Lately some recurring questions have popped up after my yoga classes:
No matter how much I stretch my legs I feel like my hamstrings are still very tight. Why am I not seeing any progress? What else can I do?
I think these questions are fascinating for a few reasons. First, what's with the hamstrings? Why does everything think they have to have flexible hamstrings? Sure limitations in a forward fold are very easy to feel and notice, but why has it become the huge focal point for students?
Second, I have lost count of the number of people who say they can't do yoga because they can't touch their toes. When I tell someone I teach yoga it's frequently met with someone saying something about their lack of flexibility and their inability to touch their toes. What's with that? I won't deny that touching your toes does have some value. I once attended a workshop with Bryan Kest where he called Pyramid Pose "Tie Your Shoes Pose". He was explaining to his students that doing the shape doesn't really matter but having the range of motion to tie your own shoes allows people to have independence even as they age. I can buy into that. I cannot buy into the obsession of simply stretching the legs so that I can jam my nose into my shins in a forward fold.
Perhaps I'm a tad sensitive to the whole hamstring stretching thing. Years ago I developed this nagging sensation high in my right hamstring. It wasn't necessarily painful. It was just irritating. I backed off of my forward folds for a while and spent some quality time in Legs Up the Wall Pose. Eventually the sensation diminished but only for a little while. Like clockwork the irritation would flare up again and I'd be frustrated again. Eventually I started doing some research (please don't be the cliché yoga teacher like me and diagnose yourself) and realized what I was experiencing was very common in the yoga world. It even had a catchy name! Yoga butt!
How does one get a yoga butt, you ask? By overstretching the muscle attachments of the hamstrings to the sitting bones, ischial tuberosity. This is a regular occurrence for those who are hypermobile in their hamstrings. It's so easy to just disengage the legs and let the hamstrings stretch. However, it's important to make the muscles of the legs engage even when your intention is to stretch them. When you're working forward folds or postures that emphasize hamstring length, consider where you feel the majority of the stretch. Ideally the stretch won't be centralized near the top or bottom of a muscle or muscle group. If that's what you're feeling back out, reset, and consider ways you can engage both the front and back sides of your legs more.
Maybe you're on the completely other end of the spectrum. Do you find yourself looking around the yoga room in a Seated Forward Fold sitting straight up and cursing those around you?
This is all I've got! I've gone as far as I can while you jerks are literally sleeping with your bellies on your legs!
Here's a little secret: No one cares how far you've gone in your forward folds except for maybe you. I don't want to dismiss your feelings. It might not be the answer you're looking for, but not all bodies were meant to have deep forward folds. Just as I will probably never figure out how to throw a frisbee (actual fact), you might be at the maximum stretch in your hamstrings. And you know what? That's okay!
Still not going to give up on the whole deeper hamstring stretching thing? Here's a couple things that might help you gain more range of motion:
Change Your Relationship to Gravity
If you've been working on increasing your hamstring range of motion in a yoga class there's a good chance you've focused a lot on your standing and seated forward bends. If you feel like you've maxed out your stretch consider flipping on your back and taking Supta Padangusthasana--Reclined Hand to Foot Pose with a strap. I love this posture! When your body is in this position the soles of your feet and sitting bones aren't anchored down so you might be able to explore a different kind of stretch than you might get while standing or seated.
Maybe It's Not Just Your Hamstrings
Technically you have three actual hamstring muscles and one "pseudo" hamstring muscle. Adductor Magnus, the "pseudo" hamstring, acts as both an adductor (groin muscles that draw inner thighs toward the midline of the body) and a hamstring. In some bodies the limitation at the back of the legs is due to a tight Adductor Magnus. Postures like Baddha Konasana--Bound Angle Pose and Upavistha Konasana--Seated Wide-Legged Straddle can help lengthen Adductor Magnus.
Be mindful, however, to keep the stretch well distributed in the groin. I've found that many yoga practitioners who suffer from yoga butt aren't necessarily very flexible in their actual hamstrings, but have high mobility in their adductors. I believe this is cause of my ailment.
You'll Be Okay
As I mentioned before, some bodies aren't meant to have deep forward bends and that's okay! As my teacher frequently says, not everyone gets to do every posture. That has been a hard lesson for me to swallow but it is the absolute truth. You might find yourself seated up on a bolster and multiple folded blankets in Paschimottanasana for the rest of your life. Your ego might get in the way, but you'll be okay.
In closing, I hope your yoga practice is more than you simply stretching your legs. Of course if your primary goal is to stretch your legs then I am in no place to judge. However, your yoga practice and you have so much more to offer.