I have really tight hamstrings… me and every other person in America (or so it seems). As a yoga teacher one of the things I hear about the most is tight hamstrings… which is why one of my favorite poses to do in class is Supta Padangusthasana ( or reclining big toe pose). If you have ever taken a class from me there is a very good chance this pose was visited… I do not preach in my classes (at least I don’t think I do) but I know I have told pretty much every one of my students that life would be better if we practiced this particular stretch in our daily lives.
Of course I have been saying this for years… and thus far I have never managed to get into a routine of doing this stretch at home… but I do teach it at least twice a week (if not more). But here I am, virtually unemployed, with a plethora of free time, and a lot of motivation, so I’m pledging to do this stretch every day for one week, and see if it actually makes a difference in my life. Who is with me? I’ll do a follow up post after a week of consistent stretching, and I’d love to have your comments & personal feedback (feel free to comment here or on the facebook page).
I’m not expecting any profound epiphanies, but I do know that since I have been running more this year, my hamstrings are even tighter than normal, and though this is certainly not the only good hamstring stretch (and maybe not even the absolute best one) it is by far my favorite.
There are a ton of other great benefits about this pose as well. It’s great for lower back pain, it stretches the calves and inner thighs, helps strengthen the core, it can help with sciatica, it can even help you reduce stress. Denise Benitez says in an article for the Yoga Journal that “You may never become a model for the loose hamstring calendar, but the benefits of Supta Padangusthasana will enrich your life in many ways. Your pelvis will enjoy more of its full movement through space (great for Latin dancing!), all your yoga poses will benefit, and your spirit will be soothed by the gentle release of the often overworked muscles on the back side of your body.”
Do I really need to keep listing reasons why almost everyone would benefit from a daily dose of this pose? Hamstrings can be tricky, and stretching them takes time (I’ve heard 20-30 minutes a day of un-loaded stretching) And we might not all have that kind of time to devote to opening these key muscles, but even two minutes a day is better than none.
This stretch is usually done with a yoga strap, but if you are trying it at home a belt or long sleeved tee-shirt should do the trick.
Start by lying on your back (supine) with knees bent. Place the strap (or whatever prop you are using) over the ball of the right foot and begin to extend the right leg up towards the sky. (keeping a slight bend in the knee is a-ok. First and foremost, listen to your body). Starting out I’d recommend keeping the left knee bent with the foot on the floor, but if you are feeling a little more open, and don’t have any lower back considerations, you might want to extend the left leg out onto the floor, keeping a strong flex to both feet.
Trying to pull evenly through both sides of the strap, invite your shoulders to relax. (you might even anchor your elbows on the floor so you encourage the arms to relax). I like to engage my core while in this pose, by simply drawing my belly button in and up… offering support to the lower back.
You might gently let the right leg rock back and forth in this pose, getting a little bit of movement in the hip joint (because motion is lotion).
After spending at least 1 minute with the leg up towards the sky, transfer both sides of the strap/prop into the right hand. Invite you left hand to help anchor your left hip to the ground. (if you left knee is still bent, you can slightly let the knee open towards the left to act as a counter balance, which will help keep the hip rooted down). Very slowly, perhaps to the count of 10, invite your right leg open to the right side. Keeping the flex in the foot, you might even encourage the toes to inch a little bit in the direction of your right shoulder. This is usually about the time I have to remind myself about what my core is doing, (keep zipping up!). Holding here for several breaths (or several minutes, you know your body best), then slowly begin to engage the secondary muscles in your right leg. Trying to use the strength of the leg rather than the pull on the strap to slowly (SLOWLY! Work through the resistance, you’ll gain more benefits if you help strengthen while you stretch! It’s not just about momentum!) lift your leg back up towards the sky. Hold here for a few more breaths before slowly releasing the strap, and lowering your leg.
Take a moment, and notice if you feel a difference between your right and left leg (right leg might feel just a little bit longer! Progress!). As you are ready, bend both knees, and get ready to stretch out the left leg!
Try to stretch for the same amount of time on each side. How you track is up to you, you might just be able to “feel” when you are even. But you might count the breaths spent in each part of the pose, listen to a set amount of songs, or maybe even set a timer.
I love stretching in the morning, but you might try this stretch at the end of the day, and see if you notice a difference in flexibility from morning to evening. We tend to be a little more warmed up at the end of the day because we have been up and moving around a bit and your hamstrings might be a little less resistant.
You might also experiment with trying this stretch at the beginning/ end of a yoga practice, and see if you notice a difference. This stretch is a great way to warm up for a variety of standing poses, but it’s also a great way to end a practice after your muscles are already warm and have been working a little bit.
* I should probably put a disclaimer in here that yes, I am an RYT, but stretching/ exercising at home can have risks. PLEASE BE CAREFUL! For further and more detailed instructions, you might visit the Yoga Journal website