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Poses for Your Hamstrings

Tight Hamstrings? Here’s How to Modify Your Practice to Make Standing Poses Doable

Practicing yoga with tight hamstrings isn't about stretching past your known limits. It's about finding a way to practice within them.

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The tricky thing about tight hamstrings? You want to practice yoga to lessen the tightness in your hamstrings. Yet the tightness in your hamstrings can hamper your yoga practice—or at least make it less of what you want it to be.

It doesn’t have to be that way.

There’s no shortage of modifications that make it easier (and safer) to practice yoga despite your tight hamstrings.

Watch: If Your Schedule Is As Tight As Your Hamstrings, You Need This 5-Minute Flow

Why you don’t want to overtax your hamstrings

Any time you come to your practice with awareness, you’re doing yoga. And part of that awareness is knowing when you’re overextending yourself—or your hamstrings—and being willing to adapt your behavior accordingly.

When you’re unable to nail a yoga pose as easily as you’d like, there’s often a tendency to intensify your efforts. But that’s not how your body works.

Say you’re in Warrior I or Pyramid and your back heel is down, your back leg is straight(ish), and you’re trying to bring your back hip to face the front of the mat…but your hamstrings are tight. Something’s gotta give. That tension and tightness in your hamstrings, when not respected, can tug on your back knee and your low back, potentially wreaking havoc.

Even if you don’t immediately experience a tearing or a wrenching sensation, when you attempt to coerce one part of your body past its current abilities, you throw off your posture and set yourself up for difficulties elsewhere in your body. Your overtaxed hamstrings and your body’s compensatory responses can, in time, create issues for your knees, hips, low back, feet, and more.

Less dramatically, when your entire body falls out of alignment within a pose, you’re unable to draw on its benefits, including the stretching, strengthening, and releasing of the physical body. Plus, the psychological distraction created by taut hamstrings can not only make you cringe and curse in class, it can also make it difficult to attain that coveted sense of calm and ease you’re seeking in your practice.

How to modify common standing poses for tight hamstrings

Modifications aren’t about making a pose easier, per se. It’s about keeping it safe, eliminating unintentional contortions in your body, and respecting the integrity of the pose—and your physique. It’s about maintaining alignment where we can and being OK with making adjustments where we need them. Remember: Your yoga practice isn’t defined by the outward appearance of a pose.

When you want to navigate a class while maintaining some measure of ease and balance as you transition from pose to pose—tight hamstrings notwithstanding—the following tweaks enable you to do exactly that.

See also: 7 Yoga Poses to Release Those Tight Hamstrings

Bend your knee rather than keep it straight

Photo: GibsonPictures

“If you need, keep a bend in your knees,” is a common refrain of a lot of yoga teachers. Whether you actually heeded the advice when you hear it is an entirely different matter.

When teachers say this, they mean it. Bending your knee is not cheating. It’s simply accepting your current reality. In standing poses that require one or both legs to be straight, you want to feel a stretch along the back of your legs. Not a strain. Sometimes in order to make that happen, you need to bend the straight leg a little—or a lot.

This could mean in High Lunge you bend your back knee rather than forcibly extend it. Or you come into Half Moon Pose and keep a little give in your standing leg. Same postures. Slightly different expressions.

You can keep your “straight” leg bent in these standing poses:

Shorten your stance

Photo: Thomas Barwick

Don’t try to keep your feet as far apart as the instructor or the student on the mat next to you. Go more by feel and less by looks. Wondering if you’re feeling too much of a strain? Chances are, if you wondering, that is a clear indication you are past your threshold. Scoot your feet closer to one another to adjust your stance until your felt sense has downgraded from a strain to a stretch.

You can shorten your stance in these standing poses:

Use your blocks

Using blocks is akin to bringing the ground closer to you. It keeps you from overextending your hamstrings, straining your breath, or compromising alignment in the rest of your body—including your back, shoulders, and neck—to compensate for said tightness.

When you place blocks beneath your shoulders and rest your hands on them, you can feel stable in poses where you may otherwise find yourself reaching or flailing, as in Warrior III. This in turn enables you to focus and engage your body as the pose intended and, as a result, truly experience your practice. It’s all connected.

You can use blocks beneath your hands in these standing poses:

  • Uttanasana (Standing Forward Bend Pose)
  • Ardha Uttanasana (Half Standing Forward Bend Pose)
  • Parsvottanasana (Intense Side Stretch Pose or Pyramid Pose)
  • Adho Mukha Svanasana (Downward-Facing Dog Pose)
  • Virabhadrasana III (Warrior III)
  • Utthita Trikonasana (Extended Triangle Pose)
  • Parivrtta Trikonasana (Revolved Triangle Pose)
  • Utthita Parsvakonasana (Extended Side Angle Pose)
  • Parivrtta Parsvakonasana (Revolved Side Angle Pose)
  • Parivrtta Trikonasana (Revolved Triangle Pose)
  • Ardha Chandrasana (Half Moon Pose)
  • Parivrtta Ardha Chandrasana (Revolved Half Moon Pose)
  • Virabhadrasana III (Warrior III)
  • Urhdva Prasarita Ekapadasana (Standing Splits )

See also: Enhance Your Practice With Props