How to Prevent and Heal Hamstring Strain

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Last week I wrote about forward bends and flexibility in yoga. Sometimes, if you do this movement with too much ambition, you can overstretch your hamstrings. A pulled hamstring, also called hamstring strain, is one of the most common yoga injuries, maybe you’ve experienced one already.

What is hamstring strain?

Hamstring strain is what happens when you over-strecth your hamstring muscle. The hamstrings are a group of three muscles on the back of your thigh which travel from the sit-bone to the tibia, right below the knee. When you contract the hamstrings they extend the hip (move your leg backwards) and when you bend forward they stretch. When you strais a muscle, the fascia that wraps the individual muscle fibers tears and the muscle is temporarily injured. Soemtimes, this injury can occur in the adductors as well, these are located on the inside of your thigh.

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Preventing is better than treating.

To prevent an injury of any kind it is important to learn how to listen to your own body and be fully present. Sometimes our ambition will tempt us to push our limits. This is what happened to me. I wanted to bring my chest to the floor in Upavista Konasana, I was sooo close! I held onto my feet and pulled myself forward forcefully. Ouch! Right away I noticed a flash of pain traveling from my right sitbone to the inside of my knee. During the following days my leg hurt when walking, sitting and even lying in bed at night. 

Another factor that can contribute to a pulled hamstring is a sudden shift in temperature. Our muscle tone is affected by the temperature of our environment. Those of you who have a regular practice know it’s not the same to practice in summer than in winter. Especially if the yoga room isn’t well heated. In summer, our body warms up right away and it is way more supple while in winter the cold contracts our muscles and makes them tighter. Our flexibility is of course affected and that’s why it’s important to warm the body well at the start of practice and to be careful when traveling from summer to winter.

trikonasanaphoto: arianne

How to practice yoga with a pulled hamstring.

In the days following the injury, if your leg hurts when walking and sitting maybe it’s best to rest and apply RICE (rest, ice compression and elevation) or at least ice at regular intervals. You’ll see that the cold will alleviate the inflamation. A few days later, when the pain has lessened, you can return to your practice and begin the healing process. 

Too much rest keeps the muscle short and taught, while movement and some gentle stretching helps the recovery process. It’s important that you don’t feel pain in any posture and that you learn to modify your practice according to how you feel. You’ll notice that relatively easy postures, like Trikonasana will have to be adapted. When injured, less is more: stop before anything hurts. Remember that each time you re-injure yourself you are slowing down your recovery.

Even though a hamstring pull is not a serious injury, it takes a log time to heal, aproximately three months on average. It took me just this long to recover all of my flexibility after the first time I pulled my hamstring. Then, I suffered the same injury again. I recently found out that it is common to re-injure oneself in the same place, maybe because the tissue is weakened? I’m not sure. This second time the recovery was slower and I know I have to be careful.

What alternative therapies help in healing?

You already know that I’m a Rolfer and that I love this type of bodywork. It has helped me a lot because it releases adhesions and also helps to bring the body back into balance. Every time we hurt ourselves, our body takes on a compensatory posture to protect the wounded part. Once the tissues are healed, Rolfing re-establishes balance throughout the whole body and releases the muscles that are holding excessive tension.

What limits our flexibility?

fwd-flexionImage: Mike Pace

Last Friday, in the immersion I teach with Claudio, I talked about the anatomy of forward bends in yoga. We checked out the different parts of the body that can limit our flexibility and we discussed how to work with them. The time flew by! Here’s a summary of what went down.

What limits our flexibility?

There’s not a simple answer to this question, rather a variety of different factors to consider, some of which are:

  1. Genetics. This determines the flexibility of our soft tissues (muscles, fascia and ligaments). It also influences the form of our bones and joints. To give you an idea of how unique our anatomy is person to person, check out these amazing photos.
  2. Clinical History. This means injury, surgeries and even illnesses that we’ve had which affect our joint mobility and soft tissue flexibility.
  3. Daily Habits. The movements we repeat on a daily basis have a tremendous impact on the shape of our body and our mobility. What are your most repetitive movements? For a lot of people this would include sitting, and not getting enough exercise.

yoga forward bendPhoto: Rachel A K

Benefits

The American College of Rheumatology recommends practicing forward bends to treat lumbar pain (low back pain) especially if it is more acute when standing. Meanwhile, Rachel, the photographer featured above, has this to say about yoga:

2 and a half weeks of yoga and, for the first time ever, I can touch my toes! Seriously, I could barely touch my knees before. I have really (really) long legs and mild scoliosis. I can bend over backward easily, but forward has always been incredibly painful. Yay yoga!

Relief of low back pain and increase in flexibility are just a few of the benefits of forward bends. These postures are also calming and grounding. With so many benefits they’re definitely worth practicing daily.

ya forward bendPhoto: kellinahandbasket

How to..

When you bend forward you flex at the hip joint and articulate your spine. The range of your forward fold depends on the elasticity and length of the soft tissues (muscles and fascia) on the back side of your body. Specifically, I’m referring to hamstrings and lumbar fascia. With a consistent yoga practice we can improve the elasticity of these tissues and increase our overall flexibility.

Priorities

  1. Start your forward fold at the hip. The hip joint is the place where the head of the femur plugs into the pelvis. Bringing awareness to this joint helps to create awareness and space between the legs and the low back.
  2. Bend your knees. This will help you to fold at the hip crease and prevent you from compressing the joints in your low bak. Noelia, a student in the immersion offered a verbal instruction I really liked. It goes like this: sitting on the floors, fold at the hip and rest your belly on your thighs (yes, you have to bend your knees). Slowly start to inch your feet away from your pelvis as you move towards straightening your legs. When your belly comes off your thighs, stop. This is how far you can safely bend forward. 
  3. Once we’ve gained more awareness of the hip joint (and its relation to our low back) we can begin to straighten the legs and work the hamstrings. It’s important not to rush. Sometimes the desire to rest out forehead on our shins makes us skip all the steps that prepare us for the pose. It’s important to cultivate awareness of our different body parts and to explore their interconnectedness.

The interesting part about the “tough” postures is the challenge they represent. To me they’re like a puzzle I have to solve, little by little the pieces fall into place. The process has given me more flexibility, yes, but of even greater value is the body awareness I’ve gained. I encourage you to be patient, take your time and enjoy the process.

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What is fascia (and why should I care)?

Last week was one of new beginnings.  I started the new applied anatomy group and I also gave my first class on the yoga and anatomy immersion with Claudio. I love meeting the new students and seeing their curious and attentive expressions while I present the lesson. It’s very exciting! 

One of my favorite topics to teach is fascia. This part of the body isn’t very well known and sometimes it is hard to understand, as we don’t have much to reference back to. That’s why today’s post is all about this very important tissue and why it matters.  

Fascia is an opaque white tissues that ensheathes and connects muscles, organs and bones. It also envelops and protects joints, blood vessels and nerves.  To better understand fascia and how it works we’ll take as an example an orange. 

naranja en gajosUnderneath it’s peel the orange has a white layer of skin. This is how it is in the human body as well. Underneath our outer layer of skin you’ll find the superficial fascia which covers the body like a wetsuit. Ida Rolf considered fascia the “organ of form” as it holds the body together and preserves our individual shape. 

Back to the orange. The membrane that divides the orange in slices corresponds to the deep fascia of the human body. This layer separates muscles from one another. It has a liquid and slippery texture that allows the muscles to glide effortlessly over one another as when they move. Sometimes the fascia of adjacent muscles get glued to one another creating an adhesion. Fascial adhesions limit movement and cause compensation in other parts of the body. 

Visceral fascia invests organs and allows them to move independently of their adjacent tissues. An example of organ movement is the intestinal peristalsis, or the heartbeat, or the stretching of the lungs that occurs on inhalation. Visceral fascia has specialized names according to the organ it covers, some examples could be the pleura of the lungs, the peritoneum that encases the abdominal organs, or the pericardium, the layer of fascia that encases the heart. 

Examples of other types of fascia are the periosteum that ensheaths bones, the epimysium the external covering of muscles, and the tissue that makes up joint capsules. All these are specialized forms of fascia. 

Why is fascia important?

  • Fascia is important because it reserves the integrity of each organ, muscle and blood vessel in the body. It also protects them from external pathogens and is the first line of defense of the body. 
  • Thanks to fascia we can move! It’s true that muscles contract to create movement, however, without the slippery encasing of fascia there would be no movement. Fascia allows muscles to glide over one another completely free of friction. 
  • It also allows the internal organs to carry out their physiological functions.
  • The elasticity of fascia protects the body from harsh impacts. It acts as a shock absorber to protect bones and organs from injury. 

These are some of the reasons why fascia is important for a healthy body. Ida Rolf suggested that due to its complexity, fascia should be considered an organ rather than a tissue. 

Online resources

http://youtu.be/Ikx-0s8y480

This documentary is all about fascia. It discusses how fascia influences chronic pain and how complementary therapies such as acupuncture and Rolfing work with fascia. It’s really eye-opening!

Lastly, Tom Myers’ Anatomy Trains website has a section dedicated to fascia. It’s easy to asimilate and full of useful information. Enjoy!

Weekend Recap: October Yoga and Rolfing Retreat

I just returned from leading a Yoga and Rolfing retreat in Vilafranca del Penedés. It was an amazing experience and I couldn’t be happier. The best part were the people that came together to form this amazing group. We all felt completely at ease with one another. It was a pleasure to spend time together, share space and practice yoga. To top it off, the weather was spectacular and we spent lots of time outdoors. 

They say a picture is worth a thousand words and I think these photos speak for themselves. 

Perfect Location

Cal Pau Cruset is the perfect place to get away from the city. It’s beautiful, peaceful and just an hour by train from Barcelona.

masia Cal Pau Cruset en Vilafranca

Yoga

I lead three yoga classes during the retreat. It was a luxury to practice in such a beautiful yoga room surrounded by palm trees and the amazing view of the vineyards. 

Yoga en Vilafranca del Penedés

Yoga en Vilafranca

The best part of the practice: savasana followed by a delicious breakfast!

Time off

retiro de yoga y rolfing en vilafranca

As you can see, we made the most of our time off: swimming, sunbathing, walking,..

paseando por vilafranca del penedés

Rolfing

taller de concienciación corporal

On Saturday I lead a Rolfing Movement workshop. We worked in pairs to bring awareness and suppleness to the joints in our shoulders, neck and spine. We felt incredibly loose and relaxed afterward! 

Conclusion: lets do it again next year!

retiro de yoga en cal pau cruset

 

Yoga, Buddhism and Body Awareness, Inspiration for Your Week

alaya 2

The Yoga and Rolfing retreat is this Friday. I am so stoked to get out of the city! We’re having such a beautiful fall this year and I am looking forward to savoring it in the counrtyside.

One of the things I really like about Cal Pau Cruset is its surroundings. The house overlooks vinyards and open fields which allows one to see far, far away. This is such a treat for a city dweller like myself. To top it off, the yoga room is on the top floor and has windows going all the way around the room, so from there we’ll be able to broaden our horizons, literally!

alaya sala adjusted light

When it comes to choosing the activities for the retreat, the hardest thing is to decide what to leave out. There’s so much I love about Yoga and Rolfing that it’s a challenge to stay focused and deliver simple, bite-sized information. The theme for this weekend will be the breath and we will visit it from both disciplines.

With so much preparation for the coming retreat I haven’t had much time to think about this week’s blog post. So I’ve decided to share with you some thought provoking gems that I’ve found very inspiring. I hope you enjoy them as much as I did.

The Dalai Lama on Happiness

The XIV Dalai Lama seems to many to embody happiness — happiness against the odds, a virtue that is acquired and practiced. Before a live audience in Atlanta, Georgia, Krista had a rare opportunity to mull over the meaning of happiness in contemporary life with him and three global spiritual leaders: a Muslim scholar, a chief rabbi, and a presiding bishop. An invigorating and unpredictable discussion exploring the themes of suffering, beauty, and the nature of the body.

Yoga ruins your life

I can’t get tired of watching this video! It was just about two ago that I practiced yoga in this very studio, Richard Freeman’s Yoga Workshop in Boulder, Colorado. I love Richard’s quirky sense of humor! Here’s his intro to the video:

Yoga Ruins Your Life? That sounds terrible!

But it’s not. In fact having yoga ruin your life is a huge relief. Because when you practice yoga on a regular basis, the auto-pilot of “life” that, if you’re like most of us you may have fallen into, slowly transforms into a life that is naturally more awake, balanced, healthy and happy. The little things that used to bother you don’t so much any more. You feel less stressed and happier. Relationships become easier as emotions, thoughts and feelings become clearer and less reactive. And best of all, who you really are shines through. So yes, your auto pilot life is “ruined,” but that’s not so terrible after all.

Richard is unbelievably clear when it comes to explainign the intricacies of yogic philosophy in a funny, practical and down to earth way. His studio talks are beautiful pearls of wisdom that have helped me better understand the yogic process, how to recognize it’s fruits and how to manage the obstacles that arise along the way. In this next recording Richard discusses saṁsāra hālāhala (the poison of conditioned existence) from which yoga is meant to free us.

The Secret of Relaxation

Lastly, here’s a video by the lovely Mary Bond. Mary is a Rolfer and faculty member at the Rolf Institute of Boulder, Colorado. On her Youtube channel you’ll find lots of useful videos on how to cultivate a relaxed and upright posture. 

This particular one is about relaxing before we go to sleep. Lots of us will bring the day’s stress right into bed with us and then won’t be able to let go of it. In this video Mary shows us how to relax in bed before we fall asleep. Enjoy!

 

Why the Head isn’t Meant to Bear Weight

sirsasana[Photo by Lauren Nelson]

One of the trademark poses in yoga is Salamba Sirsasana, better known as headstand. Sirsasana is often referred to as “king of all asanas” (yoga poses) because of its many valuable benefits such as longevity and increased mental clarity.

But is Sirsasana really a headstand? I don’t think so.

In Yoga Mala, Pattabhi Jois writes:

Aspirants should note that merely putting the head down and the legs up, and then standing upside down is not Sirsasana; very simply, this is wrong.

He then explains:

..no one should be deluded into thinking that Sirsasana is and easy asana. The proper method for it must be carefully learned. For example, the entire body must stand upside down on the strength of the arms alone.

According to this description it seems pretty clear that Sirsasana is a forearm balance rather than a headstand.

In my experience this is true. I find that resting the weight of my body on my head hurts my neck and is likely dangerous in the long run. I prefer to practice Sirsasana as described by Jois: using my arms to sustain the weight of my body while making sure that my head is only lightly touching the floor. This way I have to engage my whole body and cultivate a sustainable balance that keeps my neck happy.

When I look at the anatomy of the spine I find it corroborates this approach to the pose. Let me explain. 

antique print of vertebral column[Vintage Anatomy Print from Etsy.com]

If you compare the anatomy of the cervical spine to that of the lumbars you will find some important differences. For example, the lumbar vertebrae are quite thick and wide, becoming progressively larger towards the base of the spine. This is because they have to bear the weight of the entire trunk. Also, notice how the disks between the lumbar vertebrae are really thick. Their job is to provide shock absorption to the spine when we walk, jump or run. They thicker they are the more shock absorption is needed from them.

By comparison, the cervical spine is not as sturdy. (If you like these images you’ll find more here). The vertebrae of the neck, and the disks that separate them, are much smaller. This affords the head and neck a lot of freedom: we can turn our head with precision so as to focus our gaze on what we want. More mobility however means less stability. Often the more movable joints in the body are the most susceptible to injury. We need to take care of them. 

tumblr_mtwud2sy7P1r77ccao1_1280[X-ray Image found on Tumblr]

In addition to this, we must also consider that our lifestyle puts our necks under a lot of stress already. Most of us, myself included, suffer from tight neck and shoulders. This is likely due to the fact that we spend many hours a day typing on our laptops and straining our gaze towards the screen. Moreover, a lot of people tend to accumulate tension in their neck as a result of stressful life situations, tense work environments or both.

This is why I think Shirsasana is to be approached with patience and care. It is important to take the time to build the strength and coordination necessary to enjoy this posture for many years to come and reap it’s incredible benefits.

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