It is very important to lengthen the hamstring muscles. The hamstrings are large, powerful muscles and they carry a lot of tension because they are usually static (when you sit or stand for long intervals, you don’t use these muscles) and hence constricted. Stretching and lengthening them feels very relaxing, both physically and psychologically.
Here are three forward bends to lengthen the hamstrings and to help calm the mind. You can do these at any time of the day. Just get off that chair and release the tightness in your legs whenever you are feeling stiff or need a break.
Remember to start slowly and work gently into the stretch, because if your hamstrings are too tight to start with, bending forward can strain your lower back and lead to injury.
This pose is said to calm the mind and relieve stress. It stimulates the liver and kidneys while stretching the hamstrings and calves. Thus, it aids digestion, apart from strengthening the thighs.
How to do it: Stand straight with your feet parallel and apart at hip-width distance. Keep your legs completely straight and contract your quadricep muscles to lift your knee caps. Inhale; then, with an exhalation, bend forward from your hip joint. Hold the big toes with the index and middle finger of each hand. When in the forward bend, remember to pull in your lower belly, lengthening the front and sides of your torso. Consciously relax your hamstrings with every inhalation and exhalation. Hold the position for a minute. Then release your toes, bring your hands to your hips and, with an inhalation, gently come up to a standing posture.
Count: Do it once.
Precautions: If you can’t easily take hold of your toes with the knees straight, loop a towel or a yoga strap under the arch of the foot and use it as a handhold—you should avoid bending the knees to reach your toes. Alternatively, rest your hands on the shins or above the knees if you can’t reach the toes. Just be careful not to round your back much.
This pose stretches the spine, shoulders, hips and hamstrings. It strengthens the legs and stimulates the abdominal organs. It also improves posture and sense of balance and is very calming too.
How to do it: Stand with your feet apart at shoulder length. Step your left foot about 2ft back. Turn your left ankle out at an angle of 45-60 degrees to your torso; your right foot should be pointing straight ahead. Make sure the front of your pelvis is square (it should be facing forward) and both your knee caps pulled up. You activate the quadricep muscles.
Inhale and lengthen your torso. Then, with an exhalation, fold forward from the groin over the right leg (in this pose, the hip tends to lift up towards the shoulder on the side of the forward leg and swing out to the side, so squeeze the outer thigh to try and keep the hips level. Rotate your inner thighs towards each other to keep the hips level).
Hold your torso and head parallel to the floor for a few breaths. Then, if you have the flexibility, bring the front torso closer to the top of the thigh. Eventually the length of your front torso should come to rest along the thigh. Hold the pose for 15-30 seconds, then come up with an inhalation.
Count: Repeat on the other (left) side.
Precautions: If you have a back injury or high blood pressure, avoid the full forward bend and do the variation, Ardh Parsvottaanasana, as shown in the picture.
This pose strengthens and stretches the inner and back legs and the spine, and tones the abdomen.
How to do it: Stand straight with your feet together. Then keep your feet as far apart as possible. Make sure your feet are parallel to each other. Engage and tighten the thigh muscles by drawing them up. Inhale and lift your chest, making the front torso slightly longer than the back. Exhale, and maintaining the length of the front torso, lean the torso forward from the hip joints without rounding your back. Fold forward by 90 degrees, and the torso will be parallel to the floor. Keep your hands on the hips. Take three to five breaths here. Then, maintaining the straight back, take a long breath, lengthen the front torso, and lower the torso and head into a full forward bend, bending the elbows—if possible, rest the crown of your head on the floor.
While in the forward fold, make sure you are drawing your shoulders away from your ears. Stay in the pose for anywhere from 30 seconds to 1 minute. Take even breaths, trying to keep your gaze steady at a point behind you. While inhaling, rest the hands on the hips and swing your torso up. Return to standing. Come up as one unit.
Count: Repeat once.
Precautions: If you have lower back problems, avoid the full forward bend. If you can’t easily touch the crown of the head to the floor, support your head with a folded blanket.
Photographs by Abhijit Bhatlekar / Mint
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