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When Hamstrings Hurt

When your practice causes hamstring injury—and how to manage those injuries with your yoga.

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Hamstring injury requires patience with your body. It can take months of slow, methodical work to allow the area to heal to the point of returning to a regular class. And even then, you’ll need to spend some time at the start of each practice warming up the hamstring muscles before diving into a vigorous or challenging asana sequence. Once injured, this area will be vulnerable to re-injury, so being mindful about your actions and your body will help you keep it healthy and your practice strong.

It is not unusual for students who don’t warm up the hamstrings slowly and push themselves in hamstring-stretching poses or do a lot of jumps into and out of forward bends and Chatarunga to injure this area in the form of overstretching, or, in more serious cases, tearing of the muscle fibers.

The hamstring muscles all start off from the same starting point, your sitting bones or ischial tuberosity, and head down toward the knees. They comprise three muscles—semitendinosus, semimembranosus, and biceps femoris—and their corresponding tendons. The semitendinosus and semimembranosus split off to the inside back of the lower leg bone at the knee, and the biceps femoris heads to the outside back of the lower leg at the knee.

So the hamstrings cross two joints, your hip joint and your knee joint. When the they contract, they can either pull your upper leg, the femur, back behind you into extension or they can help your knee to bend or “flex,” or they can do both things at once.

If you have your femur pulled back and your knee flexed, like in Dhanurasana (Bow Pose), your hamstrings are at their most contracted and shortened. When you bend forward at the hips in poses like Paschimottanasana (Seated Forward Bend), they go to their maximum length or stretch. When you jump back from Uttanasana (Standing Forward Bend) into Chaturanga or jump forward from Adho Mukha Svanasana (Downward-Facing Dog Pose) to Uttanasana, you place a sudden and intense demand on the hamstring muscles.

The most vulnerable and commonly injured point in the hamstring is where the muscles originate at the sitting bones. The short tendons that anchor the muscles to the bone heals most slowly due to a relatively poor blood supply. Once present, this injury can take a long time to heal. In addition, once the injury has occurred, it becomes aggravated by any stretching of that muscle, which can delay healing even more.

Since stretching the hamstring is detrimental to healing, at the very least, you will need to skip all forward-bending poses or modify (by bending the knees deeply) until the inflammation in the tendon (and the accompanying pain) has disappeared.

As you can imagine, this precludes you doing vigorous vinyasa practices. Otherwise, you run the very likely chance of re-injuring the tendon again and again. In addition, more static styles of practice, including Iyengar or Anusara or hatha yoga, would need to be modified if forward bends are part of the sequence.

Your yoga strap can be of some help as well. Make a loop and place it snuggly up the thigh as high as you can and so it won’t slip down (but not too tight). This creates a kind of brace that will shift the stretch of forward bends to the strapped spot on your hamstrings and away from the sitting bone.

Roger Cole recommends that post injury, you rest for at least 72 hours to let the inflammation cool down, then focus on strengthening the hamstrings before returning to forward bends. This can be accomplished beautifully by Salabhasana (Locust Pose), and I like to have students do a one-legged version, where the affected leg is lifted just few inches off the floor, keeping a sense of the leg lengthening backward. Warm up with a dynamic version, inhaling up and exhaling down for 4-6 breaths, before holding the pose for a few breaths. If this causes any pain, you probably need to rest the area for a while longer.

This article has been updated. Originally published November 8, 2012.