs, the hamstrings are made up of three muscles with tendons that cross over both the knee and hip joints. Because the muscle attaches to two joints, any decreased joint mobility affects the length of the muscle.

Because of our sedentary culture, we spend an inordinate amount of time sitting — with both the knees and hips bent. This position directly impacts the length of the hamstrings. Athletic activities, such as running and biking, further shorten the hamstrings. This tightening also affects the pelvis because the tendons attach to the sit bones (ischial tuberosities), the bottom hooks of the pelvic bowl. In sitting, and even in standing, the shortening of the hamstrings can rock the pelvis backward, causing a rounded, slouchy position in the lower back. This rounded position can stress the back muscles, creating the potential for injury.

Now take this understanding of pelvic alignment and physiological length of the hamstrings onto the yoga mat, and move through a series of forward bends: the back muscles and tendons, attached to the sit bones, become genuinely cranky. Too often in yoga classes, students are most concerned with keeping their legs straight while trying to get their hands on the floor in a forward fold. Accomplishing this move really does not matter for general function and mobility, and can actually be injurious if done incorrectly. If a student strains to get their hands to the floor, and rounds at the pelvis, the lower back (and possibly the hamstring tendons) are at risk of becoming strained.

If the hamstrings are tight but the pelvis is allowed to tip forward as the student moves into a standing forward fold, the lower back is safe and, with time and practice, the student can work on gradually straightening their knees. The goal is to hinge at the hip, so that the lower belly moves toward the upper thighs. As long as pelvic mobility is not affected, and the core is engaged, a slight tightness in the hamstrings might offer some protection to less-flexible students by acting as a bumper pad to protect them from overstretching the connective tissue in their muscles and tendons.

Moving from the pelvis safely and successfully helps gain and maintain hamstring flexibility.

Complete this practice to help improve your forward fold with both pelvic mobility and hamstring flexibility:

  1. Start with cat/cow by going down on all fours. Focus on moving your pelvis by moving the sit bones up and down. Don’t dump into the lower back.
  2. Move into downward facing dog. Lift the sit bones up towards the ceiling, lifting the tendons of the hamstrings. Keep the pelvis in this position as you tuck the toes, lift the knees off the ground and gradually straighten the knees. Move into down dog gradually as you keep the pelvis stable, stopping when the knees can no longer straighten without rounding the back.
    • If your hamstrings are really tight, place your hands on a chair and do the same cat/cow transition into a down dog. The focus should still be on lifting the tailbone.
  3. In down dog, place a block between your upper thighs and squeeze the inner thighs together. Try to straighten the knees, with the block in place, by pulling the lower belly in and lightly squeezing the sit bones. This movement activates the hamstrings, inner thighs and quadriceps (on the front thigh).
  4. Lie on your back, and place a strap, or a towel, around your foot and straighten the knee. Instead of pulling the foot closer to your head, keep the foot over the hip point and firm the front thigh muscle/quadricep to stretch the hamstrings. This alignment keeps the pelvis in a slight tilt and does not let the lower back round (as it would if you kept pulling the foot towards the head).
  5. Keep your abdominals engaged as you work on your pelvic mobility, on all fours or on your hands in down dog, so that you don’t dump into your lower back.

Completing this practice, and focusing on the pelvis instead of the hamstrings, may get you closer to the promised land of palms on the floor – or not. Remember, yoga is like life. It isn’t about the result; getting your palms down is much less important than how you move towards that goal.



Finding the Right Yoga Class for Right Now: A Guide to Feeling Good Today

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As a yoga teacher, student, and all around believer of the power of yoga, I’ve invited my fair share of people to classes over the years. Regardless if the class is at a studio, in my living room, or outside at the park with kids playing nearby, there’s one thing I’ve come to expect: excuses. For so many people, there’s always some sort of reason to not practice yoga – sometimes to not even try it.

While I understand that time is short and each day is different, I’ve also practiced yoga long enough to know that no matter how you’re feeling, or how much (or little) time you have, yoga will always – always – make you feel better.

There’s no one perfect type of yoga. There’s also no one perfect type of yoga student. With a practice that has been around for centuries, it has come across enough people to learn how to adapt. In fact, if there’s one thing that yoga is – it’s flexible. Thankfully, you don’t have to be…or at least not physically. The only requirement for enjoying a yoga class is having an open mind and a flexible way of thinking, especially if you’re trying something new.

And, of course, you need to know how to find the right class.

Questions to Consider

For all of the woes technology brings, one of its biggest boons is the fact that you have access to literally everything you need exactly when you need it – including a great yoga class.

Like anything in life, in order to get the results you want, you have to know what you want. When you start looking for the right yoga class online, you have to start with an understanding of where you are right now and where you want to end up. Being really honest with this is the best way to learn how to fall in love with yoga. As I begin searching for the class I want to practice, I’ll ask myself a few questions to check in with where I am and what I need:

  • How much time do I have?
  • How much time can I make?
  • When is it the easiest to practice?
  • When do I need to practice the most?
  • How do I feel right now?
  • How do I want to feel when I finish?

Thankfully, the best online yoga studios and libraries have recognized the benefit of finding just the right class, which is why they have a variety of filters and categories that you can select for your search. A lot of days, I use these filters almost as I would a deck of tarot cards: Take a moment to shuffle and tap and then see what shows up.

A few scrolls later, I’m on my mat, in my class, enjoying something that feels like it was made just for me. (Note: It’s wonderful.)

What Feels Right for You?

When I’m helping a friend or student get started with their online practice, I usually point them in the direction of a selection of my favorite categories and let them know what they can expect from them. In time, these categories become like your favorite studio – there when you need them and with those special teachers you love dearly.

Morning Yoga

There’s rarely a better time to practice than first thing in the morning. Not only is this where time seems to be the most flexible (it’s just a matter of getting in the habit of waking up and getting up), but traditionally there are a lot of energetic and spiritual benefits that come from practicing with the rising sun. Case in point: the known-by-almost-everyone sun salutation. Morning yoga classes will greet you sweetly and then wake your body up from head to toe. Knowing that you’re just getting out of bed, teachers create classes that are gentle with the body, giving you time to warm up before getting your body moving. The intentions set in morning yoga classes help you create a container for your day, giving you the sense of balance and steadiness you need to move forward gracefully, confidently, and purposefully.

Energy

Yoga for energy style classes are another great way to start your day, but they aren’t just geared for mornings. I find energy classes particularly helpful for when you hit that mid-day wall. While some of these classes are the “regular” studio class length (60 minutes), there are several energy options that will be shorter, making them a great go-to practice for lunch breaks and bridging that gap between one part of your day to the next (i.e. from work to home, from home to school, from having the house to yourself to welcoming home family, etc.) Basically, when you think you could use a cappuccino, try reaching for one of these yoga classes.

Stress Relief

Who couldn’t benefit from a stress relief yoga class? Just the simple act of participating in daily life is stressful, especially when you add the constant inundation of technology. Stress relief classes are a great choice before you go to bed or after you finish a day of work (that includes the work stay-at-home parents do, too!) I have a few short stress relief classes saved to my library so that I can easily get to them the moment I start to feel my breath shortening, my shoulders creeping up towards my ears, and that all-too-familiar clenching that happens in my jaw when I’m feeling irritated.

Flexibility

While trying to “achieve” flexibility is never the goal, improving your body’s physical flexibility can help keep you comfortable and healthy – for decades. Yoga classes designed for flexibility will meet you where you are and help you find ways to lengthen the muscles in your body. Choosing a class for flexibility is a lot like choosing food that’s healthy – you can’t go wrong. If you know specifically that there’s an area in your body that’s tight, search for a class that’s geared to address that particular muscle or area. You’ll be surprised how much better you feel – especially if you return to a few of your favorite practices again and again.

Back Discomfort

Like stress, there are few people who haven’t experienced back pain in their life. And, for many people, back pain isn’t just a one-time occurrence, it’s chronic and frustrating. While some back pain is caused by an actual singular event, the majority of back discomfort is caused by years of tight muscles, stress, and bad posture. Yoga classes for back health will help relieve the discomfort you’re experiencing while also strengthening the muscles in your body necessary to help prevent some of the discomforts with time.

Instead of thinking about the class you “should” practice, get in the habit of finding the class you really need. Once you learn this lesson, a whole new world of yoga opens up for you – and it’s awesome.

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