How to start a yoga practice: the question for the ages.
In the two decades I’ve been teaching, I’ve started with standing, with sitting, with lying down, with legs up on a wall, with chanting… hands down the most popular has been lying down, mostly because it’s a great way to both center the mind and feel connected to your body.
But lying down and settling into your body can feel so good that—let’s face it—who wants to move on from there?
Enter the Hamstring-Upper Back Stretch: an gentle way to ease into your practice that actually has some punch to it too.
Here we go:
1. Lie on your back. Bend your knees to plant the soles of your feet and cross your left ankle on top of your right thigh.
2. Lift your right foot off the floor and hang onto your right shin with both hands. If that’s too much of a stretch or feels forced, hold the back of your right thigh instead. Stay for 3 slow breaths.
3. Now extend your right leg as pictured, holding onto the back of your thigh… or..
3a. If your range of motion (in your left hip joint and right hamstring) is greater and this is doable without restricting the flow of your breath, instead hang onto your right calf, leaning your right leg in… or…
3b. If your range of motion is a lot greater, or if you leave enough time holding the pose pictured in 3a to warm up to this, try holding your foot instead.
In any of these, take 5 slow breaths here, letting your body warm up to the stretch.
4. From wherever you’re holding in step 3 (back of the thigh, calf or foot) release your right arm to the floor, parallel to your neck. Pictured here is holding the foot, but again, it could be the thigh or the calf. (Or you could take a strap, place it around the arch of the foot and hold that instead).
5. Last step, where it becomes the hamstring-upper back stretch: lift your head off the floor and turn in to look back over your right shoulder. The left shoulder rises off the floor with this. Take 3 long breaths in this position, then release and repeat the sequence on the other side.
Benefits: Hamstring, hip joint, and spinal extension with lateral motion, deltoids engagement and neck extension thrown in for good measure. For lying on the back and warming up to other things, it’s hard to beat how many body parts get engaged in this position. Truly the lazy person’s guide to yogic stretching!
Avoid if: Your hips hurt in this position. Also, not necessarily avoiding, but modifying the pose if raising the neck in the last step feels awkward, cumbersome, or tension-inducing. Leave your head down or return it to the floor before it becomes uncomfortable. Or just stay in a previous step of the pose. Or try instead the lazy hip joint opener.
Final Thoughts: Contrary to persistent rumors, this pose didn’t get started when we were all stretching in class and someone came late and we all looked up to see who it was.
Love elephant and want to go steady?
Editor: Renée Picard
Illustrations: courtesy of the author