Long and Strong
Stretching your hamstrings is a bit like leading a reluctant mule. If you pull the mule, it will pull back. But you can coax the mule along if you make friends with it. Help the beast relax, give it a nice place to go, and it will happily follow you.
So it is with your hamstrings. If you stretch by yanking on them, they'll only yank back harder. But you can coax them to loosen up if you set them at ease and treat them right.
It's well worth the effort to befriend these large, powerful muscles. They often carry an enormous amount of tension, so releasing them feels marvelously relaxing, both physically and psychologically. Lengthening them also helps protect your lower back. Your hamstrings anchor your sitting bones, limiting the forward tilt of your pelvis at your hip joints. This is good; it provides a stable base for your spine. But if your hamstrings are too tight, forward bending can strain your lower back and lead to serious injury. Even if your hamstrings aren't particularly short, they can restrict your performance and put your back at risk in yoga postures that call for deep movement. This applies to most straight-leg forward bends and also to demanding poses like Hanumanasana (Monkey God Pose).
It's helpful to think of freeing your hamstrings as lengthening them rather than stretching them. "Stretching" is a term better reserved for inanimate objects. It's true that we often approach our hamstrings as if they had no intelligence of their own, hoping to force them into a new shape just as we might stretch a pair of new shoes. But this approach can only get you so far, because a major factor keeping your hamstrings short is the stretch reflex, a built-in feature of the nervous system that holds muscles at a preset length and causes them to contract when they're pulled beyond it.
The secret to lengthening hamstrings is to learn safe, effective ways to work with (or around) this reflex so it doesn't stop your forward bends prematurely. Like a mule, your hamstrings know darn well when they're being tugged. They sense how far, how fast, and how hard you're pulling them—and if you overdo it, they resist stubbornly. But like a mule, your hamstrings can be convinced that it's safe, even pleasurable, to let go and come along on the journey.
Strength Plus Stretch
To help liberate your hamstrings, you can try two techniques. In the first, you consciously relax the muscles. In the second, less intuitive method, you build strength in your hamstrings at ever greater muscle lengths by consciously contracting them while simultaneously creating a stretch. The second method also helps keep your hamstrings strong even as they loosen up. Both methods teach you to be deeply focused, present, and contented in each moment of practice. In other words, both are yoga, not simply stretching.
You can experiment with both techniques as you practice these five asanas. Each pose, ranging from the accessible Supta Padangusthasana (Reclining Hand-to-Big-Toe Pose) to the more challenging Krounchasana (Heron Pose), provides a slightly different angle—literally—for lengthening your hamstrings. Before you practice them, prepare your body and mind with a sequence of standing asanas to activate and warm your legs.
Supta Padangusthasana (Reclining Hand-to-Big-Toe Pose)
Supta Padangusthasana is actually a series of poses, not a single pose, but we'll focus on the straight-ahead leg raise because it lengthens the back of your thigh the most.
Lie on your back with the soles of both feet against a wall and both legs straight. Pressing the back of your left knee toward the floor and the sole of your foot into the wall, bend your right knee. If you have very loose hamstrings, take hold of your right big toe with the index and middle fingers of your right hand; if not, put a strap around the ball of your right foot and grip it with your right hand. Place your left hand on your left thigh, palm down. With your right knee still bent, press the inner edges of both feet away from you and pull the outer edges toward you. Spread your toes and pull them toward you while you push the balls of your feet away slightly. You'll maintain this foot alignment through the rest of this posture and use it in other postures in this sequence.
Shift your right hip down toward your feet until both hips are level and the same distance from the wall; at this point, the two sides of your waist should be equally long. Tilt your sitting bones toward the floor a little to slightly accentuate the arch of your lower back.
The next step is to straighten your knee in a way that causes no detectable stretch in your hamstrings. Imagine taking hold of a rope to lead a stubborn, suspicious mule, but not drawing it taut, so you don't put the animal on the defensive. Aiming for this conservative position, slowly and completely straighten your right knee, keeping your right foot and upper thighbone moving strongly toward the wall. If you're using a strap, you'll probably end up with your lifted leg angled up toward the wall. If you're holding your toe, keep the foot as close to the wall as the length of your arm allows. In either case, preserve the small space between your lower back and the floor and keep both thighs rolling slightly inward.
Now it's time to gently coax your right hamstrings to lengthen. With an exhalation, slowly draw your right leg toward you until you feel a slight, pleasant stretching sensation on the back of your thigh. Stop right there. It's tempting to bring the leg further, but instead, remain exactly where you are, without bending your knee or lowering your lumbar spine to the floor. Be still, be patient, and focus on the sensation in your hamstrings. There is nowhere else you need to be at this moment. Enjoy this meditative stillness until you feel the stretching sensation in your hamstrings fade away. (This may take 30 seconds or more.) When it does, gently and consciously bring your leg a little closer to your head until you restore the pleasant stretch you felt before.
Be sure not to overdo it, or your hamstrings may dig in and refuse to budge, just like that stubborn mule. Become still in this new place, wait for a release, then move again. Repeat the whole cycle over and over until you reach a natural stopping point. (This may take several minutes.) Hold your final position for about 30 seconds, then lower your leg to the ground and repeat the pose on the left side.
Parsvottanasana (Intense Side Stretch Pose)To come into this version of Parsvottanasana, stand facing a wall with your toes about 12 inches away from it and pointing straight ahead. Place both of your palms on the wall at shoulder height and step your left foot back about 31/2 to 4 feet. Angling your left toes out 30 degrees, place the highest point of your left arch in line with your right heel. (If you find this alignment too difficult, you can move your left foot a few inches to the left, or let your back heel lift up, or both.)
Face your pelvis straight ahead, then move it horizontally backward and bend forward at both hip joints, tilting your pelvic rim and spine forward as a single unit. Your hands should now be higher than your shoulders, and your body angled up from hips to head. You may not feel much hamstring stretch at this point.
Before continuing, square your hips: The left and right hips should be the same distance from the wall and also equidistant from the floor. Do this by adjusting the distance between your feet and by moving one or both hips forward or back. (If you're like most people, you probably need to bring the left hip forward.) Getting the hips to square up simultaneously with the wall and the floor is easier said than done, so use a mirror or have a teacher or friend coach you until you can feel the alignment yourself. As you adjust your hips, rotate your thighs to keep your kneecaps pointing the same direction as your feet.
Now you're ready to move into the stretch, which you'll do with the "contract while stretched" method. Unlike the "relax into it" method, this approach works best when you create a strong stretch from the outset. To do that, firmly straighten both knees and tilt your pelvis by lifting both sitting bones high while tipping your pelvic rim forward and down. If this does not give you a strong stretch, slide both feet about two inches farther from the wall. After moving your pelvis back, resquaring your hips, and checking your knee alignment, tilt your pelvis again. (Keep your hands as high as possible.) Repeat this sequence until you feel a strong hamstring stretch.
Now you're ready for the contract-release phase of the pose. Press the sole of your right foot straight down. Without bending your right knee, changing the rotation of your right thigh, shifting your hips, or slackening the forward tilt of your pelvis, contract the back of your right thigh as strongly as you can. (The sensation of hamstring stretch should diminish.) Hold the contraction at maximum strength for 10 seconds, then quickly—but with control—release it completely and allow your hamstrings to lengthen. Hold here for at least 10 seconds.
Repeat the contract-release cycle three more times. You can slide your feet a bit farther from the wall between cycles to maximize the stretch. On the last cycle, hold the muscle contraction and the final stretch for 30 seconds each. When you're finished on the right side, do the whole sequence again with your left leg forward.
Padangusthasana (Big Toe Pose)To practice Padangusthasana, stand upright with your feet parallel and about six inches apart. Contract the fronts of your thighs to lift your kneecaps. Keeping your legs completely straight, exhale and bend forward from your hip joints, moving your spine, pelvis, and head as one unit. Slide the first two fingers of each hand under your big toes, grip them firmly, and press your toes down against your fingers. (If you can't reach your toes without rounding your back, pass a strap under the ball of each foot and hold the straps.)
With an inhalation, redouble the contraction of your front thigh muscles and lift your trunk as if you were going to stand up again, raising your chest until your arms are straight. As you exhale, continue lifting your chest, and at the same time lift your sitting bones to create a hollow in your lower back. As you do this, allow your hamstrings to release and let the lowest part of your belly, below your navel, sink into your body toward the back of your pelvis. Lift your breastbone as high as you can, but don't lift your head so much that you create strain at the back of your neck. Keep your forehead relaxed.
This trunk-lifting action should contract your hamstrings in a way similar to, but not as strong as, the contraction you created in Parsvottanasana. For the next few breaths, lift your trunk strongly on each inhalation to increase the hamstring contraction; on each exhalation, strongly lift your sitting bones, deepening the hollow in your lower back, and consciously relax your hamstrings.
To finish the pose, take a full inhalation, reinforcing the contraction of your front thighs, and as you exhale, bend your elbows to the sides, pull up on your toes, lengthen the front and sides of your trunk, and draw your head and torso straight toward the floor. As you pull with the arms, consciously let your hamstrings lengthen.
If you have very long hamstrings, you can draw your forehead toward your shins, but not if it creates rounding in your back; that isn't safe for your lower back and does nothing to lengthen your hamstrings.
Hold the final position for one minute. To come back to standing upright, release your toes, let your arms hang, restore the hollow in your lower back, and swing your pelvis, trunk, and head up, as a single unit.
Janu Sirsasana (Head-to-Knee Forward Bend)
To practice Janu Sirsasana, begin with both legs straight out in front of you. If you cannot easily tilt your pelvic rim forward in this position, elevate your hips by sitting on one or two folded blankets, turning the blankets until the front edge is at a 45-degree angle to the line of your legs.
Keeping your right leg straight, use your hands to help you bend your left knee up toward the ceiling and bring your left heel close to your left sitting bone. As you do this, let your left hip slide back so your left sitting bone is farther back than your right one. (The angle of your pelvis should now approximately match the angle of your support blankets, if you're using them.) With your knee still pointing up, firmly hold your left thigh with both hands and rotate it out as strongly as you can. Continuing this rotation, lower the knee to your left and to the floor.
Next, use your hands to pull your left knee back and to draw your left heel as close as you can to the place where the left inner thigh joins the pelvis. Turn your left shin forward to help roll the left foot more onto its top, so the sole faces more toward the ceiling, and point your left toes toward your right thigh.
Check to make sure your right leg is still straight and that the kneecap points directly up. Put your right hand behind you on the ground or the blanket and your left hand on the ground in front of you. With an inhalation, push both hands down and lift your spine tall. Exhaling and maintaining this lift, press your left sitting bone down and back and tilt your left pelvic rim forward toward your right foot.
Use this action to help rotate the left side of your lower ribcage forward, and turn your chest to face your straight leg. The tilt of the pelvic rim on the bent-leg side is the key to the pose. Every time you move deeper into the forward bend or increase your twist, use this pelvic tilt to initiate the movement of your trunk.
Now place your left palm on your left inner thigh near the hip. As you exhale, use the hand to rotate the thigh out as firmly as you can, tilt your left pelvic rim toward your right foot and, twisting to your right, lean your trunk forward toward your right foot. Leading again with your left pelvic rim, reach your left hand forward, turn it thumb down, and take hold of the outside edge of your right foot. (If you can't reach, loop a strap around your right foot and hold it instead.) Then place your right hand on the floor to the outside of your right knee or thigh. Holding your foot or the belt firmly, inhale, press your right hand into the floor, and lift your trunk as if you were going to sit up. (This action is similar to the lifting phase of Padangusthasana.) As you exhale, press the back of your right knee down toward the floor, tilt your left pelvic rim forward, create a slight hollow in your lower back, and draw the left side of your lower ribs around toward your right foot.
Now reposition your hands so your right hand is on the outside and your left hand on the inside of your right foot. As you inhale, lift up tall. As you exhale, tilt your whole pelvis forward, bend both elbows, and draw your trunk forward and down over your right leg. This is like the final phase of Padangusthasana: You simultaneously release your hamstrings and pull with your arms, drawing the front and sides of your trunk long. Continue to lower your left side ribs until they are level with your right ones, and move your breastbone toward your right shin. As you do that, lengthen your belly, letting your lower abdomen sink in toward your sacrum.
If you have quite flexible hamstrings, reach beyond the foot with both hands, turn the palms away from you, and grip the right wrist with the left hand. Let your head follow the curve of your spine; don't dangle or lift it. If your forehead can reach your shin easily, rest it there, as close to your ankle as you can get it. Hold the completed pose for a minute or more, then repeat it on the other side.
Krounchasana (Heron Pose)
If your knees and hips are extremely flexible, it's possible to do Krounchasana with proper alignment while sitting directly on the floor. But if you're like most students, you'll benefit from sitting on one or two folded blankets with your left hip at the left edge. Extend both legs straight in front of you, then bend your left knee to a kneeling position and place the top of your foot on the floor alongside the blankets, as close to your left hip as possible and in line with your shin. Use your fingers to spread your toes apart.
Press your sitting bones down and back to tilt the top rim of your pelvis forward. Lift your chest tall. Maintaining this lift, wrap the fingers of both hands around the back of your right knee and bend the knee. Next, wrap your fingers around your right foot to grip the sole. (If you have tighter hamstrings, place a belt around the ball of the foot and hold the belt in both hands.)
As you inhale, lift your pelvis and spine tall. As you exhale, maintain that height, lift your foot off the floor, and slowly straighten your knee. Move your foot away from your torso as you do this so you create only a mild hamstring stretch at this point. Press your sitting bones down and back, roll your right thigh slightly in, and press the top of your right thighbone down toward the floor. Firmly press the inner edge and ball of your right foot away from you and pull the outer edge toward you.
Now practice the "relax into it" method, as you did in Supta Padangusthasana. Keeping your right knee straight, hold perfectly still in your position of mild stretch until you feel the sensation diminish or disappear. Then, on an exhalation, pull your foot slightly closer to you to establish a mild stretch again. Repeat this process several times. The key is to pull your leg in only when you feel your hamstring release, so relaxation of your leg and the action of your arms are coordinated. Gradually work your way up to a natural stopping point.
Once you reach your final position, hold for one minute, breathing quietly and keeping your belly soft and the front of your body long. Then repeat the posture on the other side.
At the end of your forward bending practice, gently relieve your spine with a mild twist, such as Bharadvajasana I (Bharadvaja's Twist I), and a supported mild backbend, such as Supta Virasana (Reclining Hero Pose) with a bolster. Finish with Savasana (Corpse Pose).
Your hamstrings can be a particularly mulish set of muscles, but don't focus so much on lengthening them that you neglect the rest of your practice. To keep your hip and knee joints healthy, you should also work to develop long, strong muscles on your front and inner thighs. To do this, complement your straight-legged forward bends with backbends, bent-knee postures, and wide-legged side-bends.
Finally, remember that forward bends are not about getting somewhere. They're about being present where you are and becoming comfortable there. The paradox is that when you're present and comfortable where you are, your hamstrings relax and allow you to move forward. When you follow this strategy, the practice you used to think of as "stretching your hamstrings" transforms and begins to teach you some of the deepest lessons of yoga. Be patient. Be present. Move at the right moment. And bring contentment with you as you go.
A research scientist and Iyengar Yoga teacher, Roger Cole, Ph.D., specializes in human anatomy and the physiology of relaxation, sleep, and biological rhythms.