Vinyasa yoga sequences contain much more hamstring stretching than strengthening. How can I modify my sequences to include more hamstring strengthening for my students and promote more safety and balance in this muscle group?
It’s true that vinyasa yoga sequences are heavily skewed toward stretching your hamstrings and rarely contain focused strengthening work. You stretch your hamstrings in every Sun Salutation, Down Dog, Standing Forward Bend, nearly every Standing Pose. That’s not to mention the intense opening that we receive in postures like Hanumanasana, Reclined Leg Stretch, and most Seated Forward Bends.
There’s a psychological factor that often exacerbates this dynamic: many students push too hard and overstretch this muscle group due to the (often unconscious) internalized belief that more flexibility is always healthy and desirable. Unfortunately, this deeply ingrained mindset can lead to one of the most common and frustrating injuries for a yogi: hamstring tears.
So, what can you do to bring greater integrity to this muscle group while maintaining a dynamic flow practice? Let’s look at the essential anatomy of the hamstrings. Then, you’ll learn to take one simple step in your sequencing to bring greater harmony to these muscles.
THE ESSENTIAL ANATOMY
The hamstrings are a comprised of three muscles: the Biceps Femoris, Semimembranosus, and Semitendinosus. They run from the sitting bone down the back of the thigh before crossing the knee and attaching to the lower leg. Their primary job is to extend the hip and flex the knee. They balance the Quadriceps.
The best way to modify your sequences is to simply incorporate variations of common postures that are designed to strengthen your hamstrings. You probably don’t have to change your sequencing method substantially. You just have to prioritize hamstring strengthening and provide your students with variations that accomplish this goal.
I incorporate all of the following postures in most of my classes to bring more awareness, support and stability to these often overstretched tissues. It’s a good idea to repeat these postures a few times in class and make sure that you hold them long enough that you can feel the muscles at work.
Most variations of Natarajasana focus on opening the front body. This version—which isn’t nearly as pretty, by the way—emphasizes the hamstrings. It’s almost a hybrid of Warrior Three and Natarajasana. While standing in Tadasana with your core engaged, raise your right heel toward your sitting bone and pull your thigh back. Keep your core intact and maintain the natural curves of your spine as begin. Once you’ve raised your leg, tilt your pelvis forward over your standing leg and lift your chest into a modest backbend.
Ardha Chandra Chapasana Variation
Like Natarajasana, this posture usually focuses on stretching the front body. To make it a hamstring strengthener, you do the regular version of the pose without holding your foot. From Ardha Chandrasana place your top hand on your hip, engage your abdominal muscles, and bend your knee. Continue engaging your abdominals so that you minimize spinal motion and require the hamstrings to extend your hip. Pull your thigh back and bring your heel toward your sitting bone.
Ardha Uttanasana stretches the hamstrings. But, if you slightly bend your knees and lift your torso high enough you will get nice, concentrated engagement of these muscles. From Uttanasana, micro-bend your knees and lift your spine high enough that your pelvis begins to rotate back over your thighs. Your torso will need to lift higher than perpendicular to the floor. This is much, much higher than most people usually lift, but it provides valuable strengthening.
Every version of locust pose strengthens your hamstrings, this one just provides a little more oomph. This pose couldn’t be more effective or simple. While in locust pose, bend your knees and slightly raise your lower legs and ankles. Engage your abdominals slightly to minimize compression in your lower-back.
One-Legged Down Dog Variation
This pose relies on the exact same mechanics as Natarajasana, Ardha Chandra Chapasana, and locust. You simply contain your core and use your hamstrings to pull your thigh back while doing an otherwise common posture. From Down Dog, raise your right leg. Keep your abdominals mildly engaged—especially, if your lower back is flexible—bend your top knee, and pull your heel toward your sitting bone. Lift your thigh as high as it will go while maintaining the integrity of your core.
Jason Crandell is a natural teacher and author with more than 15 years of experience. His accessible, grounded classes integrate the best elements of power yoga, anatomical precision and mindfulness teachings. Considered a “teachers-teacher,” Jason has taught on countless teacher-training faculties, leads trainings globally, and regularly presents teacher-training content at esteemed conferences. Follow Jason on Facebook and Twitter.