Many people struggle with tight hamstrings and that can certainly make many of our yoga asanas more challenging. For those with very tight hamstrings, just sitting on the floor can be difficult.
Your whole body is connected and works as one unit; what happens with one muscle group can have repercussions throughout your entire body. Therefore, as your hamstrings become tight, they pull on your pelvis, which in turn alters your spinal alignment.
The backward (posterior) tilt in the pelvis can result in the compression of the low back as the natural curve of your lower spine is reduced or eliminated. The back and downward tug will also limit the range of motion in your lumbar spine; your tight hamstrings can essentially hold your low back hostage.
People with rather tight hamstrings struggle to hinge forward from the hips and tend to compensate by bending from the waist instead, rounding their upper back and shoulders.
The best way to work on releasing the hamstrings and maintain optimal alignment in the body is to focus on keeping length in the spine during forward-flexion positions. It isn’t important that you can touch your toes in a forward bend or get your heels to the floor in down dog, it is important that the back body lengthens and the upper back and shoulders don’t excessively round.
This may mean you do not bend as far forward in a pose, and while it might seem counter-intuitive, you are in fact getting a more effective stretch. The rounded back is going to eliminate a part of the stretch in a forward bend and doesn’t allow you to get in there where your body needs the most lengthening. That hunched position also reinforces poor posture that many of us already struggle with, in this digital era.
In a standing forward-bend position, rounding your back and straining to reach for the floor can put additional weight and undue stress on the low back and increase the chance of injury.
So how do you increase your hamstring flexibility and adjust yoga asanas to match where your body is it? Below are a few simple poses that work on the hamstrings with tips on how to get the most out of these stretches.
There are also modifications and alternative to some of the more challenging asanas for people with tight hamstrings. These alternatives will allow you to work on lengthening the hamstrings and low back, giving you the benefits of the original posture, without the risk of compromising the integrity of the spine.
Postures to Lengthen the Hamstrings and Lower Back
Use a strap or a belt to help pull yourself forward, hinging from the hips, while keeping the spine long and the chest open. Place the strap across the balls of the feet, with one side of the strap in each hand. Keep your elbows tucked in close to the body and your shoulders relaxed as you hold the strap.
Supine Hand to Toe Pose
In this pose, we are going to swap out the “hand to big toe” for a strap or belt. You do not want to be straining or lifting the shoulders or the bottom leg off the mat in order to reach the top, stretching leg. Use a strap to make this pose more accessible.
Hug the knee into your chest and wrap the strap around the foot. Keep your shoulder blades, your head, and your bottom leg on the mat as you start to extend the top leg. Allow the leg to be heavy and the strap to take the weight of your leg.
Start with a partially bend knee and as you inhale, slowly straighten the leg. (The leg doesn’t have to be perpendicular to the ceiling; it can be at any angle that allows you to straighten and stretch the hamstrings). As you exhale, return to the bent knee position.
Try this four or five times. Hold the last extension. While holding the stretch, gently pull your kneecap down toward your stomach, contacting the quadriceps in the front of the leg. This contraction in the front will help force the hamstrings in the back to let go. Ensure that as you contract the quadriceps, you do not lock your knee joint.
Legs Up the Wall
This is a great stretch for the hamstrings and for relieving and gently lengthening the low back. The wall and the floor work to keep your spine long while hinging from the hips, and as you are fully supported in this pose, your muscles can completely relax and release.
Child’s pose can help to create space in the lower back without requiring the hamstrings to lengthen much. Since tight hamstrings generally result in a tight lower back it is important to work on improving the range of motion in both places.
While you work on increasing your hamstring flexibility, it is best to do a few postures that specifically lengthen the back without involving the hamstrings to ensure the lumbar spine is getting a sufficient stretch.
If you are unable to sit your butt right back onto your heels, place a bolster between the glutes and the feet to provide support to the pelvis, allowing for a deeper stretch as the muscles soften and relax on the bolster (a rolled blanket or two will work instead of a bolster).
This is another posture that targets the back while omitting the hamstrings. It is also a great preparatory pose for down dog, which can be very difficult for those with tight hamstrings. Melting heart will help teach you what down dog should feel like through the back and pelvis before you worry about adding in the hamstrings and calves.
Come into this pose from all fours, keeping your hips stacked over your knees. Extend your arms long in front of you, about shoulder width apart, and lay your hands, forearms, and elbows down on the mat. Press your head and chest through the arms and rest your forehead down on the mat. Focus on lengthening the spine but slightly tucking the tail bone down and back, as if you were trying to pull it to the back edge of your mat. Also, ensure your pelvis stays lifted and does not tilt down towards the floor.
Modification for Tight Hamstrings
Here are a few variations of common yoga asanas that work well for those with tight hamstrings. They do not require the same range of motion as the original pose but will still help to improve hamstring flexibility.
Down Dog Variations
Try using the wall to come into a 90-degree version of down dog. Stand arm’s length away from the wall and extend the arms out at shoulder height. Walk your hands down the wall, lining up your ears between your arms as you gaze towards the floor. Focus on extending the tailbone back towards the wall behind you.
You can progress from the wall down dog to a sturdy piece of furniture. This can be a good middle ground between the wall and a full down dog on the floor. Use a sturdy chair or coffee table to ease into a lower variation.
For performing down dog on the floor, focus on keeping the spine long rather than on straightening the legs or touching the heels to the floor. Really bend your knees and lift the sit bones to lengthen the low back. As you increase your hamstring range of motion, then the legs can start to straighten more.
Standing Forward Bend
There is no need to reach for the floor in this posture. If you are unable to effectively hinge from your hips, the extension towards the floor will come from a rounded upper back and dangling arms. It is a better and safer stretch to remain more elevated in your forward bend. Put your hands on your hips or gently on your thighs to help alleviate some of the weight on your lower back here. This approach will work in other standing forward bends, like wide-leg forward bend and pyramid pose.
When you are required to get your hands to the floor while in a standing forward bend, like during a sun salutation, bend the knees as much as you need to keep the back long on the way down and to comfortably press your hands to the floor. Those bent knees may not give you a deep stretch but this will protect your low back from strain.
With a bit of patience and persistence, you can work towards releasing your tight hamstrings, improving your flexibility, and relieving lower back discomfort.