One of my teachers says hamstrings are like a donkey; they’re stubborn. The more aggressively you try to get them to do what you want, the more they resist. You must coax your hamstrings open gently. So whether your hammies are tight from pedaling, sprinting, kicking or too much sitting, ease into these stretches and listen to your body.
In general, it’s best to stretch your hamstrings when the muscles are already warm. Take three rounds of sun salutation A or practice these stretches as part of your post-workout cooldown.
This fundamental yoga posture is a great stretch for the back of the legs, but it can also be difficult for those of us with tight hamstrings. Make it more accessible by taking your feet to the wide edge of the mat and keeping a slight bend in your knees.
The move: Begin on your hands and knees in a tabletop position. Slide your palms forward so they rest forward of your shoulders and tuck your toes under. As you exhale, press your palms into the ground and lift your knees off the ground, straightening both arms and legs. Your body will form a wide, upside-down V shape.
Push your thighs back, pressing your heels toward the floor, without locking your knees. Beginners often struggle to keep their legs straight. It’s OK! Keep a slight bend in your knees at first. And don’t worry if your heels don’t touch the floor.
Try a few down dog variations aimed at the hamstrings. You can pedal your feet, bending one knee and then the other. Or, on an inhale, bend both knees deeply bringing your thighs toward your chest and, on an exhale, straighten both legs.
If your hamstrings are really tight, taking a wide-legged stance may be easier than folding forward with your legs together. The wider stance lengthens both your inner thighs and the backs of your legs.
The move: Turn to face the long edge of your mat with your feet 3–4 feet apart. Turn your toes in slightly and engage your thighs. Bring your hands to your hips and, as you exhale, lean your torso forward until it is parallel to the floor. Lengthen through your entire torso and on your next exhale fold completely. Rest your hands on your thighs, shins, ankles or palms flat on a block or the floor below your shoulders. Let your head be relaxed and heavy. Relax your eyes and hold here for 5–10 breaths.
To exit standing straddle, bring your hands to your hips and lift up out of your waist with a flat back. Walk or jump your feet together and return to standing.
Pyramid is a great pose for athletes and desk jockeys alike. It offers a deep hamstring and hip stretch, lengthens the spine and relaxes the shoulders and neck.
The move: Stand at the top of your mat and step your left foot back about three feet and turn your toes out slightly so that your right heel and left heel line up. Bring both hands to your hips. On an exhale, fold forward from your hips with a flat back. When you reach the point where your spine wants to round, pause, square your hips again, and lengthen through your torso. On your next exhale, fold completely. Use your hands to feel if your left hip shifted back and gently draw it forward. Release your hands to your shin, a block or the floor. Relax your head. Hold the pose for 5–10 breaths, then inhale to lift back to standing and switch sides.
It can be challenging to keep your hips square and avoid the temptation to touch the ground so try pyramid against a wall. Stand a few feet away from a wall, step your feet into pyramid position, on an exhale lower your torso toward your front thigh and reach your arms for the wall. Press your palms into the wall, keeping your torso long.
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If you’re working with a hamstring injury, avoid this deep stretch. Otherwise, use a bolster beneath your pelvis or two blocks on either side of your front leg to make it more accessible.
The move: Start in down dog and step your right foot forward between your hands. Lower your back knee to the ground. You may want to cushion your knee with a rolled-up section of your mat or a blanket.
Flex your right foot and slowly slide it forward until you feel the stretch in your hamstrings. Keep your hips over your left knee, draw your right toes toward you and fold over your right leg. Rest your hands on either side of your right leg on the floor or blocks. Stay here for 5–10 breaths, slowly come out, return to down dog and switch sides.
LEGS UP THE WALL
This pose is a balm to the legs. It relieves tired legs, increases circulation and gently stretches the backs of the legs.
The move: Sit with one hip next to a wall. Swing your legs up parallel to the wall as you lean back and rest your upper body on the ground, forming an L shape.
If your hamstrings are tight, scoot your hips back a few inches from the wall or put a slight bend in your knees. For added support, you can also place a folded blanket or bolster beneath your low back. This will lift your butt off the ground slightly.
Rest your hands on your belly, lay them by your sides or form a goal-post shape with your palms facing upward to open up your chest.
Focus on long, slow breaths, keeping your inhales and exhales even. Hold this pose for 5–10 minutes. Then press your feet into the wall, lift your hips slightly and roll to one side. Stay on your side for a few breaths, taking your time to come out of the pose. Then return to a seated position.
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