There’s nowhere you’ll be more aware of your tight hamstrings than in a yoga class.
They make most poses a challenge, from deceptively simple forward folds to more difficult Downward-Facing Dog! But these poses also unbind tight hamstrings over time. Yoga is both the aggravator and the remedy.
If you do have tight hamstrings—either from lack of stretching or from short muscles—most poses should (and can) be modified. A good rule of thumb is to bend your knees whenever possible. As you grow more flexible, you’ll ultimately be able to straighten your legs in postures such as standing and seated forward bends.
However, this happens very gradually—be gentle and patient with yourself! Never push or pull, and be especially carefully if you’re in a heated room where you’re more likely to overstretch. It takes persistence, but give the following poses more emphasis in your practice and you’ll begin to feel some serious tight hamstring release.
It might feel like your nose will never touch your knees in this pose—and it really doesn’t matter if it does. This pose will still help with hamstring flexibility.
Sit with your legs outstretched. Relax your feet. Slide the flesh out from your bottom. This moves the stretch from the low back to the hamstrings. Inhale and reach your arms up, then exhale and fold forward, resting your hands wherever they land on your legs. You might not come down very far in this pose; it might even feel like your torso is close to vertical. Stay here for a minute or longer. While in the pose, use your exhalations to help you fold a little deeper. Don’t bend your knees to pull yourself in; keep your legs straight and hinge from your hips instead.
This pose shows up in most forms of exercise because it’s a great hamstring stretch. Make sure to have a strap, belt, or scarf nearby.
Sanskrit: Supta Padangusthasana
Lie on your back with your legs together and your toes pointing toward the sky. Inhale and lift your right foot from the floor, bending your knee. Loop your strap, belt or scarf over the sole of your foot and hold either side with the respective hand. Carefully begin to straighten your right leg, foot moving toward the sky. When you start to feel the hamstring stretch, stop straightening and hold. Stay here for a minute or longer. Very gently release your leg to the floor, then change sides.
This basic variation of Plow pose will help you work up to the hamstring flexibility needed for a full Plow pose.
Sanskrit: Poorva Halasana
Lie on your back with your legs together. Rest your arms by your sides, palms facing down. Inhale and lift both your legs until they’re perpendicular to the floor. Exhale and lower them halfway down toward your head and pause. Inhale as you spread your legs to the sides, then exhale as you draw them back together. Inhale, then exhale and return to the starting position with your legs on the floor. Practice five rounds.
Triangle as practiced in most vinyasa classes is far too much for beginner yogis, and those with tight hamstrings will really struggle. This simplified version will feel much less forced.
Stand with your feet shoulder distance wide. Point your right toes to the right. Bring your arms parallel to the floor and in line with your shoulders. Bend your right knee slightly as you bend your torso to the right. Rest your right fingertips on top of your right foot and reach your left hand toward the sky. Hold the pose for 30 seconds to a minute, then change sides.
Strengthening for the legs, arms, back, and hips, this pose stretches the hamstrings while developing balance and coordination. Stay in the pose for as long as is possible before changing sides.
Sanskrit: Eka Padasana
Stand with your feet together. Inhale and reach your arms toward the sky, then interlace your fingers. Exhale and bend forward from your hips as you lift your left leg behind you. Aim to bring your arms, torso and back leg in one straight line. Gaze diagonally downward. Hold the pose for a while, then lower the back leg with an exhale and rise with an inhale. Change sides. Practice three rounds for maximum benefit.
Remember that in any and all of these poses, you must be patient! Yoga is not about attainment of perfect posture so forget about any challenges that your tight hamstrings bring. Instead, use this challenge to help you develop your patience and compassion for your body.
Saraswati, Swami Satyananda. Asana Pranayama Mudra Bandha. Bihar, India: Yoga Publications Trust, 2008.