20 Ways to Stretch Your Hamstrings With Yoga
Specific yoga poses targeting the hamstrings can alleviate tightness and improve flexibility. The hamstrings are the three muscles that run along the back side of your thigh, connecting your pelvis to your knee. So many people have tight hamstrings that it's not an exaggeration to call it an epidemic.
There are a lot of ways to end up with hamstring tightness. Sometimes it just comes down to anatomy. Regular stretching, even beginning in childhood with activities like dance and gymnastics, helps, but most people don't do enough to maintain their flexibility. By the time adulthood rolls around, you're doing a lot more sitting (bad for hamstrings) and even if you exercise regularly, you're more likely to spend your time running (bad for hamstrings) than stretching (good for hamstrings). Pretty soon, you find yourself with back pain or sciatica, both of which are often related to tight hamstrings.
Improving your hamstring flexibility is usually a gradual process, but it's possible with regular practice. Start slow and don't force anything since a hamstring strain is the last thing you want. Use props when appropriate, be consistent and patient, and you will see results.
The poses below are arranged in order from beginning to more advanced. The beginners' poses are definitely the place to start. The advanced poses assume that you already have a good deal of mobility in this area. Read through for full instructions for each pose.
Reclined Big Toe Pose – Supta Padangusthasana
We'll start lying on your back. Hamstring stretches in this position tend to be the most gentle and accessible.
A strap is going to be a really useful prop for anyone with tight hamstrings. Using the strap to close the distance between your hand and your foot in this pose, for instance, allows you to straighten your legs and get the full benefits of the stretch. If you don't have an official yoga strap, don't worry. Any belt, scarf, or towel will work just as well here.
Standing Forward Bend – Uttanasana
Standing forward bends are a good way to deepen your hamstring stretch because gravity lends you a hand. However, some people with back pain find spinal flexion uncomfortable, so lying on the back might be a better option for them.
Some teachers will tell you it's alright to bend your knees in this pose if your low back hurts. That's true, but it's also going to make the pose less of a hamstring stretch. If you are bending your knees because of back pain, it's better to find another pose. If you are bending your knees to try to get your hands on the mat, that's misguided. Touching your toes is not the goal of this pose.
Standing Wide Legged Forward Bend – Prasarita Padottanasana
Another option for a standing forward fold is to take your legs out wide. A common mistake in this pose is to take the legs too far apart in an effort to get your head closer to the floor. Keeping the legs at about a 90-degree angle allows for a good hamstring stretch and is a safer position for the hip joints. It's generally easier to get your hands to the floor in this position, but you can still use blocks if necessary.
For full hamstring effects, concentrate on keeping your weight in the balls of your feet just as much as in the heels. Really feel the rotation of your pelvis forward as the driver of the forward fold as you come down with a flat back.
Downward Facing Dog – Adho Mukha Svanasana
Downward dog is an awesome pose for many parts of your body, including your hamstrings. It's a misconception that getting your heels to the mat is the goal of this pose. In an effort to achieve that position, some people end up walking their feet closer to their hands. Don't do it!
Try instead to release the heels down but have the feet in a position where the heels hover off the floor. This is the most effective way to stretch your hamstrings and calves.
Head to Knee Pose – Janu Sirsasana
Often when working with one leg extended at a time, as in janu sirsasana, it's easier to get a good hamstring stretch than it is with both legs straight.
Do note that you'll need to turn your torso to orient it over your extended leg as you come forward. If forward bends hurt your back, loop a strap around your flexed foot. Hold one end of the strap in each hand, pull firmly, and only come as far forward as you can keeping your spine straight and pain-free. This may not be very deep, but that's alright.
Seated Forward Bend – Paschimottanasana
This is a seated version of uttanasana (see above). It"s important to keep the feet strongly flexed throughout and to engage your thighs as much a possible.
Use a strap around your feet for traction instead of slumping forward in order to hold your feet. Keep the spine long and straight. It doesn't matter how far down your torso comes. Imagining the pelvis as a bowl slowly tipping forward helps encourage the correct rotation of the torso over the legs.
Wide Legged Forward Fold – Upavistha Konasana
For people with tight hamstrings, just sitting in upavistha konasana is a big challenge, never mind coming into a forward bend. It's fine to stay fully upright if that's the case. One of the best ways to find more space in this pose is to bring some lift with one or more folded blankets under your seat. This works well in any of the seated poses.
Pyramid Pose – Parsvottonasana
In standing forward bends like this one, make sure you are not hyperextending in your knee. Even though your leg might not look as straight, a microbend, which is a slight softening, at the knee is a safer position for your joint health.
Blocks will absolutely be your best friends here. Use them under your hands at whichever height is most appropriate. It's also important to note that the feet are only about three feet apart here and they can be separated toward the sides of the mat as much as you need.
Triangle Pose – Trikonasana
As in pyramid pose (above), make sure not to lock your knees in triangle. You can rest your hand on your ankle, shin, the floor, or a block. Pick the one that allows you to really open your chest to the ceiling.
Do note that in comparison to pyramid, the legs are further apart toward the front and back of the mat but closer in toward the midline (i.e., stepped in toward the center from the sides). This works here because the hips are stacked on top of one another rather than squared to the floor.
Half Moon Pose – Ardha Chandrasana
Take the time to establish good alignment in your legs before lifting your arm. Having your hips stacked ensures that you can open your chest to its fullest potential. A block under your hand will also make a big difference since the added height allows you to turn your heart toward the ceiling instead of to the floor.
This pose has much the same form as half moon (above), except both hips are pointing toward the floor. It doesn't matter how high your leg can go. Focus on keeping your hip points lined up like headlights aimed at the ground. Don't lock your knee on your standing leg, but do keep it straight enough that you can get the benefits of the hamstring stretch.
Side Lunge – Skandasana
Forward bending is definitely not the only way to stretch your hamstrings. Remember that there are three of them and it takes different kinds of movements to get to all of them.
Skandasana is a great one for the inner upper thigh. Again, it's not about how low you can go. Don't worry for a minute of you're not in a full squat. As long as you feel the stretch, you're benefiting.
Revolved Triangle – Parivrtta Trikonasana
Although it's called revolved triangle, the root of this pose is actually closer to pyramid pose (see above). The set up of the legs is the same, with a shorter (north to south) but wider (east to west) stance than in triangle. Also, the position of the hips is like pyramid, in that you are trying to keep the sacrum flat.
This pose is often very challenging, even for experienced yoga students. A block under your hand and/or taking the hand to the inside of your front foot are both good options to keep your hips from going all cockeyed.
Revolved Ardha Chandrasana – Parivrtta Ardha Chandrasana
Revolved ardha chandrasana is best approached from a standing split (see above). Make sure that your hips are both pointing down. A block under your lower hand is almost a must. Open your chest toward the ceiling as much as possible while maintaining the height of your lifted leg, which ideally stays parallel to the floor.
Sleeping Vishnu – Anantasana
This pose always looks easier than it is. If you keep the side of your body very straight, balancing becomes a real challenge. Use a strap around your foot if you can't reach your toe with the leg straight. Keep both feet flexed and your thighs engaged throughout.
Standing Big Toe Pose – Utthita Hasta Padangusthasana
Remember supta padangusthasana from way up at the top of this page? If you take that pose and rotate it 90 degrees, you'll get to this standing version of the same position. Of course, it's a lot more challenging to do it while standing on one leg, but the strap around your foot is once again your friend.
One of the biggest alignment challenged is to do this pose without leaning too far back, which is the natural inclination to counter the weight of your leg in front. Stand with your back at a wall to see what this feels like.
Heron Pose – Krounchasana
You may be able to get into this pose more easily if you are rocked back on the sit bones, but this will cause your spine to slump. For the correct alignment, be on the top of the sit bones with the spine straight. Use a strap around your foot if necessary.
Bird of Paradise – Svarga Dvidasana
Straightening your leg in bird of paradise is the icing on the cake of what is already a very challenging series of maneuvers that gets you into the standing position in the first place. Open hamstrings are necessary for that final touch, which gives an amazing stretch along the back of the thigh.
Full Side Plank – Vasistasana
Adding anatasana (above) to your side plank gives you full vasisthasana. As with all these advanced postures, proceed with caution. It takes time to get all the necessary elements to come together for a pose like this. It's not just about hamstring at this point, but also about core strength, balance, and arm strength.
Monkey Pose – Hanumanasana
The ultimate pose for hamstrings? The splits, of course. Again, use props liberally as you work on these poses. Blocks under your hands are a good place to start. As you get closer to the floor, a block under your front thigh can be stabilizing. Be careful coming out of the pose and have patience!
Video: Yoga Stretches for Quads and Hamstrings (20-min) - Quad Stretch Yoga
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