The hamstrings are a group of muscles that run from the sitting bone of the pelvis to the back of the knee. Its functions are extension and flexion in the knee and the hip. When the hamstrings are tight, hip and leg movement are limited and the body is more prone to strain or injury. The practice of yoga can lengthen and strengthen the hamstrings, preventing injury and creating more space in the body.
It is especially important to stretch the hamstrings before and after a workout, but a basic hamstring stretch, practiced every day can also be helpful to relieve tension in the lower back. Below are a few examples of stretches and when they can be effectively used.
Basic Hamstring Stretch (Supta Padangustasana)
Supta Padangustasana is an effective way to stretch the hamstrings and is appropriate for all levels of yoga practitioner. It is important to move slowly in this pose and stay with the breath. By doing so it is possible to find a place in the pose that a stretch can be felt in the hamstring without creating tension elsewhere in the body.
Using a yoga strap (or a belt, or a tie, or a piece of rope) lie down on your back and loop the strap around the ball of the right foot, extending the left leg flat along the floor (note: if the hamstrings are very tight here it is okay to bend the left knee and place the foot flat on the floor). Walk the hands up the strap until the arms are straight but the shoulder blades can comfortably rest on the floor. Extend through the right heel to straighten the right leg. Stay here for up to one minute before changing sides.
Pre Workout Hamstring Stretch (Variation of Utthita Hasta Padangusthasana)
Taking the time to stretch before a workout is an important step to avoiding injury. This simple stretch will help to lengthen the hamstrings and increase circulation in the legs, improving performance and preventing strain. Always take five to ten minutes before a workout to warm up.
Stand a leg’s length away from a desk or a chair (that is sturdy). Place your right heel on the desk or chair and bring the hands to the hips. Extend through the right heel. Over time it may become possible to straighten the leg completely. Once that happens, begin to fold over the lifted leg to increase the intensity of the stretch.
Post Workout Hamstring Stretch (Pachimottanasana)
After a workout the muscles are warm and limber. Taking a few minutes to stretch can help to open and release the muscles and reduce post workout soreness. If any tension was accumulated during the workout stretching can help to relieve it. This simple leg stretch helps release the backs of the legs after a long workout.
Sit with the legs extended straight forward and fold over the legs. If the feet are too far to reach, loop a yoga strap over both feet to hold onto. For tight hamstrings, bending the knees a little bit is a good way to start until they begin to lengthen.
Over time, the hamstrings will lengthen, creating more space in the lower back and hips and preventing injury and strain. Move into these poses with patience. The hamstrings are a large group of muscles and take time to open.
Please note: if you already have a hamstring injury, it is important to move slowly into these poses so as not to aggravate the injury. Move into the pose until a very mild stretch is felt and stay there. It takes time to heal a hamstring injury and overstretching will prolong the healing time.