One of the strongest muscle groups in the body, the hamstrings are three muscles that originate from the bottom part of the pelvis and extend down the back of the thigh to attach just below the knee. When the hamstrings are too tight, they can cause chronic problems with pelvic and spinal alignment, leading to weakness and pain in the back. In asana practice, tight hamstrings inhibit forward bending, distort the alignment of standing poses, and may make many interesting postures inaccessible.
The following postures target the hamstrings. Work to experience these postures through the entire length of the leg. Strive to keep both the back and the front sides of the working leg softly active. Activating the entire leg will help keep the knee joint neutral and bring balance to the stretch. Avoid hyperextending the knee (pressing the knee joint to the rear), and avoid buckling the knee. Gently draw the muscles of the front of the leg toward the torso to support the bones and knee joint on the front side of the leg. Reach out through the heel to lengthen the back side of the leg. If your hamstrings are extremely tight, you may try the stretches with the knee bent.
In either case, keep the breath soft and full and your awareness focused on the leg. Be patient! Take a breath or two when you first encounter resistance. Deepen the stretch when that first edge of resistance has retreated. Be gentle! Breathe and again deepen when the resistance dissolves. Enjoy the work, and with persistent and patient practice, you’ll make friends with your hamstrings.
Strap Stretch on the Back
This is an excellent stretch for those with a limited range of movement as well as for more flexible students, because the stretch is concentrated in the back of the leg rather than the lower back, which is supported by the floor.
Lie on your back. Bend the right knee toward the chest and wrap a strap (a belt or an old necktie work well) around the ball of the foot.
Slowly straighten the knee. Activate the quadriceps, pulling the kneecap up, and lengthening through the heel. As you straighten the leg, keep the back of the shoulders on the floor and do not round the lower back. Hold and breathe, relaxing and lengthening through the back of the right leg. To deepen the stretch, draw the foot further overhead, keeping the leg straight. Anchor the pelvis and lengthen the lower leg, maintaining firm contact with the floor. Another option is to bend the lower leg, pressing the sole of the foot into the floor. In any case, if you experience discomfort behind the knee, or if the knee hyperextends, bend it slightly and shift the stretch to the back of the thigh. Center yourself in the pose, relaxing resistance and deepening the stretch. Then release and repeat on the opposite side.
Hamstring Stretch on a Chair
This is an easy, effective stretch that you can do almost anywhere, anytime.
Place the left heel on a chair and straighten the left leg, resting the hands on the thigh. Keep the spine long and the right foot firm and pointed straight ahead on the floor. Lift the kneecaps, activating the quadriceps in both legs. There should be no strain behind the knees. Now bend forward from the hips, taking care not to round the lower back. Walk the hands down the leg (keep the leg straight) until you have stretched to your comfortable capacity. Hold and breathe, relaxing resistance. Throughout the stretch keep the upper back erect and the shoulders moving down away from the ears. Increase the holding time gradually without straining the knee. Release slowly and repeat the stretch on the other side.
Seated Forward Stretch (Churning)
The seated forward stretch develops flexibility in the hips, the mid- and lower back, and the back of the thighs. It also deepens the breath; and is an excellent preparation for seated forward bends.
Sit on the floor with the legs well apart, knees straight. Extend the heels and point the toes straight up.
Turn the torso to face the right leg and place the right hand on the floor behind and near the pelvis. Lift the lower back and bend from the hip joint toward the right leg, simultaneously sliding the left palm along the floor inside the right leg. Keep the lower back long. Extend over the leg; then without pausing, lift slowly out of the stretch with a strong lower back. Change sides, bringing the left hand to the floor behind the pelvis and reaching the right arm and torso out to the left side. Repeat at least five times, alternating smoothly from side to side.
Head-to-Knee Pose—Cross-Legged Variation
In this variation of janu shirshasana (head-to-knee pose) the added weight of the leg resting on the thigh intensifies the stretch by pressing the back of the thigh into the floor.
Sit with the legs straight out in front (use a cushion if necessary to prevent the lower back from rounding). Bend the right knee and place the right ankle on the left thigh just above the knee (the anklebone crosses the thigh). Open the right hip and lower the knee parallel to the floor. Ground the sitting bones and lift the lower back, stretching through the back of the left leg. Exhaling, bend forward from the hips, further elongating the spine as you extend out and over the left leg. Do not strain either knee. The hands can remain on the folded right leg, or slide out toward the left foot. Hold the pose and breathe smoothly and evenly, centering in the stretch. As you relax, deepen the stretch by bending further forward. When you are ready, release slowly and come back to an upright posture. Then repeat on the other side.