Most people start yoga to improve their flexibility, often citing their tight hamstrings.
The thing with flexibility is it’s a gradual process. If you can’t touch your toes before starting yoga, you won’t after your first class either. And some people may never be able to touch their toes. It doesn’t actually matter though the toes aren’t the goal.
The one thing you want to avoid is overdoing it which can lead to injury. I often see people pushing and pulling their body into poses with such intensity that they’re going in red in the face, their veins are popping out of their neck and temples, they’re shaking and holding their breath. This is not yoga. In yoga we work with the body, not against it. Yoga is practiced with ahimsa, kindness, compassion and non-injury.
If it’s taken 30 or 40 years to get this stiff, it’s going to take a little while to undo some of that tension. Be patient with yourself.
The body works together rather than in isolation. So you have tight hamstrings? What about your lower back and hips? Targeting or isolating just the hamstrings may offer temporary relief from tightness but probably won’t address the cause of the tightness such as the pelvis being pulled forward from tight hip flexors. Also we don’t want to compromise our lower back by pulling so hard on our legs.
The best yoga poses for tight hamstrings:
Reclining hand to toe pose A
- Use a strap, towel or belt to wrap around your foot.
- Keep the bottom leg active, toes flexed, push out through the heel, roll the thigh inwards
- Keep both hips grounded (resist lifting the hip of the floor)
- Lift the knee caps and engage the quadriceps
- Roll the thigh inwards and away from you
- Make sure you’re not straining your upper body. Keep the head and shoulders on the floor.
- Relax the jaw and neck.
This hamstring stretch keeps the spine straight and protects the lower back.
Reclining hand to toe pose B
- Open your raised leg to the side
- Keep your bottom leg active, toes flexed, knee facing upward
- Keep both hips grounded, resist the urge to lift off
- Kick out through both heels
- Keep the side waist long – don’t contract the side-body to reach your foot
- Keep both shoulders grounded, neck and jaw stay relaxed
- From all fours, curl your toes and press up to a V shape
- Hands are shoulder-width distance, feet are hip width distance
- Lift the knees and tops of the thighs, draw heels towards the floor
- Push more weight back into your legs
- Roll the thighs in and back
This stretches the spine and backs of the legs
- Bend your front knee and drop to your back knee
- Ensure your front knee is above the ankle (not in front of the ankle)
- Squeeze the legs together (front heel to back knee, back knee to front heel)
- Keep the hips level
- Lengthen the spine and lift the chest
- This pose releases the hip flexors (Psoas pronounced So- Az and Iliacus muscles) that connect the legs to the spine.
- Tight hip flexors can pull the pelvis forward and tightness in the lower back and hamstrings