Yoga Sequences

Holistic Hamstrings: Poses to Stretch and Strengthen These Key Muscles

Try this yoga sequence to elongate, strengthen, stabilize, and balance the backs of your legs

We work with our hamstrings a lot in yoga, oftentimes focusing quite intently on stretching these muscles. But healthy hamstrings aren’t just flexible—they’re strong and nimble too. After all, these muscles are key for everyday activities, such as walking and squatting. This sequence offers a variety of hamstring moves. Yes, there are plenty of stretches, but you’ll also work on your stability and balance, strengthening your hamstrings and, eventually, relaxing them.

Pro tip: in the poses that offer a stretch, 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. 

Adho Mukha Svanasana (Downward-Facing Dog Pose)

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From Tabletop, walk your hands forward about two handprints, lift your knees and walk your feet back until your body forms and inverted “V” shape. If you are unsure of your hand or foot placement, roll out briefly to Plank Pose with your wrists under your shoulders, and your hips lifted to about the same height as your shoulders. Then lift your hips up and back into Down Dog. Keep lifting the weight of your torso and hips up and out of your wrists as you lower your heels toward the ground. 

Note: your heels may not touch, and you might need to bend your knees if your hamstrings feel tight. 

Uttanasana (Standing Forward Bend)

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From Downward-Facing Dog Pose, bend your knees and walk or lightly hop your feet toward your hands. Lift your torso and stand tall in Tadasana (Mountain Pose) for a moment. Inhale; lengthen your spine, and engage your quadriceps. Exhale; hinge at your hips, folding forward, and, place your hands on the floor on either side of your feet, fingertips in line with your toes. You can also place your hands on yoga blocks.

Inhale; reach your chest forward and up, rocking your weight forward and pulling your arms straight. Exhale; keeping your weight forward and your front body long, fold in toward your legs, descending the crown of your head to the floor. Draw your shoulder blades away from your spine and toward your back waist so the base of your neck feels spacious. 

Notice if your weight has moved back into your heels; instead, press down with your big toe mounds, and rock your weight forward so your hips stack over your heels rather than behind them. Continue to engage your quadriceps to facilitate the release of your hamstrings. Hold for 5–10 breaths. To exit, Inhale; pull your chest forward and up again, extending your sternum away from your navel and broadening your collarbones. Exhale; place your hands at your hips. Rooting down firmly with your feet, on an inhalation, use the strength of your legs to press up to standing. Return to Tadasana.

Virabhadrasana I (Warrior Pose I)

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From Tadasana, take a big step back with your left foot, aiming your left foot for the back left section of your yoga mat. Pivot your left heel to the floor so your foot forms a 45-degree angle and your feet line up heel to heel or slightly wider. Bend your right knee until it creates a right angle, keeping your thigh parallel to the floor and your knee stacked over your ankle. Draw your right outer hip back and in toward your left heel. Press your left thigh bone back so your left knee is absolutely straight.

On an inhalation, raise your arms, hands shoulder-distance apart and palms facing each other; initially, look straight forward. Allow your shoulder blades to spin out and up away from your spine and toward your outer armpits (upward rotation) in order to maintain the articulation of the bones of your shoulder and spaciousness at the base of your neck. Spin your biceps back, and firm your triceps into your midline.

Pull up with your left inner arch while spinning your left inner thigh back in order to roll your left outer hip forward. Keep pressing your left femur back while releasing your tailbone toward the floor. Emphasize the descent of your tailbone by rooting down through your right heel and drawing your pubis toward your navel. Hold for 5–10 breaths.

Parsvottanasana (Intense Side Stretch Pose)

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From Warrior Pose I, place your hands at your hips, and notice that your hipbones are square to the front of the mat. Observe also that the two sides of your waist are equally long— keeping your side bodies even. Keep your feet aligned heel to heel with your back foot at a 45-degree angle. To recreate the squared pelvis from Tadasana, root down with your right big toe mound while pinning your right outer hip back and in toward your left heel. Spin your left inner thigh back to roll your left outer hip forward. Simultaneously press your left thighbone back and drop anchor with your left heel.

On an inhalation, spread your arms out to the sides, lengthen your spine, and engage your quadriceps. Exhale; hinge at your hips, and begin to fold forward and down. You can place your hands on blocks or on the floor. Reach your sternum away from your navel, and keep your collar bones broad to maintain openness in your front body. Keep rolling the top of your upper arms back and up away from the floor as you descend your torso. Continue pinning your right hip back and into your midline while rolling your left hip forward and down. Stay rooted through your right big toe mound and your left outer heel. Hold for 5–10 breaths.

Virabhadrasana III (Warrior Pose III)

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Now it’s time to use your awareness of your hamstrings and their functional strength to move into a balance pose. From Parsvottanasana, with your right foot forward, root down firmly with your right heel to lift your lower belly, drawing the pit of your abdomen in and up and releasing your tailbone down. Firm your right outer hip back and into your midline while pressing your left leg absolutely straight. Energize your arms to draw more length into your side body without flaring your front ribs. Spin your left inner thigh back to roll your left outer hip forward. Then, pivot onto your back toes so your back leg is in a neutral position.

Inhale to lengthen your spine. Exhale; tilt your torso forward, shift your weight into your front foot, and move forward in space while raising your left leg until it is parallel to the floor. Your hands can anchor onto blocks, the floor, or you can play with lifting your hands away from the floor. As you experiment, your head, torso, pelvis, and aerial leg form a straight line.

Continue spinning your left inner thigh to the ceiling so your leg remains neutral and your pelvis stays level. Keep engaging your right outer hip to provide stability for your standing leg. Push back with your left heel while extending forward with the crown of your head and your sternum. Tone your lower belly, and direct the flesh of your buttocks to your left heel to provide support for your lower back. Hold for 5–10 breaths, then carefully bend your right knee and step back with your left foot, returning to Parsvottanasana. Step forward into Tadasana, fold into Uttanasana. You can take a vinyasa or move directly to Downward-Facing Dog. Repeat poses 2–5 on the other side. 

Paschimottanasana (Seated Forward Bend)

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Sit on the floor with your buttocks on your yoga mat or supported on a folded blanket and your legs straight in front of you. Press actively through your heels. Rock slightly onto your left buttock, and pull your right sitting bone away from your heel with your right hand. Repeat on the other side. Turn the tops of your thighs in slightly and press them down into the floor. Press through your palms or fingertips on the floor beside your hips and lift the top of the sternum toward the ceiling as the top thighs descend.

Draw the inner groins deep into the pelvis. Inhale, and keeping the front torso long, lean forward from your hip joints, not your waist. Lengthen your tailbone away from the back of your pelvis. If possible take hold of the sides of your feet with your hands, thumbs on the soles, elbows fully extended; if this isn’t possible, loop a strap around your foot soles, and hold the strap firmly. Be sure your elbows are straight, not bent.

When you are ready to go further, don’t forcefully pull yourself into the forward bend, whether your hands are on the feet or holding the strap. Always lengthen the front torso into the pose, keeping your head raised. If you are holding your feet, bend your elbows out to the sides and lift them away from the floor; if holding the strap, lighten your grip and walk the hands forward, keeping the arms long. The lower belly should touch the thighs first, then the upper belly, then the ribs, and the head last.

With each inhalation, lift and lengthen your front torso just slightly; with each exhalation, release a little more fully into the forward bend. In this way, your torso oscillates and lengthens almost imperceptibly with the breath. Eventually, you may be able to stretch your arms out beyond the feet on the floor. Stay in the pose anywhere from 1 to 3 minutes. To come up, first lift the torso away from the thighs and straighten the elbows again if they are bent. Then inhale and lift the torso up by pulling the tailbone down and into the pelvis.

Parivrtta Janu Sirsasana (Revolved Head-of-the-Knee Pose)

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Begin in Dandasana (Staff Pose), pressing forward with your big toe mounds, spinning your inner thighs down, and rooting down with your femurs. Use your foot and leg actions to get directly on top of your sitting bones rather than falling behind them. Move your sacrum in and up toward your navel, and extend your sternum away from your navel to lengthen your front body. Bending your left knee, place the sole of your left foot high on your right inner thigh. Inhale; lengthen your spine. Exhale; take your left hand to the outside of your right thigh and your right hand behind your right hip, and twist your torso to the right so that your navel faces your right kneecap. Inhale here, then, maintaining the rotation and the length of your torso, exhale, and extend out over your right leg.

Reach your hands around your right foot, clasping your right wrist with your left hand. Inhale; reach your sternum forward and up to lengthen your front body. Exhale; revolve your left ribs toward your right knee, and fold forward any amount more. Keep the two sides of your neck equally long; the rotation is in your mid and upper back, not in your neck.

With each inhalation, lengthen your front body any amount, extending your sternum away from your navel; with each exhalation, lengthen your back body any amount, releasing a little more deeply over your left leg.

Hold for anywhere from 10 breaths to 1 minute, then use an inhalation to come up part way, lifting your chest and straightening your arms. Stay to exhale, rooting down with your right thigh, then use an inhalation to raise your torso all the way. Straighten your left leg. Repeat on the other side.

Setu Bandha Sarvangasana (Bridge Pose)

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Begin on your back with your knees bent and your feet planted beneath your knees. Place your feet parallel to each other and your knees hip-width apart. Keep space between the base of your neck (cervical vertebra 7, or C7) and the floor. Shrug your shoulders slightly closer to your ears to soften your trapezius muscles at the base of your neck and emphasize your cervical curve. Press your inner feet and arms actively into the floor as you lift your hips without letting your knees splay apart. 

Interlace your fingers under your back, then roll your outer shoulders and upper arms in toward your midline. Don’t pull your shoulders away from your ears. Lift your chin slightly away from your sternum and, firming your shoulder blades against your back, press the top of your sternum toward your chin. Try to lift the space between your shoulder blades and the base of your neck. Spin your inner thighs down and direct the flesh of your buttocks toward the backs of your knees.Keep your feet grounded and isometrically slide your heels toward your hands to engage your hamstrings. Lift your hips any amount more. On your exhalations, press down with your feet and shoulders; on inhalations, lift your hips and chest. Hold anywhere from 5 breaths to 1 minute, then release back to the floor.

Savasana (Corpse Pose)

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Come onto your back in a supine position. Separate your feet as wide as the mat, allowing your legs to fall open. You can place a bolster under the backs of your knees and use a folded yoga blanket for head support if you like. 

Turn your palms to face the ceiling, and locate your arms just far enough from your body that they do not touch your torso. Scan your body to notice if there are any asymmetries. Are there small adjustments to be made with your limbs so that your body feels even from side to side? Are there small adjustments to be made with the placement of your head or pelvis so that your body feels centered? 

Let your eyes close softly, and imagine them dropping back deeply into the sockets. Allow your muscles and bones to become heavy. Notice if there are places that still hold up or hold on—use exhalations to invite in a quality of release. Gradually let your breath become softer, quieter, and more internal. Continue to follow your breath so that your mind too becomes softer and quieter. Rest deeply, without sleeping. Savasana (Corpse Pose) can be held for as long as you’d like; a good rule of thumb is 5 minutes of Savasana for every hour of asana.