Many people believe that being able to touch your toes is essential to practicing yoga and are either deterred from practicing yoga at all if they can’t, or painfully force the body to compensate in unhealthy ways in order to meet this ideal. If this is you, my friend, I would like to dispel this myth once and for all and explain exactly why you’re not going to get any closer to your toes if you don’t start modifying your practice.
First off, let’s talk about what is preventing you from achieving this toe-touching prize. It all comes down to a group of muscles we call the hamstrings. There are four hamstrings in total, running down the back of your leg from the hip to the knee.
Sitting for prolonged periods of time as well as constant exercise can tighten the hamstrings and cause you to lose flexibility.
Fortunately, many yoga poses target the hamstrings, so although it is absolutely not necessary to be flexible in order to practice yoga, these poses, when practiced effectively, will no doubt lengthen the hammies. Notice the key phrase, “when practiced effectively.”
If you are someone with tight hamstrings, it is unlikely that your yoga will look like this:
Trust me, my yoga didn't look like this in the beginning either!!
If you try to force yourself into looking like these shapes before your body is ready, you will lose the benefit of the intended stretch and run the risk of injuring yourself. And believe me, recovering from a hamstring injury is a long-ass process that you don’t want to find yourself in!
In order to effectively lengthen the hamstrings, I’m going to share several modifications to common yoga poses that you’ll want to try out the next time you’re on your mat. Once you read about these modifications, put your new wisdom to the test in this slow flow yoga class for tight hamstrings:
Bend your knees in Downward Facing Dog
(Adho Mukha Svanasana)
When does a down dog NOT show up in a yoga practice? Almost never, right? So pay close attention to this one cause I promise this will be your new best friend (ha ha.. get it? ... Cause it’s a dog.. it’s your best friend… 🤦♀️)
Keep your knees bent as much as you need to here in order to keep a long, flat back. It’s a common misconception that bending the knees lessens the stretch. When your hammies are tight and you try to straighten your legs, you just end up tugging at the lower back and not only does that remove the hamstring stretch, it also compromises your spine. As you gain flexibility over time you can begin to straighten out the legs.
Bend your knees and bring your hands to blocks in Standing Forward Fold (Uttanasana)
Well now that you know it’s not true that bending the knees lessens the stretch, you can apply the same logic to forward folds. Start off with your knees as bent as you need to keep the length in your spine. Make sure to distribute the weight evenly in your feet to avoid any unnecessary tugging on the hamstring attachment (aka the butt). Lastly, if the floor feels really far away, place your hands on a pair of blocks. Just as it is not necessary to touch your toes, it is also not necessary that you place your hands all the way on the floor. When reaching the floor isn’t in your favor, it’s always possible to raise the floor closer to your hands.
Sit on a block or rolled up blanket in Seated Forward Folds
Seated forward folds are basically the same thing as standing forward folds, but with a different modification. We still want to prioritize keeping the spine lengthened so that the hamstrings actually receive the stretch, rather than straining the back. To achieve this, sit your hips up on top of a block or blanket so that you can fold forward by hinging at the waist rather than folding at the upper back. This applies both to Paschimotanasana with the legs together, extended in front of you and Upavistha Konasana, with legs apart (pictured above). Alternatively, you can achieve a similar effect by raising the feet. Instead of placing the block under your hips, place it under your feet.
Try to avoid rounding the upper back like this:
Bring your hands to blocks in Half-Splits (Ardha Hanumanasana)
Half-splits is a common hamstring stretch that often shows up at the beginning of a practice, even before the hamstrings are warmed up. If your back rounds a lot here in order to reach your hands to the floor, raise the floor to you instead by placing the blocks under your hands. Then you can keep your spine lengthened and get a deeper stretch in the hamstrings.
Try to avoid rounding the upper back like this:
Bend front knee and bring hands to blocks in Pyramid pose (Parsvottanasana)
This hamstring stretch can often look a bit more like a Warrior 1 for people with very tight hamstrings as the front knee will bend significantly if the flexibility isn’t there yet. It is perfectly fine to keep the front knee bent. As I mentioned before, you won’t lessen the stretch by bending into that knee. You will actually increase it! So keep the front knee bent, feet hips-width apart, and both hip bones pointing forward. Bring your hands down to a pair of blocks, rather than compromising the alignment of the lower body and length of the spine to reach the floor. With hands-on a pair of blocks, now you can keep the length in your spine as you fold over the front leg.
I hope you’re starting to see a pattern here. In order to effectively stretch tight hamstrings, a long spine is most often our priority, as is being able to hinge forward at the hips. Once you start applying these modifications to your yoga practice, I promise you will begin to see a difference in your flexibility and your desired goal of reaching your toes will become much more possible.
I didn’t want to mention this at the beginning of the article to avoid scaring you with a hard truth, but there is one more thing that may be preventing you from reaching your toes, which is one of the most integral parts of a yoga practice, and this is the EGO. Many people believe they are a better yogi if they can reach their toes or if they are able to get into advanced poses, but this couldn’t be farther from the truth! One of the challenges of practicing yoga is learning to let go of our ego attachments and instead be able to see ourselves as we are. This means accepting that your downward dog or pyramid pose simply isn’t and shouldn’t look like the beautiful photos you see on instagram when you are just starting out. Wherever you are in your yoga journey is exactly where you and only you need to be. The sooner you make this mental shift, the sooner you will make space in your body for a deeper stretch.
On the other hand I feel it should also be noted that while modifying your yoga practice is a great way to make certain poses more accessible, you should always remain aware of new space opening up in your body so that you can one day take these "training" wheels away. It can become very comfortable to always reach for the props. However, a big part of practicing yoga is growth, both in the body and the mind, and if you start practicing on autopilot you will miss out on one of the greatest benefits of yoga.
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