Ahhhh, hamstrings. For some of us, it seems like they tighten up no matter what we do. They talk back whether we are sitting squatting, running, biking, or lifting weights. On the other side of the spectrum, those of us who are fairly mobile (whether naturally or through doing lots of yoga) might have little to no feeling in the backs of our legs. Either way, it’s time to bring these key muscles more fully online, because incorporating yoga moves that both stretch and strengthen this area will have you standing taller and moving with more grace, power, and ease in no time.
Pro tip: focus the stretch on the belly of the muscle rather than at the attachments (your hamstring attachment points are at the knees and sitting bones). If you feel pulling in either of these areas, back off by bending your knees slightly and engaging your core a bit more diligently.
Setu Bandha Sarvangasana (Bridge Pose)
Lie on your back with your knees bent and the soles of your feet planted into the ground. Place a yoga block between your thighs as you press down actively with your heels to help engage both your hamstrings and inner legs. Place your hands next to your hips. Press evenly into your hands and feet to lift your pelvis toward the ceiling. Option: Interlace your hands underneath your back as you draw your shoulder blades closer to your midline. Hold for 5–10 breaths.
See also Bridge Pose
Purvottanasana (Upward Plank Pose)
From Bridge Pose, you can keep or remove the block between your thighs. Lower your hips down and then lift your torso up to seated. Place your palms outside of your outer hips. Press into your hands and feet and lift your hips and torso. Your shoulders will stack above your wrists. Straighten your arms. Keep pressing down into your feet, using your body weight to engage your hamstrings. Lengthen your sitting bones to the backs of your knees and keep your inner thighs releasing down.
Elongate your torso evenly. You can keep your chin tucked in toward your chest slightly, or lengthen your neck as your head releases back. Option: Straighten your legs as all four corners of your feet press down evenly down Keep your inner thighs releasing down. Hold for 5-10 breaths.
See also The Anti Chaturanga
Upavistha Konasana (Wide-Angle Seated Forward Bend variation)
Secure a chair to your yoga mat. Sit on your mat with the seat of the chair facing you. Widen out your legs so you are straddling the chair. Place a blanket on the seat of the chair and hinge at your hips to lean your torso forward to rest your arms on the blanket. Anchor your sitting bones to the floor. Let your head be heavy. Optional: Try the pose without the chair. You could use a blanket or bolster under your torso if you’d like prop support. Stay for 10-20 breaths.
Try this yoga chair to really get creative with your practice
Janu Sirsasana (Head-of-the-Knee Pose)
Sit tall on a blanket or bolster. Elongate one leg out in front of you as you tuck your opposite foot into your inner thigh or inner calf. You can place a rolled up blanket under your front knee to ease the intensity of the pose. Wrap a yoga strap around your outstretched foot. Flex the foot and draw it toward your torso. Option: Elongate your torso toward your front foot and drape your torso toward your outstretched thigh. You can experiment with releasing the strap and holding onto your calf muscle, ankle, or foot. Hold for 5-10 breaths. Repeat on the other side.
See also Janu Sirsasana
Try this yoga blanket and strap to give you a lengthening boost in this pose
Happy Baby Pose
Release onto your back and hug your knees toward your chest. Take hold of the outer edges of your feet and draw your knees toward your armpits while keeping your pelvis and low back heavy to the floor. You can be creative and playful here, rocking your body side to side, straightening one leg at a time, or even both legs into a supine straddle. Hold for 10-20 breaths.
See also Happy Baby Pose
Reclining Hand-to-Big-Toe Pose (Supta Padangusthasana)
Lie on your back. Extend your bottom leg and keep it neutral (no rotation of your thigh bone in your hip socket, so your toes won’t turn in or out). Press your thigh bone straight down as your inner thigh releases toward the floor. Hug your other knee into your chest. Extend that leg straight. You can hold onto the back of your thigh, calf, ankle, or even your big toe, if it is within reach. You could also place a strap around the ball of the top leg foot. If you choose to use a strap, experiment with how placing it around different parts of your foot activates different areas of your leg muscles. Reach your pubis and tailbone evenly away from your head .Top leg hip descends away from shoulder. Anchor your shoulders to the floor. Hold for 5-10 breaths. Repeat on the other side.
See also Reclining Hand to Big Toe Pose