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5 yoga poses to improve hamstring flexibility

TRAINING
5 yoga poses to improve hamstring flexibility

http://espn.go.com/espnw/training/article/16652890/5-yoga-poses-improve-hamstring-flexibility
By Gwen Lawrence | Jul 6, 2016
Special to espnW
Each month, yoga coach Gwen Lawrence shows us five poses designed to keep athletes in the game. This month she focuses on ways to lengthen and increase flexibility in the often-troublesome hamstrings. As always, consult a doctor before you begin any new exercise program.

The hamstrings can be a challenging area for many people to maintain flexibility. But keep working on them — supple hamstrings can significantly reduce pain, pressure and tension on the lower back by helping to align your pelvis.

I’ve enlisted the help of one of my students, Savannah Cepero of Port Chester, New York, to show some basic yoga poses that can help you keep your hamstrings flexible.

Sphinx

Gwen Lawrence
The position of the pelvis is key here, to allow the release of the hamstrings and stretch the whole front of your body so you can get the quickest, best results in your hamstring stretches.

Keys to the pose:

* While lying on your stomach, rest on your forearms.

* Make sure the elbows are directly under your shoulder joint, and make your forearms parallel to each other.

* Keep your palms flat and fingers spread.

* Tuck the tailbone under and press the hips into the floor to protect the lower back and better target the hip flexors.

* Lengthen the body from the toes to the top of the head, lead with your heart, and squeeze the shoulder blades together behind you.

* Keep the chin neutral, and as you exhale, open the chest more. Hold this pose for a minute or two and go into a child’s pose when you’re done to ease the back.

* The goal is to do this with straight arms and without back pain.

Wide-leg straddle forward bend
Gwen Lawrence
This pose targets the hamstrings at a slightly different angle. It allows gravity to pull the entire torso down into a deeper hamstring stretch. Standing with your feet farther apart can help you feel more stable so you can just surrender to the pose.

Keys to the pose:

* Start with feet about 3-4 feet apart, parallel to each other.

* On an exhale, hinge over from the hips, keeping the back as straight as possible to protect it.

* Grab each arm with the opposite hand and just hang. Feel a deeper release with every exhale.

* Gently sway left to right to make sure you are not resisting the stretch. Every now and then, nod your head back and forth and up and down to release neck tension.

* If you feel low back pressure, start by doing this pose with a slight bend in the knees until your hamstrings are open enough to straighten your legs. Breathe and hold the pose for two to three minutes. Come out of it nice and slow.

Pigeon pose
Gwen Lawrence
When you want to target a certain area to stretch — like the hamstrings — you need to stretch the surrounding muscle groups, as well. Pigeon pose is a deep hip opener, targeting the glutes. Because you’re working a large muscle group here you should hold the pose longer on each side — from three to six minutes.

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Keys to the pose:

* Starting in downward-facing dog, bring the right knee close to the right wrist.

* The right foot will be as close to the left wrist as your flexibility will allow, with the goal of the right lower leg eventually being parallel to the front edge of your yoga mat.

* Lower down to your forearms. If you can, eventually rest your chest and belly on the floor or blocks.

* Relax your head and jaw to allow your hips to open.

* Lengthen the left leg back as far as you can. Your hips should stay square in the center — do not let them sink over to the right. Breathe and hold, then switch sides.

* If you have right knee pain while here, then you may want to sit on the right hip. But you still want to square the body to the front of the mat to maintain the best glute stretch.

Standing forward bend against the wall
Gwen Lawrence
This version of standing forward bend allows gravity to open the hamstrings. The floor will align the feet properly and the wall will support you so you can just let go, sinking in without falling over.

Keys to the pose:

* Start by standing about 16 to 20 inches away and facing a wall.

* Your feet should be hip-width apart and parallel to each other.

* Bend your knees and bring your chest and belly around to rest on your thighs.

* Your feet should always be flat. If your heels come off the floor, adjust the distance of your feet to the wall to flatten them.

* Lean your back against the wall to support you, letting your head hang and keeping your eyes open for better stability.

* On your exhales, release the resistance and let your back slide down the wall. Hold for two to three minutes.

* When you come out of this hold, bend your knees and drop your hips down to a seated position, not standing. Standing after this hold may cause dizziness.

Heavy legs with calves
Gwen Lawrence
This pose can help reduce stiffness in the legs while opening the hamstrings and stretching the calves. I’ve heard many martial artists say that stretching the calves is also the key to loosening the hamstrings.

Keys to the pose:

* Start by lying on your back with your legs up a wall. Keep your low back flat on the floor.

* The goal is to eventually have your legs straight. If they aren’t now, that’s OK. Keep working at it, and in time they will free up.

* Flex your feet and drape a strap over them, holding one side of the strap in each hand and gently pulling to increase the calf stretch.

* Breathe and hold this pose for three to five minutes.

Gwen Lawrence owns Power Yoga for Sports and works with athletes in professional basketball, football, baseball, hockey and soccer, as well as Olympians and collegiate champions. Follow her on Twitter and Instagram @gwenlawrence and at www.gwenlawrence.com.