“Ugh! I just want to touch my toes” said my yoga client.  “Why can’t I do this? I have been practicing it for years!”  Have you ever felt like this? You stretch your hamstrings and they just don’t seem to get you where you want to go.  As we break down some of these stretches, you may find that the answer is simply approaching your hamstrings with a more specific purpose in your stretching. This will allow you to find the true benefits and jewel and radiance of your hamstrings.  

The hamstrings are the set of three muscles (semitendinosus, biceps femoris long & short head,  semimembranosus) that originate mainly from the ischial tuberosity (your sit bones).  This area of the sit bones can be vulnerable to injury particularly if we are overstretching or stretching our hamstrings incorrectly. Hamstrings that lack the necessary flexibility are called shortened hamstrings muscles. We use these muscles for many activities such as running, walking, yoga, and even sitting (these muscles are extended while sitting). 

It is very necessary to warm up your hamstrings before stretching them. Walking, sun salutations, and even moving chair or moving bridge are options for warming up these muscles. There are three main ways to stretch the hamstrings. In each stretch, we must really notice the sensations of where we feel the stretch to avoid injury. Some students may find themselves overzealously stretching and actually injuring the muscle tendon particularly at the sit bone area. This can require a long and arduous path with much patience to recover from an injury here. The sensation of stretch should be in the ‘belly’ or middle of the muscle group rather than the sit bone or even the knee.  

The back and the calves have a role on where you may feel the stretch as well. For example, if you flex your ankle while stretching the hamstring, it will pull on the back of the knee which can influence the sensation of stretch on the back of the leg (hamstrings). It is a beautiful chain of events – one part affecting the other. The same goes with your back which is the most important emphasis in my teaching of hamstrings. The back position is often difficult to maintain depending on the level of flexibility in the hamstrings. Often, soreness or stiffness in the back can even be contributed to shortened hamstrings.   

Here are three primary hamstring stretches. I’ll explain why there is one optimal stretch if you are short on time or wanting to really isolate the hamstring muscle group.  

 1. Standing Upright parallel or staggered legs 

  • Example 1: Standing forward bend (uttanasana) – This is done with the legs parallel and folding the spine forward over the legs.
  • Example 2: Standing forward bend with legs staggered as in pyramid (parsvottansana). 
  • The spine has to accommodate gravity and flex forward. If the hamstrings are tight or the back is tight, this can be difficult to maintain both parts of these postures – the back position and the hamstring stretch.
  • The muscles of the legs must be turned on and active in some ways just to hold our trunk up. Thus, the muscles of the legs, including the hamstrings, may still be activated as we are trying to stretch them. This is ok, but it is not getting to just the hamstring stretching and it may be difficult for the practitioner to sensitively feel which part they are stretching.

2. Seated forward bend (single leg or double leg) 

  • Example 1: Seated double legged forward bend (paschimottanasana) – seated with both legs stretched out, reaching toward legs with hands or a strap. Back may be rounded or straight, legs may be bent or straight. 
  • Example 2:  Seated single legged forward bend (janu sirsasana) – seated with one leg stretched out and the other leg bent in with foot to inner thigh of other leg. Back may be rounded or straight, legs may be bent or straight. 
  • The spine has to accommodate gravity and flex forward. If the hamstrings are tight or the back is tight, this can be difficult to maintain both parts of these postures – the back position and the hamstring stretch. 
  • This is an easier posture to maneuver where you want to feel the stretch in the hamstrings than a standing forward bend.  

3. Supine (on back) Hamstring stretch – the **JEWEL**! 

  • Example 1: Supine Hand to Toe (supta padangusthasana) – this posture can be done without touching your hand to toe. On back, with one leg up and a strap around bottom of foot just above the arch of the foot and below the ball of the foot. Arms holding on comfortably to the strap. Lower leg can be bent or straight here – this may tilt the pelvis so be aware of this effect.   
  • Example 2:  Supine Hamstring Stretch with passive wall support – on back with sit bones comfortably close to wall corner with leg up wall rest. Lower leg can be bent or straight here – this may tilt the pelvis so be aware of this effect.   
  • Both of these postures allow the back to be neutral and relax on the floor. Adding a blanket roll under the neck will allow the neck to be more at ease too. Once the back is neutral then there is more availability of options for the hamstrings to stretch and be isolated for stretching 
  • Try flexing your ankle, allowing the calf muscles to stretch which may affect the hamstring stretch. You can also extend the ankle (point through the toes) and angle the big toe inward. This may allow a stretch on the outer shin (front of lower leg) for a bonus stretch. 
  • Bend or straighten your knee – how does this affect the stretch on the hamstring? Are you in the belly (middle) of the hamstring? How about angling your thigh bone and toes externally (outward)?
  • By relaxing on the floor in a more neutral position, does this allow you to relax and surrender more to the posture and innate flexibility here? 

Hamstring flexibility is foremost not about touching our toes! I remind students of this regularly. It is imperative that what we think we should look like be surpassed by what we really want to be feeling in the stretch. Maybe you will touch your toes someday. Maybe someone else touches their toes because their arms are longer in proportion to their legs. Flexibility is Feeling the Sensations in each posture. Being clear on where you want to feel the stretch (e.g. in the belly of the hamstring rather than the sit bones) is vital to our practice of yoga. Being in tune with our own body sensations and practicing ahimsa (compassion) will bring us closer to attaining the real jewels in our life (rather than whether we can actually touch our toes).     

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Rai Lowe