Standing Forward Bends for People with Tight Hamstrings or Back Pain

A typical yoga class includes several forward bends to stretch the hamstrings and lengthen the spine, but they can present a lot of problems for people with back issues and tight hamstrings. Doing forward bends incorrectly can cause more pain. Often a few simple adjustments to your practice can make a big difference. You can watch the short video about modifying for mild pain and tightness, but be sure to scroll down for some important tips that aren’t included in the video. Note: This is not meant to be practiced when in severe pain. Please read my disclaimer.

It is important to start with a good standing posture. Plant your feet underneath your hips so they are aligned with your front hip bones (the ASIS bones, which may protrude slightly forward from the top crest of your pelvis). Depending on your body, this means that there is anywhere from 3 – 5 inches of space between your feet. This stance allows the legs to be perfectly aligned under the hips for more strength. If you practice a tradition that tells you to keep your big toes touching, just try it my way and see how it feels in your body. I find that in many people, big toes touching creates bowed legs and throws off the center of balance.

From this position, start to energize your body from the ground up. Imagine lifting the soles of your feet — drawing up the arches like suction cups. You will likely feel this impulse move into your calves. Energetically lift your knees, lightly hug the thigh muscles to the bone and engage in a subtle lifting action. Then engage the core by energetically drawing upward from the pelvic floor, right through the center of your body, up toward your navel and diaphragm. Lightly hold this engagement. You should be able to talk and breathe. Now lengthen up through the spine, allowing the crown of the head to point to the ceiling. Relax the shoulders down. If this seems like a lot of work — it is! But keep practicing and it will become natural. Your overall posture will improve, and you’ll get more benefit from your forward bends.

Now it’s time to bend. If you have back problems or tight hamstrings, it’s best to start with hands on hips, or even on thighs for more support. Holding arms overhead will increase the pressure to your low back. Inhale and lengthen your spine. Slightly bend the knees, and as you begin your exhale, start to fold forward from the hip — not the waist. Imagine you are reaching your heart out across the room to help keep your spine long. Move slowly so you can feel what’s going on. Knees will stay bent to keep the pressure off of your back and hamstrings. (If you don’t have these issues and practice with straight legs, lightly lift your knees as you come forward.) Pay attention. Eventually your body will want to stop, so listen to it. If legs are tight, make sure knees are bent. If the back is sore, press your hands into your thighs so you can support yourself in a more upright position. If you feel ok, drop the arms and hold onto your elbows. Stay a little while to breathe and feel this pose in your body. Let tension leave your body on your exhales. If you are in pain, don’t endure it. Go back to where you were OK in the pose, even if it means coming out altogether.

What not to do:

  • Do not lock your knees. Don’t press them out toward the wall behind you.
  • Do not lean your weight into your heels, sending your hips behind your ankles. Weight should be even on the whole surface of both feet, and thigh bone is aligned with knee and ankle.

When it’s time to come up, bring hands back to hips, or press into thighs for more support. As you begin to inhale, press your feet firmly into the floor and breathe your way up (knees stay bent if working with pain). Your heart reaches across the room to help you keep a long spine. The belly button lightly reaches back toward your spine so the core is working to support you. Keep pressing down with the feet until you’ve inhaled yourself all the way back to standing. Roll your shoulders back. Close your eyes. Feel the effects in your body.

Tight Hamstrings? Watch out for this:

When you come into a forward bend, whether standing or seated, do you feel the stretch behind the knee or below the rear-end instead of along the back of your thigh? If so, you are stretching tendons, not muscle. Sometimes the hamstrings are so tight they can’t be stretched. If this is the case and you continue to stretch your tendons, you could end up with inflammation and chronic pain at the site where the tendons attach. To fix this, stop stretching the hamstrings and focus on softening up those muscles with massage, positional release therapy, or rolling on a foam roller or a Yamuna or other type of massage ball. When you get to the point where you feel you are stretching muscle and not tendon, then resume your practice. To modify while you’re in a class, keep knees bent and press hands into thighs. Do not go to the point of engaging the tendons. Back off. Your legs will thank you!


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