Sep 13, 2012

boulders in the stream

the semitendinosis (innermost) hamstring
Six months into my third and hopefully charmed attempt at a Mysore-style practice, I'm starting to feel some of the same things that made me decide to stop doing Ashtanga in 2010. Most alarmingly, both hamstrings, right at the insertion points, have been getting increasingly sore. I mean sore like maybe this is serious sore.

On Sundays, I go to a decidedly non-Ashtanga class taught by a great teacher and a yoga legend (one of the quiet ones—the real deal). I respect everything about this woman's practice and her teaching, but when I asked her for some advice about how to modify for pain at the hamstring attachment, she told me exactly what I didn't want to hear: Stop all hamstring stretches for eight weeks. 

"But, but," I fairly sputtered, "I'm practicing the first series of Ashtanga..." She gave me a wry look. She's not a big fan. I gave her a pleading look. She upped the wry look.

"Yes, I know that pain in both hamstrings is probably related to all the forward folds, but I don't want to stop. Isn't there some way to modify?"

"I'm not the right person to ask," she said, which I'm pretty sure was code for, if you're going to be all denial-y about this, I can't help you.

Well, I got kind of depressed after that class. But then I started thinking about how I'm trying to approach Ashtanga differently this time. This time, my main goal is to not have a goal. It's to embrace this most difficult (for me) of yoga practices as a daily opportunity to get on better terms with something like equanimity.

And part of the whole equanimity thing, as I see it, is to be like water. I mean, yes, to go with the flow. Or, more than that, to be the flow. I mean (to elaborate a somewhat iffy metaphor): I'm the water and the physical practice is, say, the stream bed, complete with plenty of rocks and boulders and bends along the way. Obstacles, in other words. And stopping the practice, even if only temporarily—simply exiting the stream bed because of an especially large boulder—seems kind of unnatural for water.

Hm. I think the water metaphor just conked on me. Forget the water. All I really mean is that to stop this practice now would feel reactive, not responsive. It would feel too binary. Too Yes/No. Open/Shut. So instead of stopping, I've been finding ways to work with and around the issue.

I'll skip over a detailed explication of my various modifications because that would be excessively entertaining, better, even than listening to someone talk about their taxes or dental work. But, in brief, I've been following Tim Miller's advice about healing a sore hamstring attachment with eccentric stretching, my Ashtanga teacher's advice for how to deal with the problem in Kurmasana, which can be applied to many other poses, and which involves rotating the feet so as to alleviate tension on the particular hamstring muscles that are injured (there are three, actually, in each leg—my problem is with the innermost), and, of course, to the extent I'm able while still practicing, I'm following my Sunday teacher's advice by taking things down a solid notch or two (or three) in the poses that give me the most problems—namely Trikonasana, Prasarita Padottanasana, and Utthita hasta padangusthasana.

valley river, Japan, 1949, photo by John W. Bennett
I'm now four days into the program and happy to say that I think it's working. Sure, I still feel pain at the hamstring insertion points, but it's much less red feeling than before. More of a muddy orange. It's possible, of course, that this is just wishful thinking. I'm good at that. It's possible this approach could backfire, and that the pain in my hamstrings really is a big old stop signal—more akin to a dam than a boulder. If so, and my Sunday yoga teacher turns out to be right, may I do a thousand hamstring curls with grace and equanimity.

If not, may I do my regular practice with the same.


Shari said...

Hi Kim,
I stumbled across your blog from Lila, I think, and I'm SO glad I did!
I am having the EXACT same problem with my hamstring connectors. It gets so bad that I have trouble sitting for any extended periods of time.
I, for one, would really love to hear what you're doing to modify the practice.
I'll admit, I do some Ashtanga and some regular Vinyasa Flow but no matter how hard I try to back off those forward folds and yes - triangle pose - it seems to continue to flare up. I felt like a crazy person complaining about this "injury" but it makes me feel so much better to know I'm not the only one. Thank you for sharing!

Kim A. said...

Hi Shari,
I think it's a really common problem in yoga. If you have trouble sitting, that seems a good notch or two more intense than the pain I was talking about, and maybe it would be a good idea to just let those muscles rest & do theraputic work (like hamstring curls, ice, etc). But if you feel it's really just soreness/inflammation (I think that's my problem) and not actual injury, maybe my mods would help you. Mostly I think about how to tighten it or shorten my innermost hamstring muscles at the connection points, even as I fold forward or extend the legs. You probably have to figure out which of the three hamstring muscles (outer, inner, middle) is bothering you. Try a forward fold and angle your feet like a duck, & like a pigeon, to see which one gives you relief. My inner hamstrings hurt, so it's helpful to me to shorten them by going slightly pigeontoed. I also really flex my thighs when I do forward folds, and instead of flexing my feet back, I "floint" (flex/point) them, which seems to keep the stretch in the belly of the hamstring & not up by the connector. If it's your inner hamstrings that hurt, you might find releif in revolved triangle—I do! It seems to torque the hamstring right at the attachment of the front leg in a really healing way. All in all, everything I'm doing (besides just backing off in many cases--bending my knees, not going as far, etc), boils down to a kind of "knitting" action—I visualize knitting the muscle fibers together. I also visualize a soft golden light on those points—for what that's worth! All this is just one practitioner to another—I'm hardly an anatomy expert. But I hope it helps. Let me know how it goes if you get a chance.

Shari said...

Hi Kim,

Thank you so much for taking the time to write such a thoughtful response. You have made some really good suggestions that I intend to experiment with. I've also been taking Tim Miller's advice on strengthening the hamstring via Purvottanasana and a modified Salabhasana. (I appreciate that link!)

I don't think it's anything more than just soreness & inflammation though because even in spite of the sitting-issue, the pain nearly goes away after just 24 hours if I don't practice. As soon as I return to the mat though and do any sort of a deep forward fold, boom! Pain returns. Now I feel equipped with some good tips to start to heal and strengthen the area and I am so grateful!
Thank you, again!!

Kim A. said...

I'm so glad you're finding some answers. I read this post yesterday about healing yoga injuries (link below). The thing I thought was useful about what he says is the idea of keeping up your practice while "'maintaining zero sensation" in the injured area. That's what I've been doing with my hamstrings & I'm glad to say they are responding. Here's the link