Although we've all seen images of yogis effortlessly draping their torsos onto their thighs, for most beginners the moon seems closer and more attainable than a forward bend. In my beginners classes, I hear a steady chorus of "My hamstrings are so tight!" And such complaints make sense. When your hamstrings are tight, forward bending, twisting, inverting, and just plain sitting become much more difficult—and much less enjoyable.
Yet even though stretching your tight hamstrings should be a high priority, standing and seated forward bends pose dangers. Tight hamstrings pull down on the sitting bones, rotating the bottom of your pelvis forward. With your pelvis tucked under and your ego demanding that you bend forward anyway (everyone else in class is doing it!), you can easily stretch your lower back instead of your hamstrings—a perfect recipe for lower back strain (or even more serious injury).
Fortunately, the benevolent yoga deities gave us Supta Padangusthasana (Reclining Big Toe Pose), a safe method for stretching your pesky hamstrings, bringing more freedom to your back, pelvis, and hips, and thus opening the door to many other poses. In this reclining pose, gravity won't force your back to bear the weight of your torso, as it does in standing and seated forward bends; instead, once you can bring your leg to a vertical position, gravity helps you stretch your hamstrings. As long as you keep your hips and back releasing into the floor, you won't strain your lower back.
To practice Supta Padangusthasana, begin by lying on your back with both knees bent and your feet on the floor. Bend your right knee into your chest, place a belt around the ball of your right foot, and straighten your right leg toward the ceiling. If your leg ends up further away from you than directly vertical, congratulations! You're a member of the Tight Hamstring Club. Your hamstrings will tend to curl the base of your pelvis up off the floor. To counteract this, bend your right knee until your sitting bones drop toward the ground.
Holding an end of the belt in each hand, keep your elbows straight and the weight of your arms falling from your right foot so that your shoulder blades remain on the floor rather than hunching forward. If you are more flexible and can hold your right big toe with the first two fingers of your right hand while keeping your shoulder blades on the floor, you can dispense with the belt and bring your left arm to the floor. Whether you're holding a belt or your big toe, don't use a death grip; soften your hands, relax and lengthen the back of your neck, and let your backside muscles release into the floor.
Allow yourself to relax into the pose even as you concentrate on the stretch. Breathe deeply and evenly, soften your face and eyes, and keep your peripheral vision gently active as you gaze with concentration at your right big toe. If your big toe is out of sight, focus on a single spot on the ceiling. Every time you inhale, feel your breath slightly strengthen your legs. Every time you exhale, feel your muscles release and your hip joints gratefully open. Let your back muscles drop into the floor and your belly relax back into your spine as the pose soaks into your body.
Once you've established your basic pose, you can explore going deeper. Keeping your right leg where it is, actively straighten your left leg, trying to press your calf into the floor. If you can do this easily, try to press the thigh into the floor as well. Extend lightly through the balls of both feet, as if you are pressing on the gas pedal in a car. Strengthen both legs by gently drawing all the muscles firmly in toward the bone. In yoga, we usually practice toned rather than passive stretches; your muscles should feel slightly engaged, no matter how far you release into the pose. You may be surprised to discover that this slight toning action allows your hamstrings to release more completely.
Now begin to investigate and observe your pose. Did you displace your pelvis when you extended through your legs? Did the right side of your pelvis hike up toward your shoulder, or did your whole pelvis roll toward your left leg? If necessary, rebalance your pelvis, and see how this adjustment changes your experience of the asana. Next, check your feet: Have the inner edges rolled in closer to your pelvis than the outer edges? If so, lengthen both legs from the inner groins down through the inner edges of your knees and feet, and see if this deepens your pose. In each of these explorations, notice how the adjustments affect your Supta Padangusthasana. Choose the position in which you can challenge your hamstrings while releasing all the parts of your body that don't need to be strongly engaged in the pose.
Along with many other benefits, Supta Padangusthasana can teach patience and humility. You simply cannot rush the opening of your hamstrings. Instead of constantly pushing for a deeper stretch, take a respite from striving, and invite a quality of timelessness into your experience. Breathe deeply, and allow your body to open at its own pace. Remain in the pose for at least a minute (longer if you like), and then bend your right knee into your chest for a few breaths before taking the pose on the other side.
You may never become a model for the loose hamstring calendar, but the benefits of Supta Padangusthasana will enrich your life in many ways. Your pelvis will enjoy more of its full movement through space (great for Latin dancing!), all your yoga poses will benefit, and your spirit will be soothed by the gentle release of the often overworked muscles on the back side of your body.
The founder of Seattle Yoga Arts, Denise Benitez has studied yoga for over 25 years. She has studied primarily in the Iyengar tradition of hatha yoga, but is also informed by many other traditions of yoga, human movement, and spirituality.