If the backs of your legs scream at you whenever you do straight-leg forward bends, it may well be that your hamstrings are tight. If you don’t stretch them regularly, they’ll stay that way—or even get stiffer. That’s not a good thing because tight hamstrings affect more than just our ability to bend forward with straight legs. They can make us more prone to injury—especially if we play sports. They can also interfere with good posture, which, in turn, can contribute to back pain.
The three large hamstring muscles run down the backs of our legs from the buttocks to just below the knees. They are attached to the bottom of the pelvis and when tight, can pull on the pelvis, reducing the curve in the lower back. This is a common cause of chronic lower back pain. To help prevent and remedy this, it’s important to stretch the hamstrings regularly.
Yoga offers us many different ways of stretching the hamstrings—we can stretch them from a standing or sitting position or from the floor, lying on our backs. When your hamstrings are tight, seated and standing forward bends can be uncomfortable because of the tendency to round the lower back. Hinging from the hips with straight legs is difficult with tight hamstrings, so it’s often best to practice with knees bent. This will enable you to tilt the hips forward and extend your spine, avoiding lower back strain.
On the other hand, you can always stretch your hamstrings lying on your back. Wrap a strap around one foot and extend your leg, lifting it and gently pulling it toward you. Rest the other foot on the floor with the knee bent. Have the strap long enough so that you can keep your shoulders and neck relaxed. When practicing like this, your entire spine is supported by the floor, preventing lower back strain.
You can see a harder variation of this pose in our featured asana, Dynamic Leg Stretch: http://www.wailana.com/yoga/asanas/1906. Check out the text for this pose to learn easier ways to practice this and other similar supine hamstring stretches.
Remember, everything in our body is connected so it’s also important to loosen and tone the muscles around the hips, stretch the calf muscles, and tone the abs. Be sure to practice a variety of asanas so that you’re regularly stretching and strengthening the entire body.