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Into the Fold

Bend deeply forward without a twinge of pain.

By Julie Gudmestad

No Cheating

You may have heard the instruction to contract your quadriceps (the muscles on the front of your thighs) in forward bends. If your hamstrings are tight, this is an excellent way to help them loosen up. The quads will stabilize your knees and hold them straight in forward bends while the hams try to "cheat" and bend the knees. Not only that, but, by contracting your quads, you'll be taking advantage of a kinesiological law called "reciprocal inhibition," in which your nervous system tells a muscle to let go of its contraction when the opposing muscle has work to do. In forward bends, contracting your quads facilitates the release of the hamstrings.

And finally, a word about patience. The hamstrings are layered with lots of tough connective tissue—the gristly fibers that help hold the muscles' structure together. So you can't rush or hurry the hamstrings into flexibility; they need time to change their length—time in the sense that longer stretches (90 to 120 seconds) seem most effective with connective tissue. And time in the sense that it can take months, if not years, for tight hamstrings to loosen their grip and become flexible.So don't get your back up. Instead, relax, practice patience, and enjoy the ride.

Julie Gudmestad is a physical therapist and Iyengar Yoga teacher in Portland, Oregon. She regrets that she cannot respond to requests for personal health advice.

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