Flexibility in the lower body is not always the easiest to target. Tight hips, hamstrings and beyond can be irritating in a yoga practice and even more so in day-to-day life.
If we attempt to stretch very tight hamstrings from a seated position, it can cause a tilting of the pelvis as shortened hamstrings “pull” at their point of insertion. This can then lead to compression in the lower back without ever actually lengthening the intended muscles.
Standing yoga poses are an excellent way to target muscle groups of the lower body and increase flexibility there while maintaining safety in alignment. Here are five standing yoga poses that can be used to safely and effectively stretch and lengthen muscles of the lower body without compromising the integrity of the poses or your own body.
1. Vrksasana (Tree Pose)
This standing balancing posture helps to open the outer hips and inner groins as well as increasing the external rotation in the hip joint of the lifted leg.
You have a few options here: 1) you can place the ball of your foot onto the floor and place your heel on your left ankle, 2) you can place your whole foot onto your left calf, or 3) you can place your whole foot onto your upper left thigh.
Working with whichever option feels best in your body, keep your eyes focused to help maintain your balance, and draw the pit of your belly in toward your spine to stabilize your core. Press your foot firmly against your standing leg and use the same amount of energy to press that leg into your raised foot. Let these forces equally oppose each other.
Soften your breath and breathe into the openings happening in your hip and groin. When you feel ready, repeat all the same steps on the opposite side.
2. Eka Pada Utkatasana (Standing Figure Four Pose)
Another balancing pose, this posture creates a deep opening into the outer hips.
Externally rotate at your hip joint so that your knee points toward the right and cross your right ankle over your left knee to create a figure 4 shape with your legs. Try to keep your knees bent as deeply as possible with your seat reaching back and down.
Breathe into the deep opening you're creating through your outer hip and, when you feel ready, switch legs.
3. Natarajasana (Dancer’s Pose)
This standing backbending balance opens the hamstrings, hip flexors, back and shoulders, creating space throughout multiple areas in the body.
Focus your eyes on one still point, creating a drishti and keep your gaze locked to help maintain your balance. Engage your abdominals to protect your lower back and try to draw your knees toward each other. Allow your torso to naturally move closer toward the floor as you start to backbend through your whole spine.
Draw the shoulder blades toward each other on the back body, expanding your chest forward in space. Stand firm into your standing leg, pressing the floor away with your left foot and lifting up on the kneecap of your left leg to activate your quadriceps. Breathe deeply into all of the openings that you're creating. And, when you're ready, slowly release and repeat on the opposite side.
4. Utthita Hasta Padangustasana (Extended Hand to Big Toe Pose)
This challenging standing balance creates deep openings in the hips, groins and hamstrings.
Lock your eyes on one still point and press down firmly onto your feet, evenly distributing your weight. You have a few options here: 1) you can hold onto your right knee, drawing it in toward your chest, 2) you can wrap a strap around the ball of your foot, or 3) you can hold onto your right big toe with your right hand in a yogi toe lock (using your first two fingers and thumb to wrap around your big toe).
Stand firmly into your standing leg and try your best to keep your hips level. Engage your core and try to keep your spine as lengthened as possible, reaching the crown of your head and your sit bones in opposite directions.
Avoid the tendency of the right hip to pop up toward the sky. Instead, try to relax the right hip down toward the floor as you draw in on your belly and lengthen your back. Maintain a slow and steady breath and, when you feel ready, switch to the other leg.
5. Prasaritha Padottanasana (Wide Legged Standing Forward Fold)
This standing forward bend creates a deep opening in the hamstrings (ideally) without compromising the lower back in any way.
With your feet aligned, point your toes either straight forward in front of you or very slightly “pigeon-toe” your feet with your toes turned in and your heels turned out. Spread your toes wide and distribute your weight across all four corners of your feet.
Lift up on your kneecaps to activate your quadriceps, keeping them engaged throughout the whole posture. To effectively stretch your hamstring muscles in forward folds, keep the neutral S-shape curvature of your back body especially if you have tight hammies.
Rest your hands wherever is comfortable: onto your legs, on blocks, onto the floor or keep them holding your waist. Breathe into the stretch, maintaining a neutral spine and strong, active legs. Maintain a lengthy spine as you come out of the pose.
Standing yoga poses help create lower body flexibility, but they also work to strengthen the legs and core and create greater balance in the body. Although targeting this region can sometimes be difficult if you’re already tight, standing poses are a great way to loosen up your muscles and prepare you for seated stretching postures.
What are your favorite standing yoga poses to increase lower body flexibility?