Because there is reason to be optimistic about those pesky tight backs-of-your-legs. And in this segment of my Corner Office Anatomy series I tell you why.
As I’ve said before, I started this series because I realized–from my own experience and from observing so many of my students–that so much of the body is a mystery. And I wanted to shed a bit of light on various parts of the body that are particularly strained by our desk-working and chair-sitting culture.
Because the more we understand our bodies, the more we are able to adjust our habits to both avoid long-term, repetitive stress injuries and bring more balance and flexibility into our daily experience.
One of the biggest casualties of the ongoing habit of sitting in a chair all day long: tight hamstrings.
Almost everyone – including me – who sits for a large part of their work life complains about tight hamstrings.
It’s usually the part of the body people are referring to when they say to me something like “I can’t practice yoga because I’m so inflexible…” Because it just seems wrong to us – I think – that when we bend over we can’t reach our toes.
Part of tightness in hamstrings is physiological and structural: the way your hamstring muscles interact with your pelvis, knees, and other muscle groups (like your hips and calves) will determine what your maximum range of stretch is.
But a big part of tightness comes down to the fact that your hamstring muscles just get cozy in their shortened form, and then resist (loudly at times) when you try to push them out of their comfort zone.
And why are the hamstrings so often in a shortened form? Because in our modern urban professional lives we sit in chairs with knees bent to 90 degrees (usually), and that leaves the hamstrings to hang out in a shortened form for way too many hours.
We sit at the desk for many hours, of course. But think about it: we also sit down for a commute, and then again to eat meals, and watch TV (or surf the net, or whatever you do to wind down) at night.
Well, that is the annoying news that I know you already know.
But here’s the good news: with frequent and sustained lengthening, the hamstrings (and all your other muscles too) will gradually and continually increase their ability to lengthen. That means less resistance, and more of that deep stretching feeling (and who doesn’t love that?).
Keep in mind that frequent is the name of the game. To get more length (i.e., flexibility) it requires more than just a weekly yoga class, and more like multiple times a day.
I know what you are asking: how am I supposed to stretch my hamstrings frequently when I sit in my chair nearly all day long?
With the portable standing forward bend, of course.
The standing forward bend can be done in your work clothes, and wherever you happen to find yourself: by your desk, in front of the TV, next to your bed, in your garden, or even while you are waiting for the train. That means it is highly portable.
And that means you can practice it numerous times a day. Anytime you think of it, really.
There are multiple variations of the standing forward bend (see picture above), and you can choose the variation that allows you to gradually lengthen your hamstring muscles at your own pace:
1. Hands/fingers on the floor. If you reach the floor set your hands or fingers lightly in front of your feet. If you’re almost there (or you feel pain in your lower back), bend your knees.
2. Hands on a book. In yoga class we usually use a block for our hands, but we’re not bound by that formality! Out in the world just use a book (you see me using Black’s Law Dictionary in the picture above) or anything else that can serve a prop to bring the floor up to you. Again, if you’re almost there with your hands on the book (or you feel pain in your lower back), bend your knees.
3. Holding elbows. If you are far from the floor or the book, then hold your elbows lightly with your hands as you fold forward. And again, if you feel pain in your lower back when you do this, bend your knees.
Try to be honest about which variation to work in, and don’t strain to reach the floor or book. Find the place where you can still take deep breaths (breathing deeply is the key to successful lengthening of the muscles).
In yoga we often say that you should find your “edge” and breathe there. From the “edge” you will take deep inhales and then work a little more length with each deep exhale (if your knees are bent, straighten them a little bit more with each exhale; if your knees are straight, try to lift your sit bones up with each exhale).
Go ahead and try the portable standing forward bend this week. And tell me when you do, I want to know how it feels for you and if you experience your hamstrings releasing more and more.
And remember: when dealing with the body, progress is made through baby steps taken many, many times.
Of course, there are many, many more techniques that you can practice both in the office and at home to work on those hamstrings—and I am happy to share them with you if you would like (contact me here to set up a class).
As always, if you are interested in learning more about how yogic breathing techniques (pranayama), mindful movement (asana), meditation, and work-life balance can bring more balance and flexibility to your life both at home and in the office then inquire more here.
And if you know someone who will benefit from these teachings then don’t be shy and share this post with them! I greatly appreciate all your forwards, likes and comments.
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