Oh, hamstrings! These long muscles along the back of the thigh have been my nemesis for quite some time. Throughout my yoga journey, I have spent a ton of time focusing in on stretching my legs and especially the hamstrings because it is an area where I am nearly always feeling tight. Today, I am sharing some of my favorite yoga poses to relieve tight hamstrings.
What causes tight hamstrings? There are a few different causes for tightness on the back of the legs. One of my biggest problems is tight hips, which causes the pelvic bone to slightly tilt and puts pressure on the hamstrings. If your hips seems to be tight as well, I have a great article on yoga poses to open your hips.
Of course, your hamstrings can also become tight from different activities and exercises. If you play any active sports or are a runner, the amount of sprinting or stop-and-go movement can cause tightness. Other activities include dancing, lifting weights, or hiking. Warming up before these activities can help to avoid tightness or injury.
If your hamstrings are really feeling tight, I would suggest warming them up a little bit prior to stretching or yoga. Enjoy a light walk or some gentle cardio to get the muscles warm. It is also important to note that none of the stretches or poses below should be practiced to the point of sharp pains. If you are tight, the exercises should feel uncomfortable, but when sharp pain or shortness of breath is experienced, please back off on the poses to avoid injury. A strained hamstring is not fun, so we want to avoid pushing ourselves in any way.
These poses below (and their suggested counterparts) should help you increase mobility and relieve some of the tension on the back of your thighs. Take your time with each pose and play around with some of my suggested modifications or movement to make these poses work for you.
Reclined Hand-To-Big-Toe Pose
Start lying flat on your back with both legs stretched straight in front of you on the mat. Bring your right knee into the chest and press the left leg firmly onto the ground. Bring the hands to the back of the right leg, near the calf or thigh depending on flexibility, and press the right heel straight up towards the ceiling, keeping the head, neck, and shoulders on the floor. Straighten the leg as much as you comfortably can.
Adjustment options (pictured): If you have a yoga strap or belt or scarf, you can place it around the bottom on the foot and hold onto the strap on each side of the leg. If the stretch feels too intense, try keeping the left foot on the floor with the knee bent towards the ceiling.
I enjoy finding extra movement in this pose. Try making big circles with your foot, using the strap to help guide the big circles. Do a few in each direction. I also enjoy stretching into my hip from here by opening my leg out to the side and coming to rest my elbow on the floor (as pictured).
From a low lunge, keep the hands on the floor on both sides of the front leg. Start walking the fingertips back as you shift the weight towards the tailbone and begin straightening into the front leg, as much as possible. Allow the head and upper body to fold forward over the leg, releasing the head, neck, and shoulders.
Modification options: For more intensity, flex the font toes back towards your face for more hamstring stretch. If you have yoga blocks at home, feel free to place these underneath your hands for added stability.
This is another pose that I love to do a little flow or movement in. Moving back and forth from lunge to runner’s stretch can help relieve the intensity of the stretch. On the inhale, I move into the lunge (pictured) and on the exhale, I move back into runner’s stretch and release the head.
Half Standing Forward Fold (Half Intense Stretch)
Start standing in tadasana. On an exhale, move into a fold by hinging forward at the waist with a straight back and bring your hand towards the ground. From forward fold, start to walk the hands up the shins until you are able to flatten the back completely. The tailbone should press back behind you and the chest opens forward as you draw your gaze out in front of you.
Modification option: Keep the knees slightly bent in order to get the tailbone to arch back. If you have yoga blocks at home, you can place these beneath the hands to help you reach the floor with more stability.
Of course, you are welcome to enjoy some movement in this pose by moving in and out of forward fold. When my hamstrings are feeling extremely tight, it feels nice to do a tiny flow – breathing in and lifting into the flat back position, breathing out into the complete fold.
Standing Wide-Legged Forward Fold
From standing, turn to face the long edge of your yoga mat and step or hop your feet wide and parallel, about 3 feet apart. Turn the toes inward and the heels out. Place the hands on the hips and start to hinge forward from the waist, keeping the back as straight as possible. When you have gone as far as you can with a straight back, release the head down and allow the back to round, bringing the hands to the floor or the ankles. Hold here for 5-10 breaths. To come back up, bring the hands back to the hips and rise with a flat back.
Modification option: Keep the knees slightly if your hamstrings are feeling tight. If you have yoga blocks at home, feel free to place them underneath your hands to help reach the floor and find more stability.
Downward Facing Dog
From hand and knees, place the knees directly underneath the hips and the feet hip distance apart. Hands should reach out in front of the shoulder with the fingers spread wide and the palms fully pressing into the floor. Lifting the knees off of the floor, reach the tailbone up towards the ceiling and straighten into the legs. Press the heels towards the floor and look up at the belly button, relaxing the tops of the shoulders.
Modification options: Bend the knees slightly to release the tightness in the legs and arch the tailbone higher towards the ceiling.
Feeling really tight? Walk out your dog 🙂 Bend into one knee and then the other, pressing the opposite heel down towards the ground. You can also lean the hips a little bit side to side.
Start seated with both legs straight in front of you (staff pose). Bring one foot to the inside of the opposite thigh, allowing the knee to open out to the side. Fold forward over the straight leg, trying to keep the belly button towards the center of that leg. Bring your hands to your foot or your calf to help gently pull yourself forward. Allow the head and the shoulder to relax into the posture.
Modification options: If you are unable to grab your feet, use a yoga strap, belt, or scarf and wrap it around the bottom of the extended foot. Hold onto both sides of the strap and use it to help you obtain a gentle pull towards the leg.
Seated Forward Fold
Start seated with both legs straight in front of you (staff pose), making sure to be seated up on the tailbone. On an inhale, reach both hands overhead and fold forward on the exhale. For an active pose, grab your feet or ankles and gently pull yourself forward throughout the pose. For a yin version, fall forward and release the hands, shoulders, and head, allowing yourself to simply hinge forward and hang there.
Modification options: If you are unable to grab your feet, use a yoga strap, belt, or scarf and wrap it around the bottom of the feet. Hold onto both sides of the strap and use it to help you obtain a gentle pull towards the legs. If your hamstrings are feeling extremely tight, try placing a rolled blanket below the knees for a supported bend.
Legs Up the Wall Pose
Start laying on your back, bring your legs up onto the wall and scoot your tailbone as close to the wall as is comfortable. Allow the arms to rest out to the side, palms up. This allows the shoulders to rest back. Use this pose as your final savasana. Relax into this posture. Allow the weight of the body to be fully supported by the ground and wall. Release control of the mind, the breath, and the body. Enjoy this pose for as long as feels good (suggest more than 10 minutes).
Modification options: Place a pillow underneath the tailbone and low back to release pressure on the lower back.
Be nice to your hamstrings and keep them loose with these gentle stretches! Don’t forget to love on your hips as well because generally tightness in hamstrings reflects something out of whack with your hips.
Other ways to relieve tightness? Take baths or enjoy steam rooms! You can also enjoy a nice massage, self-massage, or attempt foam rolling for extra relief.
Questions? Comment below! I struggle with my hammies too, so I would love to help you find relief in yours.