Loosen Your Tight Hamstrings with These 5 Stretches

Free the hammy.

By Kate Waitzkin

Over the years, I’ve had handfuls of people say to me, “I can’t do yoga, I can’t even touch my toes!”.  While touching your toes isn’t a pre-requisite for doing yoga, excessive tightness in your hamstrings can eventually lead to postural misalignments and discomfort in your lower back, among other things.

I’ve put together a list of five of my go-to yoga poses to help increase flexibility in your hamstrings and create more freedom in your pelvis and lower back.

Grab a folded blanket, a block, a strap and enjoy!

image by scott grummett

Reclining Hand-to-Big-Toe Pose

Props: Strap (or belt)

1. Come to lie flat on your back with your knees bent and feet flat on the floor hip-distance apart and arms alongside your body. Close your eyes and take a few slow, deep breaths.

2. On an exhale, bring your right knee in towards your chest and place the strap around the center arch of your foot. Hold one side of the strap in each hand (so hands and strap are shoulder-distance apart) and straighten your right leg towards the ceiling at 90 degrees.

3. Slowly begin to straighten your left leg onto the floor. If this creates any discomfort in your lower back, keep your left knee bent. Rather than working to bring your right leg closer to your body, maintain the 90-degree angle with this leg – in other words, keep your right heel in line with your right hip.

4. If your left leg is straight, point your toes straight up to the sky and press the top of the left thigh down. Maintain a soft grip on the strap as you soften the sides of your neck and release your shoulders down towards the floor.

5. Stay for 10 breaths. Release the pose and come back to the starting position before repeating on the second side.

Downward Facing Dog

1. Begin in hands and knees (all fours) — your hands in line with your shoulders and your knees hip-distance apart. Bring your wrist creases parallel to the front edge of your mat and spread your fingers wide pressing evenly through all four corners of your palms.

2. Take a deep inhale and as you exhale gently draw your lower belly up and in towards your spine. Maintain this connection, step your right foot and your left foot back to a high plank pose with your feet hip-distance apart. Keeping your hands and feet where they are, inhale and as you exhale lift your hips up and back into Downward Facing Dog.

3. While here, press the top of your thighs back and your heels down.  If you feel any strain in your lower back, take your feet wider and/or bend your knees while keeping your hips actively lifting.  Stay here for 10 slow, deep breaths in and out through your nose. To come out, lower your knees to the floor and rest in Child’s Pose.

Triangle Pose

Props: one block or a stack of books

1. Stand in the center of your mat and turn to face one long side of your mat. Step your feet 3 ½ – 4 feet apart and bring your hands to your hips.  Rotate your right foot and leg out 90 degrees to your right and turn your left foot and leg in slightly. Your right heel should align with the inner arch of your left foot.

2. Inhale extending your arms out parallel to the floor. Exhale and shift your torso to the right directly over the line of your right leg. Reach forward through your right arm, then rest your right hand on a block and extend your left arm toward the ceiling keeping a clear line from your bottom hand to your top hand. Gently turn your torso open towards your top hand. Rest your gaze on the horizon or look towards your top hand if your neck allows.

3. Root your feel well into the earth and draw energy up into both legs.

4. Stay here for  5 – 10 breaths. To come out, press evenly through both feet. Rise to stand on an inhale. Exhale bringing your hands to your hips.  Mindfully return to center and repeat on your second side.

Standing Wide-Legged Forward Fold

Props: optional two blocks

1. Once again, come to stand in the center of your mat facing one long side of your mat. Step your feet 3 ½ – 4 feet apart and bring your hands to your hips. Make sure the outer edges of your feet are parallel with the short edges of your mat and micro-bend your knees. Roll your shoulder heads open and back while drawing your elbows towards one another.

2. Now, actively press down through your feet and straighten the legs by engaging your quadriceps, the fronts of your thighs.  Maintain this work in your legs and, as you inhale, lift through the crown of your head, lengthening your spine, specifically the front of your torso.  Keep this length as you exhale, drawn your naval back towards your spine and hinge forward from the hips placing your hands on the floor (or blocks) directly under your shoulders.

3. Stay here or, for another variation, clasp your peace fingers around your big toes and bend your elbows out to the sides.  Gently lift the tops of your shoulders away from your ears, keeping the back of your neck long.  Evenly distribute the weight between the front and back of your feet.

4. Stay here for 5 – 10 breaths. To come out of the pose, micro-bend your knees, bring your hands to your hips, lead with your chest as you rise to stand on an inhale. Step your feet together at the center of your mat.

Seated Wide-Legged Forward Fold

Props: optional folded blanket

1. Begin in a cross-legged seat in the center of your mat. Place your hands behind you for support as you lean back slightly and stretch your legs out to a wide “V shape”. Again, using your hands for support,  lift your seat and shift your buttocks forward until you come to rest on what may feel like the top of your sitting bones.  If you are not comfortably sitting on the floor, place a folded blanket (or three!) under your seat.

2. Flex your feet so your toes draw back towards your shins and your heels press forward. Root your thigh bones down towards the earth and lift up through your spine. Keep your hands behind you and remain here for 5 – 10 breaths until you are ready to come out. If you’d like to fold deeper into the pose, walk your hands forward between your legs. You can stay propped up on your hands or keep the front of your spine long and open as you come down onto your forearms.

3. Getting your torso closer to the earth is not the goal of this pose – keeping a steady, easeful breath and an open chest is more important than how low you come.

4. Stay here for 5 – 10 breaths. To come out of the pose, walk your hands behind you once again as you come to sit upright on an inhale. Gently bend your knees and come back to a cross legged seat. Close your eyes and take a few breaths noticing how you feel now.