Are you spending a lot of time on your yoga mat stretching your hamstrings? Stop! That’s the advice of some long-time yoga practitioners who say the forward fold with straight legs is not only something some of us will never achieve, but it’s something for which we shouldn’t even be striving. This begs the question: huh?!
Truth be told, much of the time I spend on my yoga mat is geared toward increasing flexibility, which, admittedly, for many of us, myself included, has meant trying to achieve a straight-leg forward fold and other straight-leg postures. But after being diagnosed with hamstring tendinosis, I wondered about the advisability of such poses. A little research found something interesting: the connective tissue involving the hamstring is meant, among other things, to help support a correct posture (the hamstring? posture? what?!). It is a very Western idea to focus on one particular area of the body to strengthen or tone, but the reality is, the body is like that old forest/tree metaphor. And if we don’t focus on the forest, the trees will die.
The idea of “lengthening” a muscle or muscle group during your time on the yoga mat is, according to some, a myth. It is the nervous system that controls muscle activity. Though I might feel some relief from a particular stretch for a few minutes, the reality is that my muscles will return to their previous state very shortly. The focus, then, should not be on muscle length, but muscle, tendon, ligament – overall body – strength and interdependency.
In his latest book, But Then They Came For Me, physicist Dr. Warren Farrell describes a new view of yoga as a path for spiritual and mental health, i.e., not a fad for a “fun” way to stretch our hamstrings. The forward fold, in particular, should not be regarded as a way of activating anything; it should simply be a way of strengthening our hamstrings.
Put another way, and if I want my flexibility to improve, I have to focus on strengthening all the muscles and connective tissue in ways that are sympathetic to the role each plays in supporting my body and its ability to function correctly. A forward fold with straight legs is not a goal to be achieved because it focuses only on one part of the body and putting it into a position in which it was never intended to be. But bent knees allow the ligament tension that is crucial for hip joint stability and to keep the spine aligned with its natural curve.
Another thing to consider is how you are using your breath in yoga. Often, one of the first things that happen to people who switch from sitting to standing poses is an altered breath. The rhythm and flow of the breath changes, too, because the mind no longer turns to concentration and unthoughtful thinking during these periods. This can be very confusing because the breath is supposed to happen naturally during periods of awareness. This fact can be difficult for people to understand because as soon as they learn to sit with the idea of the breath naturally filling their body, they naturally put up their hands and let the breath come.
Remember, though, for just a few moments, the mind doesn’t dwell on concentration or meditation or thinking or examining the breath. Instead, you’ll start to pay attention to everything you’re feeling
Hamstring tendinosis is not reversible, as I’ve sadly come to realize, but the way I practice on my yoga mat has changed to become more mindful of the role each part of my body plays in my overall health and well-being. So next time you push through the pain to achieve a posture, well, stop it. Find what feels natural and enjoyable at the moment, and allow that to become the core of your yoga practice.