Put the Kibosh on Upper Back Tension

You may be surprised to know that tight chest muscles are often the culprit behind aching shoulder, upper back, and neck muscles. Writing e-mails, texting friends or driving to work, we spend most of the day in one position: seated with our shoulders slumped and our arms out front. With our body in this shape, our chest muscles are at their shortest, and over time they tighten to stay this way. In turn, when the chest muscles are shorter, the we tend to slouch even more—it’s a vicious cycle. In response, the muscles in the upper back, shoulders, and neck compensate, becoming tired, sore, tense, and overstretched. Read More on the Yoga Mayu blog>>
Office Chest Stretch

Office Chest Stretch

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Some Love for the Lower Legs

I used to come out of Bikram yoga classes with such tight calves. Balancing requires the lower leg muscles to work together to stabilize the ankle, and the standing series would completely exhaust my already tight muscles. I asked the teacher why there were no poses in Bikram yoga to stretched the calves, and he said there actually were. He gave head to knee pose as an example, which is a seated pose in which you fold forward over a lengthened leg. The calf stretch comes from using the hands on the ball of the foot to lift the heel off the floor and pull the toes back toward the face. I think calling head to knee pose a calf stretch is a misnomer, considering only the the most flexible students could ever reach the point where the pose actually stretches the calves. Similarly, many yoga teachers use downward facing dog as a calf stretch when many students’ other muscles are so tight that they can’t get enough downward force through the heal to feel anything in the calves. Tight lower leg muscles can cause shin splints, knee problems, and foot problems, so it is important that achievable lower leg stretches are incorporated into yoga classes.

Gastrocneumius stretches. The gastroc is the big meaty muscle in the calf, and it is stretched when the leg is lengthened and the foot is flexed. A gastroc stretch that doesn’t require too much flexibility in other muscles can be done starting from hands and knees. From there, extend one leg out behind, tuck the toes under on the floor, and extend actively out through the heel. You will feel the stretch in the calf.

Hands-and-knees gastroc stretch

Press actively back through the heel.

If you’re more flexible, you can go into a downward dog variation. From the previous position, press into the hands to lift the front knee off the mat. Lift the sit bones up without losing engagement in the core, and push down through the back heel. You can keep your front foot where it is for support or tuck it behind the ankle of the leg your stretching, increasing the stretch even more.

Down dog gastroc stretch

Press chest and hips back, and the heel downwards.

Soleus stretch. The soleus is another muscle in the back of your lower leg that runs underneath the gastroc. When you stretch it, you often feel it in the Achilles tendon area between the meaty part of your calf and your heel. It is stretched when the knee is bent and the foot is flexed. From the hand-and-knees position above bend into the back knee as you continue to press back through the heel, and you’ll feel the stretch move into you soleus.

Hands-and-knees soleus stretch

Keep pressing back through the heel as you bend into the knee.

Similarly, from the downward facing dog-like position, bend into the knee of the leg your stretching to move the stretch into the soleus.

Down dog soleus stretch.

Keep pressing the hips back and the heel downwards as you bend into the knee.

Toe-Flexors Stretch. Many of the muscles that control your toes are in your lower legs. The stretches above will stretch the toe-flexing muscles, but we can target them even more by bending the toes back. A friend of mine coaches swimming, and her swimmers always dread when she tells them it’s “social time” during their stretching session, because although that means they’re allowed to chat, it also means they have to sit in the following position for a couple minutes:

"Social Time"

"Social Time"

To get into this position, sit on the heels and tuck all ten toes under. If this bothers your knees, place a blanket or block in between your buttocks and heels so your knees don’t have to bend so deeply. This position feels like nothing at first, but give it a minute or two and the intensity will set in. You may feel the intensity in the soles of your feet as well as in your calves.

Tibialis Anterior and Toe Extensor Stretches. The often neglected tibialis anterior is located in the front of the lower leg, along with your toe-extending muscles. To stretch them, you have to point the foot and curl the toes. From a downward facing dog position, turn one foot over so that the top of the foot is pressing down into the floor instead of the sole. The legs can be slightly bent if that is more comfortable. Press into the hands to lift the hips up and back, increasing the stretch in the front of the lower leg. You can keep only one foot flipped, or you can turn both feet over to stretch both legs as the same time.

Tibialis anterior stretch.

Turn the feet over so that the tops of the feet are on the floor.

Hold each position for at least 20 to 30 seconds to allow to muscles to relax into the stretches.

Refining Your Hamstring Stretches

Okay, bear with me for a bit of anatomy here: although we often think of the hamstrings as one muscle, it is actually group of three muscles: the biceps femoris, the semimembranosus, and the semitendinosus. All these muscles have slightly different orientations.


The Hamstrings start at the sit bones, and are made up of three muscles.

In general, all the hamstring muscles start at the sit bones and end up attaching into the lower leg bones. So, to stretch them, you have to get the sit bones and lower leg bones as far away from each other as possible. Some ways to do this is are straightening the leg at the knee or bringing the thigh in toward the chest, which draws the lower bones farther away from the sit bones. Another way to do it is to tilt the sit bones away from the lower leg bones–this happens naturally when you hinge the torso forward toward the thigh.

Based on this info about the anatomy of the hamstrings, here are a couple tips for refining your hamstring stretches:

1. For a deeper stretch, actively tilt the sit bones away from the lower leg bones.

In some poses, such as half splits, you have quite a bit of control of how you tilt the pelvis. If you keep the sit bones tucked under, you are taking some stretch out of the hamstring muscles and sending it into the low back muscles.

Sit bones tucked under

Half splits with sit bones tucked under.

To maximize the hamstring stretch, think about contracting your low back muscles to tilt the sit bones toward the back of your mat.

Sit bones tilted back

Half splits with sit bones tilted back.

This tip can be applied to downward facing dog and standing forward bend as well. Even in a seated forward fold, you can “walk” the sit bones back.

2. You don’t have to straighten at the knee to get a good hamstring stretch.

The hamstrings are one of the few muscle groups in the body that cross two joints: the hip and the knee. For those of you who are sensitive behind the knee, you’ll be happy to know that you don’t necessarily have to straighten the knee to get a good hamstring stretch–work from the hip joint instead. For example, if you’re doing a hamstring stretch laying on your back, you can focus more on bringing the thigh in toward the chest than straightening the knee. Find a balance between these two actions: you should feel a stretch in the back of thigh without feeling discomfort behind the knee.

Knee bent

Hamstring stretch with bent knee.

In this pose, it’s easy to let the sit bones and tail bone curl up upwards, which can take away from your stretch. For a deeper stretch, lengthen the bottom leg out along the mat, so your legs make an ‘L’ shape from the side.

3. Rotate the legs to stretch different hamstring muscles.

The hamstring muscles are all stretched best at different leg orientations.  The biceps femoris is stretched best when the thighs are rotated medially (think toes turned in toward the midline of the body). The semimembranosus and semitendinosus are stretched best with thighs rotated laterally (think toes turned out away from the midline).

Toes turned in.

Having toes turned in stretches the biceps femoris.

Next time you do a standing forward fold, experiment with toes turned in and toes turned out and find out where you hold your tension.