Tuesday, October 20, 2015

Better hamstrings, hips, and spine with active movements

Look! No hands!
I had several questions about hamstring lengthening this week and this post has three videos to demonstrate some of the ways to help!  You won't see any of the usual suspects.

Hamstring stretching or lengthening?
The truth be told, most people ask me how to stretch their hamstrings.  It is I who always jumps in and reminds them that I will give them tips on how to relax and lengthen their hamstrings but I won't give tips on stretching them.

The thing is, these people know how to stretch their hamstrings.  They have invariably been doing stretches for a long time. The problem is the stretches generally don't help them to feel better movement.

The postures and advice I give are mainly around helping them feel better movement without feeling like they are stretching, such as I am doing in the photo below.

Standing balance with leg raised and straight
In positions like the one shown I am actively trying to keep my leg straight while drawing it towards my chest.  It does not feel like stretching at all.  It feels like the back of my leg and bottom is lengthened.

When I do postures like this I am cultivating a relaxation response in my hamstrings (known as reciprocal inhibition.   Basically, I work the opposite muscle groups to help relax the ones that I am trying to lengthen.  Have a look at this post for some cool graphics:

It feels like a lot of work in the standing leg, front of raised leg, and tummy.  Most people miss the tummy activation in this posture, which tends to cramp you in the front of groin.  Which leads to the point below.

Active positioning for spinal lengthening
In postures like the one shown below I am doing  very important spinal lengthening and hamstring lengthening work.  It is basically the same position as the standing balance shown above, but just lying down.

Active positioning to improve hamstring lengthening
The key difference (in terms of effort) is that I am obliged to use tummy muscles in a way I am not obliged to in the standing variation.

I am using my active core to send a message to my spinal muslces to relax as well.

Importantly, I am actively bending forward in my spine using tummy museles in a way I can still breathe into the tummy.  If I tighten my tummy by tightening everything and shifting to chest moving breathing then I won't get the same relaxation effect.

Many people are limited in their forward bending because their lower backs are really tight as well as their hamstrings (and their hips).

The active movement in the core that you cultivate in this position is important and will help lengthen the spine and it is why I put the lying down sequence first in the videos below.

Try to remember the feeling in your tummy that you generate in this position (of it being firm but in a way you feel you can still breathe there) when you do the postures in the other videos.

Remember, better spinal movement is more important than being able to touch your toes.

As an aside, many observers wonder why I am not holding my foot when I do postures like the one above.  And it is, I suspect, because of the focus on the sensation of stretching as opposed to the sensation of lengthening.

Holding the foot, the way most people tend to (which is to just grab the foot and pull the leg) generally means the muscles do not need to work and you lose the potential benefit of a relaxation response.  Pulling tends to switch you to a sort of suffering and grimacing associated with tearing yourself apart!

It would also feel like I was not doing much work if I held the foot in that way because the big muscles that were working (including the core core muscles) have switched off.

The truth is most people cannot even grab their foot with their leg straight because their hamstrings (and lower back and hips) are too stiff.  And so most people would probably be using a belt or towel or rope.

And then you have to ask yourself if you cannot bring your straight leg close enough to your chest to be able to hold it without a belt then should you really try to straighten your legs in positions like paschimottanasana and all the other seated forward bends?   In my classes I encourage people to come into all seated bends with bent knees to lengthen the front and back of spine first and only then to slowly lengthen the legs on the condition the spine does not distort.

Lying video and key actions
The first postures to try are in lying because they oblige tummy activation (in a way you can feel the movement of the breath).

In general:

  • front thigh (coming close to chest) is rolling out (your knee looks like it is turning away from midline);
  • press down through the grounded thigh and keep it straight.  Reach through the inner thigh;
  • keep the front knee straight.  That is one of the main points--to keep is straight.  It does not matter how close to the chest it comes.  That will be a good indicator of your available active movement and something for you to contemplate when trying this posture in other relations to gravity;
  • as you move through the variations keep the whole back of the pelvis and sacrum touching the floor.  
  • you will be doing sit-ups here so this is a good core strengthening sequence.  If you feel strain at all in your neck you are doing the sit up incorrectly and you need to learn how to do sit ups without your neck feeling strained.

First position (lying parsvottanasana)

Lying down, draw straight leg towards face.  Do a sit up and reach as though you are trying to touch the toes (but don't actually get them).

You need to actively lengthen the side hip area of the raised leg down towards the heel of the leg on the ground.  The pelvis and hip tends to hike up on that side and squash the side waist.  If you need to, put the web of your thumb in your groin to help actively lengthen that side waist.  You should feel this as an action of rolling that thigh out.

Second position (lying trikonasana variation)

To get into position I bend the knee, take the thigh out to the side, ensure my whole back pelvis is still on the floor, and then straighten the leg from there.  The pelvis of opposite side will tend to raise up if you try to get to the ground so be mindful of this.

Note, to make it  real trikonasana type posture I need to add spinal movement and turn from bottom of spine to top away from the leg out to the side then do a little lengthening movement (not clearly shown in this video).

Again, keep that raised thigh actively rolling out.  I am still trying to straighten leg and draw it towards my face but out to the side.

Third position (lying parivrtta trikonasana)
A tricky one and tough to capture on the video.

I bring the raised leg back to midline.  I really need to make sure that the hip does not hike up here.  Put a thumb in your groin if that is the sort of thing that might happen to you.

Keeping your pelvis on the floor, take that raised leg across your body.  It will not go very far.

From there, you are still in a sit up, you can try to do a twist from the bottom to the top of spine, turning towards that leg.

It is not shown here but you could try a little spinal extension (lengthening from the front surface of your spine.

I could have positioned my arms better in this posture but was focusing mainly on spinal movement.

By the end of these postures you should sense your tummy very active!  That will have helped lengthen the lower back and help you for the next series of postures in standing!

Standing balance video and key actions
In the standing balance video you see I do take my foot (after I have done the active postures first).

However, when I take my foot I straighten the leg out slowly without distorting my spine.  I also press the foot and hand into one another so that the leg is active and not being passively pulled (this triggers another relaxation response).

In general:

  • raised sitting bone feels like it is scooping underneath you and lengthening in the lower back;
  • raised thigh is rolling out;
  • keep standing leg foot pointing straight ahead;
  • remember your core activation from previous postures and find it here.

Posture one
Watch the leg stays straight.  Watch the raised leg hip does not hike up.  Keep trying to feel as though you are smoothing your side hip down to the ground.

If comfortable you can try the assisted posture, shown below, by bending the knee, drawing thigh to chest, holding foot and pushing foot out as you draw in with the hand, keeping thigh and chest together slowly start to straighten the leg.  If you have trouble in the lying sequence with getting your leg straight and past 90 degrees then you will not be able to do this and best to work with just holding the knee to chest and pressing shin to hands and hands to shin until you can start to slowly straighten the leg without thigh coming out from the chest.  Be patient.

Position two

 As you did with lying, bend the knee then turn the knee out to the side but still in front of you.  As you did with the lying version do not let the pelvis move with you.  Keep scooping the bottom under.  Then try to straighten the leg.  If it will not straighten then put the toe tip on the ground.  From there try to straighten the leg and raise it.

You want to keep rolling the thigh out and scooping the bottom under.

This is really much harder than it looks as you will see if you try.
If you feel ok with the active version you can try and draw knee to side-front chest.  Keep scooping hip under.  From there you could try to keep knee and shoulder close and then slowly start to straighten.  If knee comes out from shoulder then you have gone too far.  Be patient and wait with knee in shoulder until the leg is almost straight when you can let it move away from shoulder a little.

Position three
The leg comes back to the front here.  I need to be particularly careful the hip does not hike up. Then I rotate the spine from bottom to top, maintaining length through both side waists.  

Standing postures
You can then try these positions in their more traditional forms; parsvottanasana, trikonasana, parivrtta trikonasana.

I have linked these postures without chaining my foot position at all.  The thigh positions remain the same.  The pelvis position does change when you move to trikonasana, but the lower back position does not (it remains lengthened).  The pelvis position is a subtle change and it is just the top side pelvis that opens lightly to the sky.  This opening does not cause a shift in the leg positions.

It is really tricky to do these postures all linked together without changing the foot positions and without falling over.  You will need to keep your legs and feet very active.

Watch for your bottom sitting bone trying to stick out.  I keep a light feeling of it scooping under to keep the length of the lower back.

The end
Phew, this has been a long post!

We have been working on some variations of this in class.  Remember these videos are intended for my students so I can position and correct and answer questions.  It is better to learn from a teacher you are physically present with than the internet.

Have fun.  Stay safe.

Much metta,

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