What injury teaches us in yoga

hamstring stretch

I’ve been nursing a hamstring attachment injury for about a month now.   This injury –which likely began years ago when I learned some bad habits — was exacerbated recently by not paying close attention to early signs of an acute strain.   Yep, even yoga teachers get injured.   So, I’ve gone back to square one to learn how my muscles were interacting and retrain them, without letting ego push me too far too soon.

The hamstrings are located between the back of the knees and the buttocks on the backside of the legs. There are actually three separate muscles that comprise the hamstrings. These muscles are mainly responsible for flexing the knee and pulling the knee backwards, extending the hip joint so that the hips can pull the torso from a stooped position, and to support the pelvis on top of the femur bones.

“While tight hamstrings are common among beginning yoga students, many advanced yoga students have the opposite problem,” says Doug Keller, author of Yoga as Therapy, who frequently offers yoga workshops targeting hamstring issues. “Long-term yoga practitioners who are very flexible in their hamstrings often stretch in ways that cause injury, especially where the hamstrings attach to the sitting bones.”

Let’s first look at the symptoms of tight hamstrings that lead the tendons and small muscles at the attachment to over-compensate:

  • Limited movement in forward folds and poses like head to knee pose, and reclining big toe pose
  • Lower back soreness or tightness
  • Tightness in the hamstring region
  • A fixed sway back, unable to bend at the hips while keeping legs straight, buttock pain and pain while sitting are the prominent symptoms.

Many yoga students attribute these symptoms to something else — “if my back hurts, it must be my back.”   With repetition, the body begins to compensate and that’s where we often begin to develop the bad habits that can lead to injury.

“The hamstrings are intimately connected to the health of the lower back and pelvis. Many back injuries and low back pain issues are related to the hamstrings. Also, the way people stretch the hamstrings can sometimes cause an injury to the connective tissue in the lower back. So back pain and tight hamstrings are often related,” Keller says.

How do you prevent injury?

  • Start with your feet – Tension in the low body works it’s way up.  Building a foundation with strong yet flexible feet will provide the stability you need to move up the leg.
  • Alignment – Ensure your feet are inner hip distance apart and parallel.  Rotate your thighs inward as you engage the sit bones which pulls the pelvis under slightly (don’t tuck your pelvis and think you’ve got it.  The movement comes from the muscle contraction.)
  • Engagement – engage your sit bones as you forward fold.  Many injuries occur because the practitioner dives into a forward fold with tight hamstrings, and the attachment overcompensates.  Engaging the sit bones will tell you where your true forward fold is, and the stretch will be at the belly of the hamstring.
  • Listen and pace yourself – Don’t worry about what you THINK you should be doing by now, or what the person in class next to you is doing.  Every body is different, in fact your body is different on any given day.  Listen and accept where you are your practice right now, and pace your practice accordingly.  Slow and steady.
  • Know your edge –  The edge is the place in a pose that anymore would be too much and any less wouldn’t be enough.  We tend to have a problem knowing the former.   Get to know your body and your edge. Challenge yourself without going outside of the comfort zone.

Healing from hamstring injury

Time is the true healer.  I know I’m one of the most impatient healers on the planet.  I want to be better right away.  But as frustrating as it is, I also know that I’d rather go slow now, than be out for 6 weeks post-surgery. When it comes to hamstrings, there is no better authority in my mind than Doug Keller, so rather than quote him entirely, here’s a link to a great article, “Healing from Hamstring Injuries” he wrote that’s on his website DoYoga.com.

What’s so great about injuries?

Well no one really wants to get hurt, but I’m trying to see the positives.  Here are 5 things that I’m embracing about injury recovery:

  1. You get to fall in love with yoga all over again.  By taking a beginner’s approach to retraining my muscles and getting back to basics, I’m falling in love with the practice as I did when it was new to me.
  2. You can allow yourself to let go of competition with self and others.  Now’s the time to be patient, and remember that yoga isn’t a competitive sport.
  3. You get to practice ahimsa.  Going back to the yoga sutras, ahimsa is non-violence.   Remember to be kind and practice non-violence by not forcing your body to do something it isn’t ready for.  In fact, it’s great to carry this lesson with you on the mat even when your’e not injured.
  4. You can focus on meditation and pranyama.  I may not be able to do the 50 minute vinyasa practice that was part of my routine for so long, but I CAN still do some safe asanas and use the time to go inward with the breath and focus.
  5. You learn compassion. Despite our best efforts to empathize with others, we truly can’t understand what it’s like to be in their shoes until we’re, well…in their shoes.

I’m learning a great deal about humility, compassion for myself and others, and turning my focus inward as I nurse myself back to 100%.   Do you have an injury story that you’d like to share?  Tell me about it.


– Your Charmed Yogi

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Photo: About.com

15 thoughts on “What injury teaches us in yoga

  1. I don’t so much have an injury story, as recoveries from two major surgeries: one spinal fusion and one hip reconstruction. Both set me back tremendously in my practice, but only for a limited time. Yoga was an opportunity to become acutely aware of my recovery process, mentally and physically, and to honor those areas of my body that wertr healing. I whole-heartedly credit my continued practice with allowing me to make a full recovery from each. When folks mention surgery to me, I mention yoga!

  2. What I enjoy (contradictory as it may seem to “enjoy” an injury) about a sprain or strain is the increased awareness that it gives you. Pull something and suddenly you have immense insight into how you use that muscle, how often you use that muscle!, not just in your yoga practice but also just going about your day.

  3. Dear Charmed,
    I have the same hamstring attachment injury as you. The dreaded ‘yoga butt’. I, too did not pay enough attention to the signs. I teach yoga and am now re-discovering the true nature of my practice – self awareness without judgment. Sometimes, an injury can be the best medicine! Namaste

  4. Hi. Thank you for your post. I’ve been suffering from a hamstring injury (by the sit bones) for over a year now and am only now recovering. You are right about rediscovering the practice. I have learned to listen to my body better and appreciate all the little nuances of each pose and I think I’ve become a better practitioner!

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