Hip Yoga: Easy Hamstring Stretching

I know that a number of instructors sequence reclining big toe pose toward the end of a sequence, but I actually prefer to do it more toward the beginning. When I do it early on and with a strap, it becomes a relatively gentle hamstring opener for me. I’m not sure, but I think this has to do with the pose’s relationship to gravity. That is, in the reclining version of the stretch, gravity is doing most of the stretching work, helped along by a small bit of tension from my hands on the strap. In other common forward folds like uttanasana and paschimottanasana, the weight of the torso draping onto the legs intensifies the hamstring stretch for me. This is fine when I’m ready for it, but when I’m not — such as early on in my practice — it can be nice to remove that weight from the stretching equation.

If I do this pose at the beginning of a practice, I almost always start with the strap, setting it aside if it turns out I don’t need it. For me, at least, I can get almost as intense a stretch with the strap held very near my foot as I can with my fingers around my big toes. Either way, I prefer to be pleasantly surprised — as in, “Hey, I can stretch more today!” — than unpleasantly stretched too far.

In terms of hamstring stretching, there are two variations of the stretch I like to do, on account there being different muscles in the hamstring group. (For a refresher on hamstring anatomy, go here.) The first one is basically the “straight up” version that stretches all three hamstring muscles more or less evenly (depending on things like individual tightness).


[Cathie Ryder instructing for Expert Village. Video via YouTube.]

Variations and options:

  1. Instead of going to one’s full knee extension right away, it can be nice to bend and straighten the knee a few (or several) times first. I find this is especially true on days when my hamstrings feel tighter than normal (exhaustive run, slept funny, whatever). Sometimes, my body needs the stretch to be readily subsiding in order to believe the stretch is safe.
  2. For folks whose hip flexors are comfortable with this, the pose can be performed with the bottom leg extended along the floor.

The second version I enjoy involves externally rotating the leg and then bringing it out to the side. The external rotation moves the stretch more toward the semitendinosus and semimembranosus muscles. The abduction also moves the stretch into the hip adductors, but that is another hip yoga post for another time.


[Cathie Ryder instructing for Expert Village. Video via YouTube.]

Again, variations and options include:

  1. Not moving the leg so far away from the center line. Especially useful if the adductors are the tighter muscle group here.
  2. Softening the knee a bit while abducting the leg.
  3. Softening and extending the knee in a bit of a vinyasa.
  4. Entering the pose with the bottom leg extended to add some opposite-side hip flexor stretching into the equation. (As a runner and a sitter, I’m big on hip flexor stretching. My hip flexors just love me, let me tell you.)

Basically, the positioning here makes it a lot easier for me to back off and go slowly when needed as well as to play around with a lot of different variations in order to find the right type and amount of hamstring stretch I need at any given time. Additionally, making the stretch more dynamic — bending and straightening — helps to “wake up” those muscles more for hamstring strengthening asanas down the road.

Hint, hint.

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