Forward folds - bent knee vs straight leg?

Hi fellow DYWM yogis!

I have been practicing yoga on and off since 2016, and am recently back to the mat after a long (~7 months) time away. My question is about forward folds-- I have extremely open hips but very tight hamstrings. My knees also hyperextend so I always practice with a microbend to the knees. Even during my longest yoga stretch (June 2016-September 2017), I was never able to get my hamstrings to loosen up very much. I have been practicing 5-7x/week the past 2 months (shoutout to the ongoing beginner program! was the perfect reintro back to the mat), and my heels are closer than ever to the floor (like 1cm, and sometimes they even touch!) in downward dog! BUT this progress has been accompanied by a huge step backwards in my forward folds!!

First, why??? I thought these two would progress in concert, so I’m a bit puzzled. Second, in terms of encouraging my hamstrings to release and loosen more, have you found it better to practice your forward folds with bent knees or straight legs? I’ve heard many different opinions on this, and my head is spinning, so I thought it best to consult the experts! When my legs are straight, I can touch the floor and my shoulders are beneath my hips, but my chest is very far from my thighs. I also feel the stretch exclusively in my hamstrings. If I bend the knees, I first do a “Cow-back” before tilting my pelvis forward and draping my torso over the thighs. This produces an intense stretch from my low back into the glutes/that deep area where your hamstrings connect. The drawbacks, though, are that 1. often I don’t feel as much of a hamstring stretch because 2. to have my torso over my thighs I’m essentially in a very high squat (like a 120-130 degree angle in my legs) which gets difficult to hold after a couple minutes.

Any advice much appreciated, both on longer hold stretches to help release and on which form (bent vs. straight) you’ve found most beneficial in your sun salutations. I’m not looking to push it, but this has now been the most consistent challenge in my practice and I’d love some advice on how to work through/explore it.

Namaste all!

Hey Cat, what a great question. I will preface my reply by saying I’m not an expert and am only just coming back to my practice myself; I’m doing the Ongoing Beginner’s Program too! Love it. Anyway, one thing I was thinking when reading your post is - are you sure it’s your hamstrings that are tight? The body is one long lever and tightness in the achilles, calves, glutes and lower back could be a part of what you’re experiencing. Just a thought :slightly_smiling_face:

Honestly, it’s a good question! I’ve been assuming hamstrings because twists tend to come quite easily for me and in poses such as baddha konasana or double pigeon I have no problem at all keeping my spine straight and laying my torso over my feet/the floor… But I have actually been wondering if this is some sort of low or mid back tightness that just won’t release. I also am not sure what to do to get that tightness to release if twists etc aren’t doing it! I’ll continue to tune in though-- you’re totally right and it’s maybe unfair to just assume my hamstrings are the issue just because they are easier to identify lol :slight_smile: Thanks for the response and best wishes on your journey with the Ongoing Beginner’s Program! It really made a huge difference for me in a matter of months.

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An important thing to keep in mind is that your muscular system is, essentially, a series of pulleys that work against each other, using tension and opposition to keep us upright. Almost every muscle in your body has an antagonist that does the opposite action. When one muscle contracts, the antagonist must lengthen to allow the movement to take place. So when one muscle is tight, most of the time that means that its antagonist is weak and not able to contract as strongly, which would help release the tight muscle. So your tight hamstrings correlate to weak quadriceps (a fun side effect of our modern lifestyle of sitting a lot - when your knees are bent, your hamstrings are contracted and your quads are lengthened).

When doing any hamstring lengthening poses, don’t just focus stretching your hamstrings, try to engage your quads. It can seem counterintuitive at first, and takes a little coordination, but once you figure it out, your hamstrings should start opening up. If you’re having a hard time, start with strengthening your quadriceps. As you build muscle mass and strength, your hamstrings have no choice but to start releasing. So don’t just think of it as bent knee vs straight leg; think of it as hamstring vs quadricep. Bending the knee generally helps to engage the quad, which is why it’s often recommended.

I hope this helps. Good luck!

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It could still be your hamstrings causing back issues. Your hamstrings attach to the bottom of your pelvic bone, so when they’re tight, they pull your pelvic bone down, causing strain and tension in the back. Also your psoas muscle (primary hip flexor) attaches to your lumbar vertebrae, so when that’s tight it can also cause back problems. It’s absolutely incredible just how much everything in our bodies is connected and how our bodies compensate for injury. It’s like the butterfly effect; a seemingly minor injury can set off a chain reaction of compensation throughout the entire system. I think it’s really cool :slight_smile:

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