Tight hamstrings are a common problem for many of us, especially if we have been sitting at a desk for long hours. Tight hamstrings can increase the risk of injuries, lead to muscle imbalances that cause lower back pain and knee pain, and cause aches and pains as we grow older. The good news, however, is that yoga is one of the best practices to do to improve hamstring flexibility. Better hamstring flexibility even leads to improved function in everyday activities and better hip health. Before we explore some of the best yoga poses for tight hamstrings in this article, let’s understand more about the hamstrings.
What are the hamstrings?
The hamstrings are a group of three muscles on the back of the thighs, running from the sit bones to the back of the knees. They are known as the semitendinosus, semimembranosus and bicep femoris. The hamstrings work towards bending the knee and extending the hips. They are essential for everyday activities such as walking and jumping, and they influence our posture.
What causes tight hamstrings?
Tight hamstrings can be a result of various everyday life activities or the lack thereof. Some of the common causes are:
- Lack of exercise throughout most of your life leads to weak hamstrings, causing tightness.
- If the knees are bent for long hours (if you are sitting, for example), the hamstrings remain in a shortened position. This leads to a limited range of motion.
- For athletes and fitness enthusiasts if one is working out too much without sufficient stretching before and afterwards, then the muscles are not given a chance to release built-up tension. This keeps them tight, limiting blood circulation and weakening the muscles.
- Due to bad posture and a sedentary lifestyle, your body will compensate for hamstring flexibility by pulling on the lower back. In this case the pelvis tilts forward, called posterior pelvic tilt, which adds pressure on the knees and makes posture worse.
Tight hamstrings can also cause back pain and tight calves. Due to the tilt in the pelvis, there is a pull and continuous strain which leads to back pain. The calves try to compensate when the hamstrings are tight by working harder and eventually tightening up. And since the calves work with the hamstring muscles, the hamstrings will also get tighter. The knees and hips also overcompensate leading to chronic pain.
Tight hamstrings could occur because of the muscle fibers being constantly contracted and because of knotted fascia (which happens due to lack of movement or stretching). Athletes and those working desk jobs are more likely to face tight hamstrings. In football, for example, you might have seen players sometimes facing a sudden pull. This is because of the pressure on the hamstrings from all the kicking and running. This pressure and tight feeling is caused by the hamstring itself shortening. When you stretch the hamstrings, it returns them to proper length.
Symptoms of tight hamstrings
Common symptoms of tight hamstrings include a snapping feeling, cramping, pain, swelling and redness. The pain commonly felt occurs at the back of the thigh when straightening the leg or bending over.
Yoga for hamstrings flexibility
A good hamstring stretch will release tightness greatly. Yoga for tight hamstrings is one of the most effective ways to release hamstring tightness, improve flexibility and strength of the muscles, as well as mobility of the joints. Initially, even if your hamstrings are tight and you find it challenging to do a yoga posture, it’s best to do as much as you can. You can even modify your poses in the beginning. You can also use props to maintain proper alignment and deepen the stretch in your hamstrings. Pay attention to your feet, calves, knees, thighs, hips and lower back. Practice slowly, with complete awareness and breath control. Practice holding the postures for a longer duration. Always, always spend some time doing warm-ups before you practice the following yoga asanas for tight hamstrings. Better still, if you can fit it into your schedule, join a live yoga class online with certified yoga teachers to practice safely. You will gradually notice an ‘openness’ in the back of the body. You’ll notice the range of motion and flexibility improving and any pain or discomfort you initially felt, decreasing. Take a look at these best hamstrings stretches.
Downward facing dog pose
A part of the Surya Namaskar sequence, the downward facing dog pose gives an intense stretch to the hamstrings and calves. It’s also perfect for the upper body as it stretches and strengthens the arms, shoulders and upper back. You’ll notice that when the hamstrings are tight, you might find it hard to place the feet on the mat (you’ll only be on your toes). As flexibility improves, you’ll be able to place the entire foot on the mat more easily.
How to do downward facing dog:
- Start from the plank pose. Gently shift your weight toward your feet, lifting your torso up and forming a v-shape.
- Look between palms keeping your neck aligned with your spine.
- Don’t worry if you can't straighten the legs fully or place your feet completely on the floor. Ensure your back is straight.
- Hold the pose for 5-10 breaths, then gently come into child’s pose.
Standing forward bend pose
The standing forward bend is a wonderful yoga asana for tight hamstrings, the standing forward fold stretches the hamstrings and calves. You can do dynamic movements of this standing hamstring stretch, where you drop the neck and head gently and keep trying to go lower and lower towards the feet.
How to do standing forward bend pose:
- Stand with your feet hip-width apart and your arms at your sides.
- Raise your hands up and start bending over at your hips until you’re placing your palms on your shins, ankles, or the floor (wherever you can reach).
- You can bend your knees a little bit, but try to keep them as straight as you can.
- Let your head hang down and relax, whilst keeping your legs nice and long.
- You can hold the pose for up to a minute or as long as comfortable.
The Gate pose, known as Parighasana, is a side stretch that releases tension from the waist, lower back, hips and hamstrings. It gradually works towards releasing tightness from the hamstrings while also reducing fat from the waist.
How to do gate pose:
- First kneel with your thighs perpendicular to the floor. Place your hands on your hips.
- Now extend your left leg out to the side. Externally rotate the leg from your hip socket, and keep your big toe close to the mat. Keep your other hip in line with your knee.
- Inhale, lengthen your spine and take your right arm out to the side. Externally rotate again such that your palm is facing the ceiling.
- Exhale bend laterally, to the side, in the direction of your extended leg. Slide your left hand down your left leg.
- Now stay here, breath deeply and keep your gaze under the arm that is raised up.
- Ensure your chest is open towards the ceiling and not falling inwards.
- To come out of the pose, slide the hand back up, bring the shoulders on top of your hips and kneel back down in Vajrasana, the thunderbolt pose.
Known as Anjaneyasana, this is one of the best hip openers you can practice. It works wonderfully on the hips and thighs, stretching and strengthening the hamstrings and hip flexors.
How to do low lunge:
- To practice low lunge, take your right foot between your hands. Make sure your right knee is directly above your right ankle.
- Now gently drop your left knee to the floor. You can also keep a blanket or a small cushion below your knee for comfort.
- Bring both hands to your waist and gently push your hips forward till you begin to feel a nice stretch.
- Keep facing your right leg. Don’t let your shoulders round. They should remain open.
- Stay here for a few deep breaths or as long as you are comfortable.
Standing Wide-legged forward bend pose
In Standing Wide Legged Forward Bend Pose, the head comes to the mat with your legs wide apart and upper body folding forward. Because of the forward bending movement, the hamstrings and lower back get stretched and strengthened. The muscles are also constantly engaged in the pose to keep the body stable in this position.
How to do standing wide-legged forward bend:
- Stand straight in Tadasana.
- Move your feet away from each other. Keep about 3 – 4 feet distance with toes facing forward forming an equilateral triangle with the legs. You can adjust the distance based on your height. Ensure your feet are completely grounded and balanced.
- Hold your waist, breath in, bend back a little, lengthen your spine and as you breath out bend forward from your hips going all the way down.
- Keep the feet firmly grounded on the mat, and spine as straight as possible.
- Gently make an effort to place the top of your head on the floor and palms or forearms (whichever is possible and comfortable for you) next to the head on the floor.
- Hold and keep breathing.
The Triangle pose, Trikonasana, gives a great stretch to the calves, thighs and hips. It releases tension and tightness from the hamstrings and waist region. It also works effectively on strengthening the shoulders and arms.
How to do triangle pose:
- Stand straight and keep the feet about 3-4 feet apart.
- Now align the center of your right heel with the center of the left foot. Ensure your feet are pressing the ground firmly and the weight of your body is equally balanced on both the feet.
- As you inhale and exhale, bend your body to the right, downward from the hips and keeping the waist straight. Now extend the left arm up towards the sky, rotating the hip, abdomen and chest to the left side and your right hand comes down towards the floor. Keep both arms in a straight line.
- Straighten the front knee, pushing the hips back, maintaining a lateral stretch on the left side of the body. Find your balance looking down, and then look up towards the left fingertips.
- Breathe deeply while you stretch to the maximum and maintain balance. Repeat the pose with the other leg.
Reclined big-toe pose
The Reclined Big-Toe pose gently works on improving flexibility in the lower back and hamstrings. And because you can adapt modifications and use a strap to help you deepen the stretch you will notice how much progress you are making. As your hamstrings get more flexible, you will be able stretch your leg straight up without much discomfort.
How to do reclined big-toe pose:
- Lie on your back. Bring your knee up toward your chest, and slowly straighten the leg.
- Straighten your leg up toward the ceiling, holding the back of your thigh to deepen the stretch or you can use a yoga strap. Loop the strap around the ankle and stretch the leg out straight.
- Pull the leg closer towards your head. Hold the pose for 5-10 breaths.
- Bend your knee so your leg comes back down to your chest. Repeat this with the other leg.
Maintaining good hip and back health is necessary for a balanced and healthy well-being. Start by stretching and strengthening the muscles and tissues, correcting your posture and giving your body the much-needed movement that it craves! Your hamstrings will thank you in the long run. The best way to stay committed and progress in a sustained way is to join live yoga classes with experienced teachers.