I received such a good question today, I think I'll answer it for everyone!
Katy, I am curious about individual differences in physiology and how that affects alignment. I have, for instance, very tight hamstrings, and have had since childhood,.Even when I was young and flexible could do full back walkovers and front handsprings, I couldn't touch my toes (I'm actually closer to my toes now, at 46, due to a determined program of regular stretching). On the other hand, I have always had oddly flexible hips. Full pigeon is NO problem for me. At 46 I can still almost put my foot behind my head. Obviously, I don't have to work at hip flexibility at all.
So how do you factor in these natural physiological differences? Is alignment meant to be the exact same for everyone?
Yes, everyone's Alignment is meant to be the same. No body is naturally designed to have their spine in a round "C" shape, have leg bones grind at the knee, or press their sacrum into their body because they're too tight to get off of it. Muscle physiology is also about the same in everyone, with the exception of some people having a slightly higher or lower percentage of fast-twitch muscle fibers (those with more FT fibers make great sprinters and lifters!).
Although it may feel like tightness is your "natural" state, the reasons for tight muscles can go back all the way to your time in utero, which is why many people have always felt tight! When your body goes through oxygen deprivation, the brain begins shutting down different parts of its function. Motor function (the nerve and your muscles) goes first and vision and cognitive brain function go last. Oftentimes the birthing process goes on a bit too long and without ample oxygen, the brain lets little things like motor skill go.
The body is great, though. If you had super-tight muscles all over, you wouldn't be able to walk. As a compensation to muscle tightness, the body creates a hyper-mobile joint by relaxing ligaments to allow movement. If you sit on the ground in a cross-legged fashion and your legs just fall to the floor, I would suspect that your hamstrings were locked up! And, for people who have pretty good hamstring mobility, they often have extra tension in the groin and hips. It's all about balance. All over-mobility isn't the goal, nor is all over tension. We should all be trying to optimize flexibility (the range of motion that allows all aspects of the joint to articulate) and stability (strength in all ranges of motion). Many ballerinas were "broken" as children, where their soft tissues were ripped either over time or by a one-time force to free up the hip joints. All that mobility makes for beautiful moves on the stage. Unfortunately, when Prima ages to her 50s, her hips or knees now require replacement, because a lack of hip stability increases friction, which creates osteoarthitis. Famous Olympian Mary Lou Retton had to have one of her hips replaced too. We don't want our joints to flop around with loose ligaments, we want good ranges of motion, where we can feel the muscles reaching their end point and contract our muscles when we need to.
It seems that your naturally tight hamstrings are changing with regular practice. Keep up the good work and pay close attention to getting your tailbone up towards the ceiling (on a forward bend). There are also other alignment markers you can use on the back of the leg that will show you where your hamstrings are in space (this needs an entirely different blog! Is my work never done???) Working on opening areas that have been shut for years is extremely rewarding and calming to the brain (your brain kind of panics when you have a lot of tight muscles. Your brain knows that you need long muscles to keep your body from degenerating fast!) Realllllllly tight muscles that have always been that way are going to require lots of diligence, but, the wonderful thing is when they start to change, your physical and mental well-being improves!
To help everyone out there with issue, I'd like to add some tips:
1. For tight hamstrings, try two minutes of relaxed, forward bending every hour. You can't stretch them too much, especially when you're sitting a lot or standing in the same position all them time.
2. Notice that I highlighted terms like "it's my natural state", "I was born this way", etc. Your motor pathways are somatic - which means you have total control over what is happening to all your muscles. When you have beliefs that reinforce where your body is, then it's going to be difficult to change. This is a new mantra for everyone: Muscle length is Completely Restorable.
3. For all you new moms, mom's and dad's to be, or even grandparents: Gently tickling and massaging a baby's entire body will restore the lost motor functions that may have happened during the birthing process. Gently stimulating nerve receptors on the skin and pressing into baby's muscles to increase blood flow into the smaller blood vessels in the muscle bundle will help restore any lost motor function. Special areas to pay attention to: The feet, the inner thighs, the calves and hamstrings, the waist, and between each rib.
4. Moms-to-be! You need to better-prepare your body for birthing. Your tight hamstrings and calves mean tight pelvis! Start calf-stretching, hamstring lengthening, and squatting NOW to make your birthing process better for you and baby.
If you want some more moves for tight hamstrings make sure to read A User's Guide to the Hamstrings.