These leg muscles can often be the root of lower-back pain and knee problems. By Andrea Ferretti
Have you ever heard someone say, “I can’t do yoga, because I could never touch my toes?” Or, maybe you’ve heard it come out of your own mouth? It’s important to know you don’t have to touch your toes to do yoga. But if you want to, it’s a great practice for getting you there. In order to touch your toes, you need to stretch your hamstring muscles.
As you do the poses that follow, keep in mind two things: First, don’t lock your knees. When your knees lock, that contracts your hamstrings, which pulls your pelvis forward and takes your lower back out of its ideal, natural curve. Second, think of straightening your legs by contracting your quadriceps. Weak or underutilised quads can make it difficult to straighten your legs, so learning to use your quads will help you get the hamstring stretch you’re aiming for.
Supta Padangusthasana (Reclining Hand-to-Big-Toe Pose)
You’ll need a yoga strap for this pose, though a tie, belt, or T-shirt will all work if you don’t have one. Lying on your back on your mat, bend your right knee into your chest and place the strap around the arch of your foot. Extend the foot up toward the ceiling. To straighten the leg, contract the quadriceps.
Remember: Don’t lock your knee! You’ll know you’ve gone too far if your lower back flattens into the floor.
Feel It: Stay for 5 to 10 breaths, bend your knee to release, and do the other side.
Uttanasana (Standing Forward Bend) with a Chair
Stand with your feet hip-distance apart and your hands on your hips. Take a big inhale and, as you exhale, keep your knees slightly bent and fold forward toward your chair. Rest your head on your forearms. With your lower back straight, straighten your legs by contracting and drawing the quadriceps upward.
Refine It: Keep your knees ever so slightly bent. Lift your sitting bones up while you press down through your heels to increase the stretch in the back of your legs.
Feel It: Stay for 5 to 10 breaths. To come up, bend your knees and roll up one vertebra at a time.
Wide-Legged Forward Bend
Stand with your legs at least one leg’s distance apart. Place your hands on your hips, inhale, and lift your chest. Exhale and fold forward, hinging from your hips. Bring your fingertips to the floor and inhale. Exhale and release your torso into the pose.
Refine it: If your fingertips don’t reach the floor, place yoga blocks or a stack of books under your hands.
Feel it: Stay for 10 breaths and come up slowly so you don’t get lightheaded: Place your hands on your hips and inhale halfway up. Exhale there. Then tuck your chin and inhale all the way to standing.
This story originally appeared on Rodale’s Organic Life.