Have you ever heard, or (*gulp*) said, “I can’t do yoga because I’m not flexible?” Well, then that’s the reason you SHOULD do yoga! One of the many benefits of yoga is to maintain and/or gain flexibility as well as strength physically, mentally and emotionally. Here are five great yoga stretches (with modifications and varying levels of expression) that will help you open/stretch the legs and hips.
1. Virasana (Hero Pose)
This posture is great for warming up the feet, stretching the quadriceps and regaining/maintaining natural range of motion in the knees. Place a block (the wide way) between your feet. With knees together and heels hugging the outside of the block, sit up tall and slowly lower your glutes onto the block. For more intensity, remove the block and sit between heels (heels grazing outer hips, knees together). For injured knees, ankles or less intensity, raise the block to a higher level or stack a couple of blocks together. (Not shown: You can also lower yourself back to the floor, and with head, back of the neck, shoulders, glutes, shins and knees still grounded, grab opposite elbows, draw elbows and knees to ground and draw tailbone toward knees to find a neutral pelvis, perhaps adding an upper backbend. I only recommend this deeper variation if you are already very warm so that it is safe for the knees and back.)
2. Janu Sirsasana (Head-to-Knee Pose)
This posture will help stretch and lengthen your calves, hamstrings and back, and will even help open the hips. In a sitting position with your left leg straight out in front with your foot flexed, bend the right leg, placing your right foot high up the inner left thigh, like in vrksasana (tree pose). Inhale and stretch your arms up, twist chest a little more left and reach towards left foot keeping a long spine.
If you can reach, grab each side of the foot and bend elbows as you draw the chest forward with forehead to the shin. If this is too easy, you can either wrap your hands around your foot and grab opposite wrists, or place a block in front of the left foot (I like the long way) and grab the block instead of the foot. If the toes are too far to reach, you can either sit tall on the floor or on a block, or you can wrap a strap around the ball (never the arch!) of the left foot and walk your hands up strap towards the foot.
Then, repeat whatever variation you chose with the right leg out and the left leg bent. (Not shown: you can also bring both legs out in front of you, big toes touching with a little space between heels and take the same variation options for Paschimottanasana (seated forward bend) to go deeper into stretching the backside of the body.) In all options, for a deeper hamstring stretch, flex the heels (dorsiflex the foot) and engage the quadriceps.
3. Utthan Pristhasana (Lizard Pose)
This pose is a great hip, quadriceps and psoas stretch. Start in a runner’s lunge, left leg in front. Make sure the left toes point straight ahead and the left knee is directly over the ankle and points in the same direction as the toes. The right leg should be straight, quad engaged and high on the ball of the right foot for this active variation. (Not shown: you can use blocks under your hands if you cannot reach the floor). Next, if desired, you can lower the right knee to the floor and point the toes straight back. Either stay on the hands/blocks, or lower to your forearms for more intensity. You may also add a left hip opener by turning the left toes, knee and hip out 45 degrees, dorsiflexing the left foot and rolling to the pinky toe side of left foot. To add the quad stretch, either bring your right hand or forearm down, and reach the left arm up and then back towards your right foot. Bend the right knee so that you can catch the foot with your left hand. Draw your right heel towards your glutes, but keep your hips pressing forward and down. For a deeper spine twist, stack the left shoulder on top of the right, look over left shoulder towards the sky and twist. Repeat on the other side (right leg runner’s lunge).
4. Upavistha Konasana (Seated wide-legged forward fold/straddle split)
This pose is primarily great to stretch the hips, but also gets into stretching the hamstrings and spine in the full expression. Start in Dandasana (seated with legs in front of you). Then open legs apart into a seated straddle and flex both heels. You have the option to stay seated upright, hands behind you, or even to sit on a block if it is tough to sit up tall. The next option is to widen your legs and either stay upright, or bring hands between the legs and start to walk the hands forward. Try to keep a flat back, quadriceps engaged and heels flexed (toes pointing up, not in). If the low back is still rounded, it helps to look forward and tilt the tailbone back, belly in. If the chest is flat on the floor, lengthen the neck (with the rest of the spine) by looking straight down, and perhaps rest the forehead on the floor, flat back and legs wide.
5. (Ardha) Hanumanasana or (Monkey Pose/(half) split)
This stretch will really open up your hamstrings and help you work towards that split you never thought you could do. Start from a low runner’s lunge, left leg in front, right knee on floor, right toes tucked under. Draw your hips back to lengthen the left leg and stack the right hip on top of the right knee arms straight on either side of left leg. (Use blocks under the hands if you need to raise the floor). Dorsiflex the left foot, and keep a flat back and hips level. You can always walk the hands forward if it’s easy. To start working towards a full split, tuck the back toes, lift the back knee and adjust your right leg back to a comfortable place. Try to keep the hips square. To take a deeper variation (aka “over-split”), place a block under your left heel (any level) and enter into the split the same way. To add a backbend, bring the arms up, interlace the fingers except the index, and look up. Keep the arms and head together and reach up and back to create an upper-back bend. Repeat on the right side (runner’s lunge with the right leg in front).
Whitney Kirk, Bikram, Vinyasa and Aerial Yoga Instructor