By Leah Sugerman, Summersalt yoga teacher
In our sitting-centered world, the hamstrings are some of the first muscles to become excessively tight. Stretching them is super important for the health of both our lower backs and our hips as tight hamstrings tend to work as “levers” that pull tension on the hips and lower back, which can contribute to pain and discomfort.
The following are five excellent yoga poses to stretch, release, and open tight hamstrings:
Paschimottanasana (Seated Forward Fold)
Begin seated on your mat with your legs stretched forward in front of you. You may wish to elevate your hips by sitting up onto a block or a cushion. You may also wish to bend your knees either a little or lot to lessen the “pull” on your hamstrings and lower back as you stretch forward.
Wherever you choose to be, take your hands to the fleshy part of your seat and roll that “meaty” part down and back behind you so that you can feel your sit bones make contact with whatever it is that you are sitting on.
On an inhale, lift and lengthen your spine. Stretch the crown of your head to the sky and ground your sit bones toward the floor. As you exhale, lead with your chest (maintaining as much length as possible in your back) to hinge forward from your hips and fold over your legs. Rest your hands wherever is comfortable.
Allow the weight of your torso to become heavy and relax downward. Actively press your heels into the floor and energetically drag them back toward your seat as you simultaneously draw your sit bones toward your heels. This will activate and engage your hamstrings as you stretch them which can help to both protect them from being overstretched as well as communicate to the hamstrings that this is a length at which they are useful to help maintain this elongation even after you’ve finished stretching.
Uttanasana (Standing Forward Fold)
Begin standing at the top of your mat. You can either draw your feet to touch (with your big toes touching and your heels slightly apart) or walk your feet to be roughly hip-distance apart.
Draw your hands to your hips and place a slight bend into your knees. Elongate your spine as you inhale.
As you exhale, lead with your chest, hinge from your hips, and dive forward over your legs. You can keep your hands on your hips, hold opposite elbows, release your hands to blocks or the floor, or catch a hold behind your ankles.
You can bend your knees a little or a lot or work toward straightening them. Choose whichever option allows for more length in your back.
Actively press your heels into the floor and energetically draw your sit bones toward them to engage and activate your hamstrings in an isometric stretch.
Prasarita Padottanasana (Wide-Legged Standing Forward Fold)
Begin standing facing the long edge of your mat. Open your arms out into a “T” shape and walk your feet out as wide as your arms. Ever so slightly turn your heels out and your toes in (mildly pigeon-toeing your feet) to create internal rotation in your legs.
Draw your hands to your hips and elongate your spine. As you exhale, maintain that length and hinge from your hips to fold forward over your legs.
You can either keep your hands on your hips, hold opposite elbows, or release your hands to blocks or the floor in line with your toes.
Press your heels into the floor and energetically draw your sit bones toward your heels. Let the force of gravity traction and lengthen your spine down.
Upavistha Konasana (Wide-Legged Seated Forward Fold)
Begin seated facing the long-edge of your mat. Slide your legs out wide into a “V” shape. You may want to elevate your hips by sitting up onto blocks or a cushion. You may also wish to bend your knees a little or a lot. Find an option that allows you to lengthen your spine.
Point your toes and your knees in the same direction. Roll the fleshy part of your seat down and back behind you so you can feel your sit bones connect with whatever you are sitting on.
Stretch the crown of your head toward the sky on an inhale. As you exhale, lead with your chest, hinge from your hips, and fold forward over your legs. You can rest your hands wherever it feels comfortable for you.
Energetically draw your heels and your sit bones toward each other.
Janu Sirsasana (Head to Knee Pose)
Begin seated with your legs stretched forward in front of you. You may wish to elevate your hips by sitting up onto blocks or a cushion.
Bend your right knee, open it toward the right side of your mat, and draw your right foot up to your left thigh (in a Tree Pose shape).
Point both of your frontal hip points toward the top of your mat to “square” your hips forward. Inhale and elongate your spine. As you exhale, lead with your chest to fold forward over your left leg. Rest your hands wherever is comfortable.
Actively press your left heel into the mat and energetically draw it back toward your sit bones as you simultaneously draw your sit bones toward your left heel.
Hold for as longer as desired before releasing and switching sides.