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Strengthen to Lengthen.

All about our pesky hamstrings.

Oh, your hamstrings hurt during/after yoga, do they…wait a second while I pretend to be surprised.

Be completely honest with yourself, ideally always, but at least for this question.

Question - “When a teacher cues Forward Fold, do you feel pain in your hamstrings but continue passed your maximum fold anyway?”

Answer - “Yes Hannah, I do, because I thought yoga was all about touching your toes #nopainnogain


Sorry, let’s be more ‘yogi’ about this. If it feels painful in your body, then you should listen, work with your limits and ask your teacher for an alternative.

Yoga poses may be challenging, awkward, and/or demanding, but they shouldn’t be painful.

Read that again.

They shouldn’t be painful.

So back to our poor old hamstrings. What if I told you that in order for your brain to deem lengthening ‘safe’, your hamstrings also have to be strong and engaged? Hence, the title ‘strengthen to lengthen’.

Think forward fold (seated or standing), you are folding over your legs (straight or bent), and you feel your hamstrings reach their lengthening limit, but you keep pushing. At this point, you are in potential hamstring tear territory. This probably won’t happen the first time, but if you do this over and over again, you’re increasing the probability.

Take this from someone who never used to strengthen their hamstrings, and would push agonisingly deeper into a forward fold, with the result being a tear in the right hamstring that took over a year to heal.

So, what can you do?

Firstly, stop over stretching. Where ever you get to in a fold is perfect, and exactly where you’re meant to be! Embrace this place, enjoy this place, find stillness here.

Secondly, activate your hamstrings with some strengthening drills before your yoga class. My go to is bridge with my heels on the ground, rather than whole foot. You might feel enough here, and that’s great. You can also walk your heels out, while keeping your hips high. Maybe raise one leg, grounding through the other heel and keeping your hips high. Pulsing up and down through this heeled bridge.

I also activate my hamstrings during class, by switching to this ‘heel action’. Think pyramid…I play around with my front foot, moving it from flat to lifting the ball of my foot and pushing down with just my heel. You should feel more engagement though your thigh as well.

Bringing me on to number 3.

Thirdly, engage/squeeze your thigh muscles when lengthening your hamstrings. For the body geeks reading, this is called ‘Reciprocal Inhibition’. We’ll stick with Forward Fold…when folding, think about lifting your knee up to your groin to engage your thigh muscle. You can play around with a flexed or pointed foot here, to see where your sweet spot is.

Finally, I just want to confirm that yoga isn’t all about touching your toes. I reckon it’s nothing about touching your toes.

But that’s for another day.


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