Tight hamstrings can be a bane and I have learnt from my teaching of yoga over the years that people who enjoy back-arching poses usually has a problem with their hamstrings. Their emphasis has been on avoiding the discomfort of a forward bend to protect their constricted hamstrings. The trouble with hamstrings is that they seem not to be designed to endure the physical recreation that we favour so much in the West; running. I haven't met anyone who doesn't enjoy the exuberance of a good run with or without the accompaniment of a rousing soundtrack. Running offers a sense of freedom from ordered living, a sense of going somewhere faster than the humble human amble, a sense of leaving responsibility behind for the simplicity of the open air and natural environment. Two hightailing legs are all you need to take you out of your complicated life.
In theory running is the least expensive all of sports, the most natural thing for us to do. I mean we have been running since the birth of humankind - away from our enemies, toward a deer with a spear in our hand, into the arms of our mothers. Running is part of our inherent survival. Bending forward is also inherent to our survival, gathering food, farming the land, picking up crying children. The question begs: why haven't the hamstrings evolved in some of us to to cope with this very human distinction?
As many of you know I have struggled with my hamstrings since over-competing in the athletics arena as a teenager. In fact last year I discovered after an MRI scan that I had been carrying around an invidious tear in the insertion of my right hamstring since these tender years. It was confirmed to me that I must never run again in my life. This was something I had discovered for myself to my detriment over the years as every time I raced my boys or attempted to play a game of football with them, I usually ended up hobbling home and struggling to get further than 30 degrees forward in a seated or standing forward bend for the next year. This is not an exaggeration.
From the small amount of physiotherapy I have received for my hamstrings it has become apparent that improving the range and condition of a hamstring requires more than just 'lengthening' exercises. In fact strengthening exercises are just as important as is the ability to listen to what the hamstring and all its ligamental cousins are saying to you.
My head rules my hamstrings, fear floods my brain and sends a message to my hamstrings to hide by becoming as small as anatomically possible so no-one can see them or demand anything of them, because they are weak and feeble and cannot possibly support all the other muscles in my body in a forward bend or a leg raise. But the brain is bullying the hamstrings into submission, it is saying 'no' to all kinds of stretching. All muscles experience a timeline of resistance when asked to move out of their comfort zone. But if you hold a pose static for some time and breathe deeply through the minute or two it takes for the muscle to become accustomed to the stretch then that resistance will fade and it is only then that you should attempt to move more deeply into the stretch. When I say move more deeply I mean move the tiniest amount incrementally so as not to send the muscle into shock.
I don't run competitively anymore, in fact I have barely broken into a trot for the last 32 years. To get my fix of outlandish freedom and inspiration I discovered walking. Even this I find challenging at times for my hammys, particularly if hills are involved, but it is safer recreation for me and befits the yogic path of mindfulness. Walking allows us to become mindful of our environment, our breath and each other - passing other country strollers we share impeccable manners imperceptible on the average urban pavement.