Tight hamstrings are something many of my yoga students complain to me about. Indeed, for those who have never stretched properly, or those who sit in a chair all day, or runners who don’t add a proper stretching routine to their schedule, tight hamstrings are most likely going to be there.
It is when we come to yoga then we most often realize how tight our hamstrings actually are!
I was the same. I used to go to the gym and lead a rather active lifestyle. And it is when I started my Ashtanga yoga practice that I realized that I have quite tight hamstrings. The rest of my body was rather flexible and sp lotus and backbends came rather easy to me.
And yet it was all those forward folds in the Ashtanga yoga primary series that had me facing my weakest point day in day out.
Has my hamstring flexibility improved over the years? Absolutely!
However it is still the stiffest part of my body.
When I have done my Ashtanga practice or when I do specific hip and hamstring stretches, on most days I am then able to do the full splits.
And so use me as an example of how yoga can indeed help improve hamstring flexibility.
And after a search for academic articles, science seems to have found that yoga can indeed help improve hamstring flexibility. And so in this article, I will outline the yoga poses and the sequence of yoga poses that have been found to increase hamstring flexibility (science-based).
First, let’s try to answer some commonly asked questions on yoga and hamstring flexibility.
Is yoga good for tight hamstrings?
Yoga has been found to help improve flexibility in hamstrings specifically. And so if you are suffering from tight hamstrings, yoga may be your answer. Due to the nature of the poses done in a yoga class, they will help improve flexibility and mobility in your hamstrings.
The added benefit from stretching out tight hamstrings is that this will help improve your movement patterns while you do any activities or sports you may be interested in, like running and biking.
According to Healthline: “Yoga poses stretch your muscles and increase your range of motion. With regular practice, they’ll improve your flexibility.” Below I discuss two scientific studies that found yoga to help improve hamstring flexibility specifically.
What type of yoga is best for flexibility?
There really is no best type of yoga for flexibility. If you are interested in increasing flexibility then it really does depend on how often we practice. Stretching helps maintain a range of motion in the joints and is a long-term process that needs to be done consistently and over time.
According to Healthline: “At any level of yoga, you’ll probably start to notice benefits soon. In one study, people improved their flexibility by up to 35% after only 8 weeks of yoga.”
Can hamstring flexibility be improved?
Hamstring flexibility can be improved through yoga. There are at least 2 scientific studies that have been carried out and were able to find that though a series of yoga poses performed over a set period of time, hamstring flexibility did increase. These two studies are discussed in detail below.
How many days a week should you do yoga?
According to a panel of experts convened by the American College of Sports Medicine, healthy adults should do flexibility exercises for all major muscle-tendon groups at least two to three times a week (neck, shoulders, chest, trunk, lower back, hips, legs, and ankles).
The correct answer to the question is as often as you want and as ofetn as your lifestyle allows you to go!
However, if we are considering how often to go to yoga in order to increase flexibility, then aim for at least 2-3 times a week, as mentioned above.
What is good hamstring flexibility?
Studies have found that people with lower back pain tend to also have tight hamstrings. Hamstring flexibility exercises have been successfully prescribed for relief of lower back pain. And so when discussing what good hamstring flexibility is, well it is that which helps maintain a pain-free back.
Additionally, one study which examined hamstring strength and flexibility in athletes, they concluded that a ‘‘lack of hamstring flexibility was the single most important characteristic of hamstring injuries in athletes.’’
Two academic studies on yoga and hamstring flexibility
The yoga poses and the yoga sequence I am about to discuss comes from two academic studies.
Both studies examined whether yoga can increase hamstring flexibility. And both studies found that it could.
Study 1 – Sun Salutations and hamstring flexibility
One study was carried out in the US involving 30 participants who took part in a 6-week yoga study. The participants were split into two groups; the yoga group and the control group who didn’t practice any yoga.
The yoga group was instructed to perform 2 sun salutation routines twice a day; once after waking up and once before dinner. This was done five times a week for six weeks.
Each set of sun salutations lasted 15 minutes. In these 15 minutes the participants did 8 rounds and then had a 5 minute rest in savasana.
Interestingly and encouragingly, at the end of the 6 weeks, the researchers found that “hamstring flexibility improved significantly” (approx 3 inches) for the yoga group.
More specifically, the authors went on to point out that:
“The results of this study have shown that performing a twice-daily yoga routine of Surya Namaskara can positively influence flexibility in the hamstring muscles as well as improve upper body muscle endurance”.
Additionally, given the link between hamstring flexibility and a healthy back, the authors also argued that: “that inclusion of sun salutations in an exercise program may help prevent orthopedic disorders associated with limited hamstring and low back flexibility”
Study 2 – Iyengar yoga and hamstring flexibility
A second study was carried out, this time examining the effects of selected asanas in Iyengar yoga on hamstring flexibility. This study was carried out in the UK and 16 participants took part. Their flexibility was tested before and after the study.
In this study, participants took part in one 90-minute Iyenar yoga class for a total of 6 weeks. More specifically, each class involved:
- 10 minute breathing exercises (pranayama)
- 12 minute warm up
- 55 minute postures (asanas)
- 10 minute relaxation
The postures used in this study are exlained in detail below.
Interetsingly, the results showed a significant increase in both hamstring and lower back flexibility. After once one yoga class per week for 6 weeks, the authors found flexibility to have increased from approximately 29.5cm to 30.87cm.
This change in flexibility may not seem like a lot, however, keep in mind that this was only one yoga class per week!
The authors of the study argued that:
“The increase in flexibility can most likely be attributed to the repetitive stretching and force resistance movements of yoga asanas (Galantino et al., 2004) therefore increasing blood circulation to muscles and connective tissue”.
“The results show a significant increase in flexibility, indicating 6 weeks of single session yoga training may be effective in increasing erector spine and hamstring flexibility. This is important when considering that much of the population find it difficult to attend more than one session a week into their training schedule.”
Yoga poses and sequence to help stretch tight hamstrings
So now that we know that yoga can indeed improve hamstring flexibility and we have seen two academic studies that found an increase in hamstring flexibity, lets have a look at the yoga poses we can try out.
What I have presented below is a combination of the asanas used in the two studies.
First off, we start the yoga sequence with the sun salutations used in the first study.
You can do this sequence in the morning or the afternoon. Whatever works for you!
So first we will do each set of sun salutations 8 times. This should take around 15 minutes.
1. Hands up
Come to the front of your mat and place your feet together and your hands by your side. On an inhale raise your arms and gaze at your thumbs. The photo shows an alternative version where we arch the back. Both versions are ok.
2. Standing forward bend (Uttanasana)
On an exhale fold forward.
- Bend your knees slightly and fold over.
- If you have lower back pain (such as a herniated disc) always keep your knees bent.
- When in the pose, with time as your hamstrings start to lengthen, you can start straightening your legs by aiming to raise your hips up to the ceiling.
- Allow your head and neck to relax.
- Allow your fingers to touch the floor.
3. Lunge Pose (Ardha Mandalasana)
On an inhale step one foot back and land in a lunge.
- Try to make sure your knee is over your ankle in your front foot.
- Use a pillow for the back knee if you have sensitive knees.
- Try to keep your hips square.
4. Downward facing dog (Adho Mukha Svanasana)
On an exhale bring both feet back and come into downward facing dog.
- Try to keep your hands shoulder width and your feet hips width apart.
- If you have tight hamstrings and calves, this pose may be challenging.
- If you feel most of your weight in your hands, try to slightly bend your knees and bring your weigh towards your feet. This will help elongate the spine.
- With time your heels may find the floor.
- When in the pose as you are aiming to lengthen the hamstrings try to bring your hips to the ceiling and at the same time try to bring your heels to the floor.
5. 8 point pose
On an inhale come forward in to plank and lower to the floor.
- Bring your chest to the floor as you keep your hips elevated
- Also, try to keep your chin close to the floor.
- As you are lowering down, keep your elbows in.
After the 8 point transition, raise into a cobra.
- Lie on your belly and place your hands next to your chest.
- Inhale and gently push your chest off the floor. If possible, gently lift your gaze.
- If you experience pain, try to not extend too much.
7. Downward facing dog (Adho Mukha Svanasana)
On an exhale step back to downward facing dog as explained above.
8. Lunge Pose (Ardha Mandalasana)
On an inhale step forward and come back in to lunge.
9. Standing forward bend (Uttanasana)
On an exhale bring both feet forward and come into a forward fold.
10. Hands up
On your last inhale for this round of sun salutations raise your hands up and then on an exhale bring them back by your side.
This is the last pose of the sun salutations. Remember to repeat 8 times!
Take a rest or continue with the next 5 poses.
And now we’re going to hold these poses for much longer. So instead of staying in each pose for 1 breath, we are going to stay in each pose for 30-60 seconds.
12. Downward facing dog (Adho Mukha Svanasana)
Come back to downward facing dog, which by now should be feeling much easier. And stay for 30-60 breaths.
13. Lunge pose (Ardha Mandalasana)
Same with lunge. Remember to switch legs so as you do this exercise on both legs.
14. Standing forward bend (Uttanasana)
You could try some nice variations in this pose as we are staying for a bit longer than before.
- You can hold on to your elbows
- You can clasp your hands behind your back and this may help you get a bit deeper into the pose.
15. Triangle pose (Trikonasana)
For trikonasana, step your feet out wide. Let your right foot turn 90 degrees so it is now facing forward.
Raise your arms to shoulder width. Then pivot the body and allow your right hand to move towards your right leg, all whilst keeping both arms straight.
And then do the same on the other side.
16. Head-to-knee pose (Janu Sirsasana)
Janu sirsasana is a wonderful pose for lengthening tight hamstrings. There are a few ways the pose can be approached:
- One way to approach this pose is shown in the photo. Aim to keep your back and arms straight. Use a yoga strap if you have trouble reaching your toes.
- Another way which is perhaps more common is to fold forward onto the front leg. This will give you a better hamstring stretch, however do your best to not hunch forward and keep your chest open.
- Aletrantaively, you could mix these two variations. You could do one minute on option one to prepare the body, and then 1 minute in option 2 to lengthen the hamstring.
- And then switch sides.
Once you have completed 8 rounds of sun salutations and then 30-60 seconds in each pose (and each side) rest for at least 10 minutes in savsana.
The studies this sequence is based on found hamstrings to have lengthened after 6 weeks, and so be patient, and aim to practice at least once per week. Ideeally aims to practice this sequence 2-3 times per week.
Alternatively, do this sequence 5 times per week, twice a day for 6 weeks as was done in the first study mentioned. And then please write to me and tell me if you also found an improvement in your hamstring flexibility!