While any amount of stretching will help you feel more limber, there’s just something about that relief you get after doing postures that stretch out the hamstrings specifically — an area of your body that’s extra-prone to tightness. If you hit up your yoga mat, there are quite a few poses that target that back-of-the-legs hotspot.
The hamstrings are actually three muscles that come together to form the hamstring muscle group, says yoga teacher Sarah Randall. “We use our hamstrings in so many daily movements like walking, jumping, bending over to pick something up, standing up from a chair, and more,” she tells Bustle. They tend to get tight if you spend a lot of time sitting, she says, because keeping your knees bent for long periods of time causes the muscles to shorten. To counteract it, all you need to do is stretch for a few minutes a day — which you can do via yoga hamstring stretches.
Not only does it feel good to stretch your hamstrings, but it can also help you move around with more ease. “Most people with tight hamstrings have a decreased range of motion and experience stiffness and soreness when extending their legs,” says Ryan Marks, a yoga teacher and CorePower Yoga district manager. He says this stiffness will likely be the most noticeable when you bend over to pick something up, or when you reach down to tie your shoes. If that sounds familiar, read on below for all the best yoga stretches for hamstrings.
Yoga Hamstring Stretches
The next time you feel tight or sore down the backs of your legs, hop into one of these yoga poses and hold it for a few breaths. Add one or two stretches to your daily routine to keep your lower body more limber.
1. Half Split
Randall says the half split pose is a great one for stretching the backs of your legs. To set it up, start in a low lunge with your hands planted on the floor on either side of your front foot. From there, put your rear knee down and shift your hips back so they're right on top of your knee. “By doing this you're able to straighten the front leg to stretch the hamstrings,” she says.
You can put your hands on yoga blocks to help keep your chest lifted and your pelvis tilted forward. It’s also OK to bend your front knee, Randall says, as that’ll help you feel a stretch in the middle of your hamstring.
2. Pyramid Pose
The concept of a pyramid pose is very similar to half splits, Randall explains. Both essentially involve straightening your front leg to elongate the muscles. For this one, start off in a low lunge and then step your back foot in until you can place your heel flat on the mat. Put your hands on yoga blocks, if necessary, to keep your chest lifted and your pelvis tilted forward. While both legs should be relatively straight, it’s OK to have a little bend in your front knee if that helps you get a deeper hamstring stretch, she says.
3. Downward Dog
To do a downward dog, Randall suggests starting in a tabletop or high plank pose. Next, tuck your toes under, lift your knees up off the mat, and pike your hips up and back so that your body forms an upside down “V” shape. “I always recommend keeping a bend in the knees as that will deepen the hamstring stretch,” says Randall. She also recommends pushing into your pointer fingers and thumbs and finding a comfy position for your head. “Most people find it comfortable to keep the neck neutral so your gaze is looking towards your toes.”
4. Head To Knee Pose
Marks says this classic yoga stretch opens the hamstrings as well as the hips and abductors. To give it a try, start in a seated position with your legs stretched out in front of you. Bend one of your knees, bringing your heel to the inside of your opposite inner thigh. On an exhale, slightly twist to square your hips toward your extended leg.
Keep your back straight as you bend at the hips to fold forward. If it’s comfortable, reach both hands towards your toes or raise one hand overhead. To modify the stretch, rest your arms on your thighs. Stay there for two to three breaths, then repeat with the other leg.
5. Reclined Big Toe Pose
To do this deep hamstring stretch, Marks recommends keeping a yoga strap or towel nearby. Lie on your back with your legs extended out in front of you. On an exhale, bend one of your knees and raise your leg toward the ceiling. Keep your foot flexed as you carefully loop the strap around the arch of that foot, right under the pad of your big toe.
Keep your arms pinned to your sides and your elbows on the mat. “If it’s comfortable, slowly press your toes toward the ceiling for about three breaths,” says Marks. “To get out of the pose, slowly bend your knee into your chest and repeat on your other leg.”
Gothe, N. P., & McAuley, E. (2016). Yoga Is as Good as Stretching-Strengthening Exercises in Improving Functional Fitness Outcomes: Results From a Randomized Controlled Trial. The journals of gerontology. Series A, Biological sciences and medical sciences, 71(3), 406–411. https://doi.org/10.1093/gerona/glv127.
Sarah Randall, RYT-350, yoga teacher