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  • Hamstring Yoga
    Controlling the Hips and Knees

    Someone recently commented on a friends post that the hamstrings are knee flexors and so in a pose like reverse plank ("purvottanasana" or "straight bridge") they don't activate, since the knees are kept straight.

    The hamstrings are actually a multijoint set of muscles that run along the back of the thigh. They act on the back of the hip joint and the back of the knee. They can be used with the gluteus maximus to open the front of the hip joint. And actually, in poses where the knees are straight, they can be used in conjunction with the quadriceps to stabilize the knee.

    Originally named for the prominent tendons at the back of the knee, some define the hamstrings as only those muscles that work on both the back of the hip and the back of the knee.

    I think of them as including the Adductor Magnus long head (which acts only on the hip), biceps femoris short head (which acts only on the knee), biceps femoris long head, semitendinosus and semimembranosus.

    All of these muscles are positioned along the back of the thigh and affect the knees or hips or both.

    In general, bending the knee and/or bending the hip backwards allows the hamstrings to shorten (or is caused by them shortening) while straightening the knee and/or bending the hip forwards causes the hamstrings to lengthen.

    Related Muscles

    Other muscles that relate to the hamstrings in the way that they cross the back of the knee and insert into the inner surface near the top of the tibia (along with the semitendinosus) include the gracilis and sartorius.

    My feeling is that with the knee straight these muscles can be used to help stabilize the knee in rotation. With the knee bent they can be used to rotate the shin inwards relative to the thigh.

    Also important for their job of opposing the hamstrings at the knee joint are the quadriceps.

    And for working with or instead of the hamstrings at the back of the hip joint is the gluteus maximus.

    A set of muscles important in opposing the hamstrings (and glute maximus) at the hip joint are the hip flexors. This group can include the psoas, rectus femoris, iliacus, tensor fasciae latae, gluteus minimus as well as the previously mentioned sartorius.

    Other muscles also important with regards to bending the knee backwards are the popliteus and the gastrocnemius or calf muscle.

    Read more on hamstring anatomy.

    Glute and Hamstring Function

    I think that a lot of "tight" people come to yoga with the idea of stretching tight hamstrings and of helping to make them more flexible. I'd suggest that for effective hamstring stretching (with the goal of improving hamstring flexibility) one of the first tasks is to learn to relax and contract the hamstrings and also to be able to feel the difference. In addition it can be very helpful to also learn to feel and control the gluteus maximus (glutes.)

    To that end it can help to understand the different jobs that the glutes and hamstrings perform.

    The glutes and hamstrings can be used to control the descent into a forward bend and also to help pull the hips out of a forward bend (bottom left). This can be easier to learn to feel and control when moving into and out of standing hamstring stretches.

    Hamstring stretches, standing forward bend, Neil Keleher, sensational Yoga Poses. In this standing forward bend feet are hip width and parallel. Knees are straight and torso is leaning forwards so that it is horizontal. Thoracic spine is very slightly rounded. Neck is long and arms are hanging down towards the ground but not touching the ground.

    They can be used to bend the hips backwards or to bend the knees backwards. This can be felt in any pose where the leg is extended such as doing a leg extension while standing (above right) or extended leg cat pose (below left).

    hamstring strengthening exercise prep position 1. cat pose with tail bone lifted and back arched 2. extended cat pose with spinal erectors activated to bend spine backwards, tailbone lifting so that pelvis tilts forwards, and leg lifted to exercise hamstrings and butt muscle of lifted leg. Neil Keleher. Sensational Yoga Poses.

    They can also be used to resist "straightening" the knee and to help stabilize the knee. As an example of this I sometimes play with stabilizing the knee in reverse plank (above right) prior to lifting.

    Read more on hamstring strengthening exercises.

    Because they are a group of muscles the hamstrings can be used against the quadriceps to stabilize the knee joint while at the same helping to control the hip joint. In fact, stabilizing the knee joint may help to give the hamstring muscles not involved in this stabilizing action a foundation from which to work on the hip joint.

    Compressing a Joint in One Direction to
    Create Space in Another Direction

    With regards to both the hip and knee joint my understanding of both the muscles that cross the knee and hip not only move joint or stabilize it, they also are responsible for adding tension to the envelope of the hip or knee.

    The idea in this case is based on a presentation by Jaap Van der Wal that suggests that tendons, ligaments and muscle tissue are combined in a single architectural unit called a dynament. The practical implications of this is that muscle tension creates "ligament" tension. My understanding is that the body works in such a way that when joints are moved or stabilized the ligaments are also stabilized in such a way as to pressurize the liquid inside the joint in such a way so that bones do not directly come into contact. This tension maintains the relationship of the bones at the joint without them contacting each other. And it does so by squeezing the joint capsule in such a way that balanced tension is created throughout the capsule while at the same time pushing the bones away from each other, like squeezing the middle of a balloon so that the balloon bulges in a direction at 90 degrees to the squeeze.

    And so when it comes to knee injuries, or recovering knee function after a knee injury, one of the ways that I use this understanding is to feel for tension that indicates that one muscle is compensation for another. As an example I could feel in a thigh's level squat that the outer tendon of my right gastroc was active to the point of discomfort. I figured that perhaps it was compensating for the biceps femoris which crosses that tendon. I focused on contracting the short head and the gastroc released.

    This same idea can be applied to the hip joint. If there is pain in the hip joint in certain positions, it may be one muscle compensation for another to keep the necessary tension on the joint capsule to prevent rupture. The trick is to figure out which muscle isn't activating so that you can activate it (and deactivate the muscle that was compensating for it.)

    Return to Home Page from Hamstring Yoga

    Gumroad, Yoga for your shoulders, available in epub, pdf and mobi. Neil Keleher, Sensational Yoga Poses.

    Gumroad, Yoga for your shoulders, available in epub, pdf and mobi. Neil Keleher, Sensational Yoga Poses.

    What's New?

    An Exercises for Knee Stability, The Seated Get Up

    The seated get up is a way of getting into the one legged squat from a seated position. Even if you aren't interested in one leg squats this video does include tips on stabilizing the knees (at about the 5 minute mark.) Usual muscle activations for knee stability might include the quads, the hamstrings or any of the glutes. This looks at another set of muscles all together. If you like the video or find it helpful, please do share it! Thanks!

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    Deep Squats

    Some tips for learning how to do deep squats (without weight). The first tip is on how to stay balanced while squatting.

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    Learning The Body Weight Squat

    How do you learn the body weight safely? How do you work towards this pose even if you aren't sure if you are capable of doing it.

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    Basic Yoga Poses

    Basic yoga poses: standing, sitting, arm balances, binds, twists, inversions, back bending, front bends.

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    Scapular Awareness

    Scapular stabilization becomes a little bit harder when working agains the weight of the body. It can be easier to learn if you gradually increase the amount of body weight the scapular stabilizer muscles are working againsts..

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    Hip Flexor Strengthening Exercises

    Some hip flexor strengthening exercises.

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    Arm Strengthening Exercises

    These yoga poses can be used as arm strengthening exercises.

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    Leg Strengthening Exercises

    Turn yoga poses into leg strengthening exercises using floor pressing actions, leverage and friction.

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    Hip Strengthening Exercises

    One way of finding and fixing hip problems is to do standing hip strengthening exercises while balancing on one leg.

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    Knee Anatomy for Yoga Teachers

    Knee anatomy for yoga teachers looks at the bones and muscles that comprise the back of the knee in simple terms.

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    Kneeling Quadriceps Stretch

    Working towards a kneeling quadriceps stretch you first need to be able to kneel. If you have difficulty kneeling, you may find it helps to activate your quadriceps.

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    Quadriceps Stretching Yoga Poses

    When doing quadriceps stretching it may help to activate and then relax your quadriceps in these standing, lunging, pigeon and supine yoga pose variations.

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    Lying Quadriceps Stretch

    Some exercises and yoga poses for working towards a lying quadriceps stretch one leg at a time.

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    Benefits of The Dance of Shiva

    What are the benefits of the Dance of Shiva? Arm strength and balance, learning to learn and improving creativity.

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    Yoga Routine Video for Strengthening Arms and Legs Via Friction and Pressure

    This yoga routine video is designed to help you strengthen your arms and legs via the use of friction and pressure. It also teaches you how to become more aware of your body.

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    Transverse Abdominis Exercises

    The transverse abdominis muscle can be broken down into three parts. Transverse abdominal exercises can thus affect the SI Joint, lumbar spine and the lower portion of the ribcage.

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    Knee Strengthening Exercises

    To improve the resiliency of your knees it can help to exercise them in a variety of positions. The following yoga poses can be used as knee strengthening exercises. The trick is to activate your knees while doing them.

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    Quads and Superficial Hip Flexors

    Learn to consciously control your quads and hip flexors with Conscious Muscle Control: Quads and Superficial Hip Flexors. This downloadable video course teaches you how to feel and activate your quadriceps (the vastus muscles) as well as the rectus femoris, tensor fascae latae and sartorius muscles.

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    Calf Stretches

    For any calf stretch you have to bend your ankle forwards to stretch the soleus and/or gastrocnemius. How you bend the ankle forwards can make the stretch more or less effective.

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    Yoga for Flexibility

    Yoga for flexibility with stretches for the hips, quads, hamstrings, glutes, psoas, shoulders and arms. These yoga stretches are designed to improve flexiblity.

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    Basic Awareness


    Coordination and Concentration

    Yoga Routines

    Dealing with Pain and Poor Posture

    Muscle Control for Strength and Flexibility