If you think yoga isn’t for you because you can’t touch your toes, read this

Many people say to me that they don’t do yoga because they aren’t flexible, yet often what they mean is that they can’t touch their toes whilst keeping their legs straight, or they find downward dog to be an intense pull on their hamstrings. But what if there’s another way? What if you could practice yoga without incredibly stretchy hamstrings? I believe that flexibility and mobility is about much more than the hamstrings, and that we need to get away from the idea that stretchy hamstrings is the ultimate goal for yogis.

Do you need to be able to touch your toes?

This topic comes up more often with men, who often feel too ‘out of place’ in even a beginner’s class which often has people touching their toes from the outset. The result? Exhaustion! Trying to put yourself in postures your body isn’t yet prepared for is tiring, and that includes stretching your hamstrings.

If you have felt put off by yoga in the past because you don’t feel flexible in your hamstrings, the argument I often hear from teachers is “well if you come to yoga you will be able to touch your toes”. But what if you don’t actually need to touch your toes and keep your legs straight? Why do we collectively accept this is something we ‘should’ all be able to do?

If you see a physiotherapist (for my friends across the pond: a physical therapist), they will not be focused on whether or not you can touch your toes whilst keeping your legs straight (although they may ask you to do so as an indication of your flexibility), but whether you can do the movements you need to in your daily life. For instance, can you tie your shoelaces? Can you bend down to pick something from the floor without straining the lower back?

As someone who can touch my toes with straight legs, let me tell you that never do I bend down to pick something up from the floor without bending my knees. For these movements, it is much more important to hinge well at the hips. What does that mean?

The importance of hip 'hinge'

What does ‘hip hinge’ mean? If you’ll indulge some quick anatomy: the joint where the thigh bone meets the pelvis is called the hip joint, and it’s a ball-and-socket joint.

For you to be able to pick something up from the floor, you need to flex at the hip joint, or ‘hinge’. To do so, the thigh bone has to glide backward as it turns, and this movement can become ‘stuck’ as we get older. To compensate, we often tip the whole pelvis instead. The pelvis connects to the spine, and so you get a pull on your lower back.

In yoga, I aim to teach a functional flow, which means that we practice the movements patterns you need to function well in your day to day life. One of the best movements to train the hip hinge are low lunges, side lunges and general hip mobility exercises (remember that the joint doesn’t work in isolation – if the hip socket is moving well in one way, such as side to side, it will often help your movement another way, like forward and back).

In traditional yoga, there are a LOT of forward folds – standing folds in sun salutations, and seated folds like padottanasana. These folds can be a great way to stretch your hamstrings, but often the way that you transition into the folds in yoga practice simply causes a pull on the part of the hamstrings that attaches to the pelvis, the tendons. Ever heard of “yoga butt”? It’s a commonly known name for a proximal hamstring tear!

But does more flexible hamstrings always equal better?

Not necessarily! It depends on your goals.

If you play a sport which requires you to have power, speed, strength in the legs, then overstretching the hamstrings can leave you at risk of injury. Running and cycling need the hamstrings to be strong, to support the sport. The sport itself can also leave the hamstrings feeling tight, but that’s because muscles respond to the demand that we put on them. In other words, they adapt to get better at what we do often. So, if we cycle a lot, our hamstrings will get stronger to support our ability to ride the bike.

Does that mean cyclists and runners shouldn’t stretch or do yoga? Of course not! As with most things in life it is not that clear cut – yoga can be a fantastic way to help you stay mobile and to develop strength in other ways in your body to support your sport (clue: improved abdominal & core strength can help the majority of sports, even those that don’t train the abs directly!)

Try this in your next yoga class

Bend your knees! In forward folds, I always encourage people to start by bending their knees and sitting way back as they bring their arms down, to keep the spine long. Most people can get their hands to the floor with a straight spine if they sit waaayy back. And in downward dog, I highly encourage you to bend your knees as much as you need to, so that your spine stays long. This will reduce the risk of ‘yoga butt’, and help you bring more weight into your hands – and weight bearing through the hands is so good for us, but that’s for another day….!

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