Tight hamstrings are one of the most common misalignments found in the human body. Everyone from athletes to those who lead more sedentary lives seem to encounter this one common, overriding setback. Tight hamstrings can cause a plethora of further misalignments in the body including lower back pain. Yoga is a great tool to remedy this imbalance of the body. There are so many stretches included in the practice that release and open tight and contracted hamstrings. The hamstrings are a group of muscles that run down the back of the leg connecting the hip joint to the knee joint. This super important group of muscles should be relaxed and elongated in its natural state. Here are fifteen yoga poses to release your tight or tired hamstrings:
15 Uttanasana (Standing Forward Fold)
The most straightforward and basic of all the yoga poses to release tight hamstrings, this simple forward fold can be practiced by anyone, regardless of flexibility level. Start standing with your feet either touching or hip-distance apart. Spread your weight evenly throughout your feet and place your hands on your hips. Creating a “hinging” motion, fold forward from your waistline trying to maintain as flat of a back as possible. Relax the weight of your torso toward the floor. Your knees can either be bent or straight, whichever feels more comfortable to you. You can place your hands on the floor, your shins, thighs, or blocks. Soften your weight forward and down releasing to the forces of gravity. Relax the weight of your head and soften your breath. Surrender into this opening.
14 Padangustasana (Hand-to-Big-Toe Pose)
A slightly more advanced variation of that same posture, this hand-to-big-toe forward fold creates a deeper elongation through your hamstrings. Start in an uttanasana (standing forward bend as described above) and bend your knees deeply. Take your yogi toe lock (your first two fingers and thumb) on each hand and wrap your fingers into a lock around your big toes on each foot. Again, relax the weight of your torso toward the floor, allowing your upper body to become heavy surrendering to the forces of gravity. You can stay as you are, or if you would like, you can slowly begin to straighten and extend through your legs to deepen the stretch. Stop at whichever point feels most comfortable to you and relax your breath. Soften your hamstrings as you elongate and lengthen them.
13 Pada Hastasana (Gorilla Pose)
The most advanced of these forward folds, gorilla pose creates an even deeper stretch through the back of your legs. Start in padangustasana (hand-to-big-toe pose as described above) and release your grasp on your toes. Again bend deeply into your knees to begin. Turn your palms to face toward the ceiling and step onto your hands. Walk your toes toward your wrist crease as far as possible. Relax your shoulders and your back, allowing the weight of your spine to hang forward toward the floor. Again, if it feels comfortable to you, you can slowly begin to straighten and extend through your legs. Stop at whichever point feels most appropriate for you to stretch and surrender and breathe into the opening that you're creating.
12 Prasaritha Paddottanasana (Wide-Legged Forward Fold)
Another standing forward fold, this pose utilizes a wide-legged variation to optimally target a different side of your hamstrings. Stand on your mat facing the long edge. Walk your feet out super wide until you take up at least 80% of the mat. Check that your feet are pointed straight toward the long edge of your mat and are evenly spaced away from the mat’s edge. Press down equally into both feet, distributing your weight evenly. Draw your hands to your hips and, again, hinge from your hips (leading with your chest) to dive forward over your legs. Try to press the floor away with your feet. Lift up on your kneecaps to strongly activate your quadricep muscles (running up your thighs). The more actively you engage your quadriceps, the deeper you can stretch your hamstrings. Soften the weight of your torso forward and surrender into your stretch.
11 Upavistha Konasana (Wide-Legged Seated Forward Fold)
Very similar to the previous forward fold, this forward fold is also a wide-legged variation, however, this posture is done from a seated position. Begin sitting facing the long side of your mat. Spread your legs out into a V-shape or as wide as you possibly can. Be cautious that your knees and toes always stay pointed straight toward the ceiling without rolling in or out. Press down firmly against your sit-bones and lengthen your spine toward the ceiling. Hinge from your hips and lead forward with your chest as you fold forward over your legs toward the floor. If this feels a bit too intense, you can either bend your knees slightly or elevate your hips by sitting up onto a block or a bolster.
10 Ardha Hanumanasana (Half Splits)
This half-split variation creates a deep opening through the hamstrings for whatever flexibility level you may be. Start in a low runner’s lunge position with your back knee resting down against the floor. Shift the weight of your hips toward the back of your mat until they align directly over your back knee. You can either keep your front knee bent or begin to slide your heel forward toward the top of your mat working to extend and straighten the front leg as much as feels comfortable. Try to square your hips forward toward the top of your mat. Flex hard into the front ankle and point your toes up toward the ceiling. You can either stay as you are if you are already feeling enough of a stretch, or leading with your heart, slowly begin to hinge your torso forward over your front leg. You can rest your hands wherever is comfortable. Work to keep length through your spine as you breathe into this stretch. Be sure to switch to the opposite leg when you're ready.
9 Hanumanasana (Full Splits)
This variation of the above posture moves into the full realization of splits. It is a very deep hamstring and hip opener and should be entered with extreme care and caution. Start in ardha hanumanasana (half splits as described above). Slowly begin to slide your forward leg even further toward the top of your mat as you simultaneously relax your hips toward the floor. Stretch and extend your back leg behind you toward the back of your mat so you literally split your legs forward and back. Try to soften your weight toward the mat but keep a strong and straight spine lifting toward the ceiling. If this feels too intense, you can always stay in the previous posture or elevate and support your hips by sitting onto a block or stack of blocks. You can also place blocks underneath your hamstrings to relieve some of the deep stretch from the back of your legs.
8 Urdhva Prasarita Eka Padasana (Standing Splits)
Another variation of splits, this posture is done while standing and balancing on one leg. Begin in an uttanasana (standing forward bend as described above). Shift your weight over into one leg and find your balance. Press the floor away with that one chosen leg and lift the opposite leg high up off the floor trying to expand it straight up toward the ceiling (as much as possible). You may notice that when you begin practicing, your body looks more like a standing T-shape than a standing split, which is totally fine. Wherever you are in your practice and your body, breathe into the opening you're creating. Relax the weight of your torso hanging heavily toward the floor. Try to keep your hips as squared as possible and surrender into this deep stretch. Be sure to work both legs.
7 Parsvottanasana (Pyramid Pose)
A great release for the hamstrings, this posture uses a closed hip and short stance position to really target these tight muscles. Begin standing with your feet touching. Take a step back with one foot to create about a one to two-foot distance between your legs. Keep your hips squared forward toward the top of your mat. You can do this by energetically drawing your knees toward each other. Turn the toes of your back foot out about 45 degrees to create a slight angle of your toes pointing toward the top corner of your mat. Create a straight line between your front foot and the heel of your back foot. Take your hands to your hips and lead with your chest (keeping a flat back position) to dive forward over your front leg. Try your best to keep both legs as straight and strong as possible as you relax the weight of your torso forward and down. Soften your breath and breath into this opening. Be sure to work both sides evenly.
6 Adho Mukha Svanasana (Downward Facing Dog)
A very well known pose and an excellent stretch for the full body, down dog also works wonders for your hamstrings. Start in a plank position with your shoulders stacked over your wrists. Create a straight line with your body from head to toes. Hug your belly button in toward your spine and lift your hips up high toward the ceiling until you create the shape of an upside down V with your body. You can bend into your knees if it feels more comfortable for you. Spread your fingers wide and press down firmly into your palms. Soften your shoulders away from your ears and lengthen your tailbone up toward the ceiling. Try to relax your heels down toward the floor as much as possible (it's totally fine if they don't touch, though!). Lengthen your body in opposite directions and breathe into the beautiful stretch through the back of your legs.
5 Utthita Hasta Padangustasana (Extended Hand-to-Big-Toe Pose)
Another great stretch for the hamstrings, this pose is also a balancing act. Begin standing at the top of your mat. Focus your eyes on one still point and lock your gaze there. Shift your weight into one leg and lift the opposite leg up off the floor. Hug your knee into your chest. Either take your yogi toe lock (first two fingers and thumb wrapping around your big toe) or loop a strap around the ball of your foot. Keeping your spine as tall as possible and your standing leg as straight as possible, begin to kick and extend your lifted leg forward in space reaching toward the top of your mat. You can either keep the knee bent or work toward extending fully to a straight leg. Think about the action of extending out through the ball of your foot while simultaneously drawing the head of your thigh bone back toward your hip socket. Try to expand your leg in opposite directions to create the deepest opening. When you're ready, switch to the other leg.
4 Supta Padangustasana (Reclining Hand-to-Big-Toe Pose)
This very similar posture to the previous one is done reclining on your back. Start lying down flat on the floor. Draw one knee in toward your chest. Either take your yogi toe lock (first two fingers and thumb wrapping around your big toe) or loop a strap around the ball of your foot. Slowly begin to expand your leg up toward the ceiling. Again, you can keep the knee bent or straighten your leg completely. This time, try to totally relax into your leg allowing its weight to soften toward the floor. Allow gravity to do the work for you to draw your thigh bone back into its place in the hip socket. With each deep breath, slowly try to draw that leg in closer toward your chest, deepening the release with each new breath. When you're ready, switch to the opposite side.
3 Paschimottanasana (Seated Forward Fold)
Another very basic posture, this pose can be utilized by varying degrees of hamstring flexibility. Begin seated on the floor with your legs reaching forward in front of you. If you know you have tighter hamstrings or if you feel as if you're going to fall backward, sit up onto a block or stack of books to elevate you hips. Draw your legs to touch and point your toes straight up toward the sky. Leading with your chest, begin to hinge from your hips and fold forward over your legs as far as feels comfortable. Relax your hands wherever you'd like. If you would prefer, you can also loop a strap around the balls of your feet and pull back against the strap to create resistance to fold forward deeper. Only move as far forward as your breath will allow you to. Soften and relax into your release.
2 Janu Sirsasana (Head-to-Knee Pose)
Another simple seated forward fold, this posture also creates an opening through the hips. Begin seated on the floor with your legs extended in front of you. Bend into your right knee and draw the sole of your foot into your left thigh so that your right knee points straight to the side of your mat. Lengthen your spine toward the ceiling and reach your arms up. As you exhale, lead with your chest to dive forward over your legs. Relax your hands wherever is comfortable. Again, if it feels better for you, you can elevate your hips by sitting onto a block or stack of books to bring the floor closer to you. Relax into your breath as you breathe deeply through your stretch and then switch to stretch your right leg.
1 Marychiasana A (Pose Dedicated to the Sage Marichy)
The final of these seated forward folds, this posture also offers a gentle opening of the hamstrings for practitioners of varying levels of flexibility. Begin seated with your legs extended forward. Bend into your right knee and place your right foot flat on the floor about one fist distance from your left knee. Try to walk your heel as close toward your seat as possible. Lengthen your spine and reach both hands up toward the ceiling as you inhale. As you exhale, lead with your chest to hinge forward over your left leg. You can take a hold of your foot or loop a strap around the ball of your foot or simply relax your hands wherever may feel comfortable. Try to soften the weight of your torso forward over your leg as you surrender into this gentle stretch to release your tight hamstrings. After holding, switch to the other side.