Hamstrings and Zoom screens

woman stretching viewed through grass

“Let’s do a butterfly stretch,” I announce and demonstrate, pressing the soles of my feet together while seated on my yoga mat. I continue with some tips on whether participants should “bounce” their legs and how to modify the stretch if it’s too difficult or easy. We hold the pose for a bit, bodies wiggling on the Discord video call screen, and I realize, “Oh, this actually transitions quite nicely to our next stretch.” From butterfly, I straighten my left leg out in front of me while keeping my right bent at the knee: in position for a seated, single-leg hamstring stretch.

Teaching some sort of group fitness class has been on my non-comprehensive bucket list for a while. Back in January, I took my first step toward that goal by teaching “Hamstring Stretches: Practice and a Bit of Theory” to several classmates through Splash for MIT. By theory, I mean raising awareness of aspects of stretching like anatomy — where are the hamstrings, what are they connected to? As I was teaching, I introduced some unplanned counter-stretches, like the quad stretches and the butterfly, to ensure that we engaged other areas of the legs and hips that the hamstrings interact with.

It was a delightful surprise that my improvised detour resulted in the perfect transition. In practice, I had decided to include those other stretches simply because they felt right, rather than for any formal physiological reason. Movement, for me, can be about enjoyment and empowerment. I have fun experimenting with choreographies of planks and push-ups and lunges and side stretches, flowing through poses like water and wind. I feel excitement about progress over time, awe at what our bodies can do when we talk to them.

Society often tells us that fitness is one-size-fits-all, that it’s about tedious, grueling workouts in the name of looking a certain way. Hamstrings are a muscle I somewhat arbitrarily chose, but this focus works because while hamstrings are crucial to our movement, they get a bad rap. For many, stretching conjures painful or boring memories, like touching your toes. And you may have never wondered or learned why we stretch and how we should stretch. As I wrote in my workshop description, there’s an “expansive, wondrous world beyond gym class sit-and-reach, no equipment or flexibility required.”

Once we knock down this limited conception of exercise, hamstring stretches can be a gateway to bodily awareness. For example, they bring alignment to top of mind. Hunching your shoulders, contracting your chest, and tilting one side of your hips forward may get you closer to your toes, but improper forms make the stretch less effective and increase the potential for injury. Doing stretches right is important, and knowing what’s right both requires and can follow from basic knowledge of how muscles work and relate — the theory part. One of my favorite comments to make is, “You don’t actually have to keep your knees completely straight,” freeing us from a common misconception.

Since Splash for MIT, I’ve led a workshop session for one of my online friends and her roommates. I heard, "This feels so good! This is the stretch I didn't know I needed my whole life." An especially fulfilling aspect is how quickly we all feel the impact. We spend hours each day sedentary and using technology that makes us forget we have physical forms, intentionally or not. My friend said, "Not gonna lie, I was feeling pretty bad going into this. Wow, I feel more flexible already — I feel like I can do a 360 kick right now!"