Three easy ways to move your pelvis -- and open your hamstrings!
By Yanoula Athanassakis and Lara Heimann
In a previous post we wrote that everybody, regardless of athletic ability or injury level, seems overly concerned with hamstring flexibility.
As we'd said in that post: It's an urban myth that bending down and touching your toes means that your hamstrings are healthy and flexible.
A quick review of how to stretch your hamstrings
The hamstrings are made up of three muscles with tendons that cross over both the knee and hip joints. But most of us imagine it as one big muscle, "the hamstring."
In order to stretch the muscles that run from your ischial tuberosities (the bones you can feel when you sit on your butt) to the back of your knee, you have to stretch those points in opposite directions. You need a forward tilt (or anterior tilt) in your pelvis. Because the muscle attaches to two joints, any decreased joint mobility affects the length of the muscle.
Too often in exercise and yoga classes students are most concerned with keeping the legs straight and locked while trying to get the hands on the floor in a forward fold. Accomplishing this move does not matter for general function and can be injurious if done incorrectly.
Here are three easy ways to move your pelvis like Elvis and safely increase your hamstring flexibility:
1) Cat/Cow to Down Dog: Focus on the pelvis moving, not dumping into the low back but moving the SIT bones up and down. Cat/Cow means arching and rounding the back while on your hands and knees. While moving into Cow (the arched spine) lift the SIT bones toward the ceiling, thus also 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. Slowly move into Down Dog as you keep the pelvis stable, stopping when the knees can no longer straighten without rounding the back.
2) Down Dog with a Block: Before coming into Down Dog (please see embarrassing outtake below), place a block between the upper thighs and lightly squeeze the block. Try to straighten the knees with the block in place as you pull the low belly in. This movement activates the hamstrings, inner thighs, and quadriceps (on the front thigh). They act collaboratively to hold the pelvis in a more neutral position.
3) On Your Back: While on your back, use a strap or 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/quadriceps to stretch the hamstrings. If you'd like a little more sensation AND your knee has already straightened, attempt to press your lowest part of the back (the sacrum) into the floor with a slight lift off of the lumbar spine (like the "cow" move). This action will lengthen the hamstring muscles even more at the insertion into the ischial tuberosities.
It's the journey...
Following these tips while keeping your abdominals engaged 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's not about the result -- getting your palms down is much less important than how you move toward that goal.
Lara and Yanoula's "note to self" and outtake: block first, THEN Down Dog! Doh!
Yanoula is in NYC and teaches at Sacred Sounds Yoga on Bleecker.