Are hamstrings that feel tight the bane of your yoga practice? Mine are the reason I first attended a group yoga class years ago. I now practice yoga for entirely different reasons, but occasionally still get frustrated by the limitations I feel in certain poses (even though my strings have come a “long” way, baby!). One thing I’ve learned along my path, however, is that tight-feeling hamstrings aren’t just a minor physical inconvenience temporarily dashing my hopes and dreams of an easy, breezy hanumanasana (full split).
The hamstrings comprise a group of three separate muscles—the biceps femoris, the semitendinosus, and the semimembranosus—that run from the sit bones to the back of your knees. Together, this group works to bend the knee and extend the hip. If you feel you have tight hamstrings, it's important to understand why they feel that way, and then to pick a practice most beneficial for them. That feeling of tightness in the back of the legs can be the result of anything from muscle fibers in a chronically contracted state to knotted fascia. The best way of finding that "open" feeling you're looking for may be far different from what you intuitively think might be of help (for example, full on straight-legged forward folds. Just because you can really “feel” the backs of your thighs in them, it doesn’t mean that going right into a paschimottanasana is an ideal solution for tight hammies!)
Tight hamstrings can result from hours of sitting (long commutes paired with desk jobs), as well as from extreme athleticism (the hamstrings are key players in powerful movements such as sprinting and jumping). And since the hamstrings are such a large muscle group, hamstring issues can lead to the weakening or overuse of surrounding muscles. Such a ripple effect of muscular imbalance in the body can set the stage for a host of chronic knee, hip, and lower back issues. It’s crucial to know how to modify asanas appropriately and mindfully, in order that your yoga practice helps rather than unintentionally harms your body. Paying attention to how your feet, knees, and lower back align in hamstrings-focused postures can lead to increased "openness" in the back of the body.
If you want to learn more about the cause of tight hamstrings and hamstring-specific asana alignment, the articles 10 Hamstring Myths Debunked and Get Unstuck: Alignment Help for the Hamstrings by Amber Burke and Jonina Turzi are excellent resources.
This sequence that follows is one of my favorites for those times when my hamstrings need a little extra attention. Practicing the long-hold poses below is ideal after a somewhat warming practice—such as a few minutes of seated ujjayi pranayama, a few rounds of cat/cow cycles, and several rounds of surya namaskars (sun salutations A, B, or a combination). Do read through the sequence before starting your warming practice, as some of the modifications included may help you through your namaskars! Work toward holding each pose for three to five minutes (or as long as you’re able to maintain your own best, healthiest alignment).
Adho Mukha Svanasana (Downward Facing Dog)
A commonly cued asana in most classes, this pose is often one of the first “hello, hamstrings!” moments in a practice.
Come to all fours (tabletop) and walk each of your hands forward one palm distance. Press firmly through your index knuckle mounds and the bases of your thumbs; firm from the crease between your index finger and thumb all the way up the forearms, and externally rotate both upper arms. Tuck your toes under, and lift your sit bones up to come into a bent-knee downdog. Keep a bend in your knees, and keep your hips lifting up—enough that your spine stays long (not rounded). Watch that the knees aren’t collapsing in toward each other. Keep the balls of your big toes grounded, and aim your knees more toward the pinky-toe sides of your feet.
Maintain that, and begin to slowly straighten your legs, pressing the tops of your thighs back as you root down through your heels (though they may not touch the ground). Only straighten to a point where you can maintain a long spine. This will keep the stretch in the back of the legs, rather than causing you to dump into the shoulders or tuck the pelvis. Aim to extend in both directions—down through your spine, out through your arms and fingertips and up through your hips and down the backs of your legs.
Uttanasana (Intense Forward Fold) Variation
Ah, reaching for your toes—the quintessential hamstring test. (Though you don’t actually have to touch your toes in uttanasana! In fact often it’s preferable not to.)
Prepare for your forward fold by placing in front of your feet a pair of blocks at their tallest height. Stand in tadasana (mountain pose). With your feet hip-width apart, distribute your weight evenly between the front and back of your feet. Make sure your feet are parallel to each other and active. Press into the balls of your big toes, ground through your outer heels, and firm the muscles of each leg all the way to your upper thighs. As you begin hinging at the hips, bend your knees as much as necessary in order to maintain a long spine, and bring your hands onto the tops of the blocks, coming into a half forward bend or a “flat back.” Keep your knees pointing straight ahead (not dropping in) and continue to root down through the balls of your big toes and your outer heels. Reach back through your hips and forward through your crown. Then, keeping your spine long, begin pressing the tops of your thighs back to let some of the bend come out of your knees as you start to round forward (experimenting with the height of the blocks in order to find what feels like a comfortable edge for you). Prioritize a long spine over straight legs, and allow your torso and thighs to connect. (If your torso is NOT touching your thighs, bend your knees until it is and aim to lengthen your spine as much as possible). Release your head and neck as you allow your body to fold.
You may also find that you get an excellent stretch in ardha uttanasana (half forward fold), and prefer to remain there. This is a particularly excellent option to stick with if you tend to round mostly in your upper back when you fold forward, and it will allow you to set your yourself up for your most optimal hamstring stretch.
Anjaneyasana (Low Lunge) and Ardha Hanumanasana (Half Split)
Tight hamstrings are often aggravated by tight hip flexors, and incorporating anjaneyasana into your sequence can target this area.
Come into anjaneyasana from uttanasana or ardha uttanasana by stepping your left foot back into a long lunge. Keep your front (right) knee stacked over your ankle for now. Lower your left knee to the mat and untuck your toes to press the top of your foot into your mat. Lightly engage your left calf, left quad, and left glute to support balance and stability here. If it feels okay for your knee, you can bend your right knee more so that the front line of your back leg begins to lengthen. The front knee will likely go beyond the ankle, which is fine as long as the back knee remains on the floor and you’re not experiencing any discomfort. Remain strong through the bent right leg by grounding through the ball of the right big toe and outer heel and lightly firming the right thigh and glute. Sweep your arms overhead. Stretch your legs apart from each other, and lengthen your torso from the pelvis upward. If accessible, taking a slight backbend from behind your shoulder blades may deepen the sensation of stretching in your left hip flexors.
Next, you'll move toward ardha hanumanasana. Place your palms or fingertips on the floor or on blocks around your right foot. Shift your hips back, bringing them directly above your left knee and allow your front leg to straighten (you may need to slide the front foot forward and/or the back knee back to do this). Draw your back hip forward and your front hip back to make your hips more square to the front of your mat, and keep your spine as long as possible. Don’t round forward just yet. You may find that keeping your fingertips on the floor forces you to round some part of your back, in which case you can keep your hands on blocks instead of the floor. If you detect the tendency to hyperextend your front knee, keep a micro-bend in the knee to prevent this from happening. This may feel like enough of a stretch, but if you’d like more sensation and can maintain length in your spine, you can fold forward further, walking your fingertips or blocks forward as you do. Draw your right outer hip back (it will tend to pull forward), keeping your hips level.
Return to a lunge, and then step your back foot forward and your front foot back to repeat on the other side.
Supported Supta Padangusthasana (Reclining Big Toe Pose) followed by Viparita Karani (Legs Up the Wall)
This restorative modification of supta padangusthasana is followed by viparita karani. This pair of poses requires the assistance of a doorframe (or pillar) and a wall.
Generally, supta padangusthasana is practiced by either holding the big toe or enlisting the help of a strap. This variation finds support in a doorframe (or a large pillar if you happen to have one near by!). Seated near the doorframe, begin by hugging your knees into your chest as you settle your right sit bone against the doorframe. Extend the other leg into the doorway (it may help at first to keep the knee bent and foot flat on the floor, and then extend the leg as straight as is comfortable). Draw your right leg up the doorframe and lie back. Keep your legs neutral (not turning in or out), and both feet active. Allow your arms to either rest at your sides like in savasana or in a T-shape depending on what feels most comfortable. Hold for a few minutes on this side, then repeat on the other side.
Then, bring both legs up the wall together. Adjust as needed in order to position your sit bones as close to the wall as is comfortable (the farther your hips are from the wall, the gentler it is on your hamstrings), then allow the backs of your thighs to settle toward the wall (here too, you may find that it feels best to keep your knees a little bit bent). Rest your arms by your sides or out in a T-shape. Hold for five minutes with a focused breath, watching as the support of the wall allows the backs of your thighs to release. Keeping both feet active (as if trying to stand on the ceiling) will deepen the sensation along the hamstrings. When finished with the pose, draw your knees to your chest, roll to one side, and come to seated.
Supta Baddha Konasana (Reclined Bound Angle Pose)
Tight inner groin muscles and adductors often play a role in tight hamstrings, so targeting this area can ultimately help with hamstring release.
Lie on your back, with your knees bent and feet flat on the floor.
Allow your knees to drop open toward the floor as you bring the soles of your feet together. The focus should be on allowing your inner groins to settle down and back, rather than pushing the knees further toward the floor. It may help to place a block underneath each knee to facilitate this.
Allow your arms to rest at your sides.
Reclined Spinal Twist Variation
This variation of a cooling twist adds a leg extension that targets the hamstrings.
In supta baddha konasana, place one hand on the outside of each knee to gently assist in drawing them back together. Move your blocks out of the way. Feel free to make any movements here to create comfort, such as windshield-wiping the legs, before settling them back in a bent-knee position with feet on the ground.
Bring your arms to a T-shape. Drop your knees over to the left side as you bring your gaze to the right. Once settled in this twist, begin straightening the top (right) leg; while keeping the foot active, inch your toes toward your left armpit. When you reach a comfortable edge, hold there for three to five minutes.
Return to lie flat on your back, and then repeat on the other side.
End with five to ten minutes in savasana.
May your lower body find length, strength, and comfort with this hamstrings-focused practice!