Stretching out your hamstrings, the large muscles on the back of your thighs, is of serious importance to dancers. Whether you're training for ballet, belly dance or just a perfect split in yoga, you need loose hamstrings. Dancers at New York City's Joffrey Ballet School know the importance of straightening your legs while stretching to achieve maximum benefit. Some stretches have modifications that allow you to ease into them, deepening the stretch as your flexibility increases.
Warming Up Before Stretching
In order to prevent injury, always warm up before stretching your hamstrings. They're big muscles, and tearing or overstretching one can be very painful. Jog in place, walk briskly, do a few Sun Salutations or ride an exercise bike for five to 10 minutes before getting your inner ballerina on. Aerobic exercise warms up your whole body, aiding in stretching all your muscles, not just your hamstrings.
Place a yoga mat on the floor for any hamstring stretches that require kneeling. If your knees are particularly sensitive, try resting them on a padded mat or a folded yoga blanket laid horizontally across the mat. While kneeling on one leg, extend the other in front of you and flex the toes of the extended leg. As your flexibility increases, stretch your torso forward in increments. Ballerinas with serious flexibility extend all the way over the stretched leg and pull the flexed foot toward the body. Think of Gelsey Kirkland's grands jetes if you need inspiration to work toward bending over your leg. It takes long, loose hamstrings to get that kind of leap.
Stretches that allow you to lie on your back are always nice, and the Leg-Up-the-Wall stretch is just that. Lie down with your upper back at a diagonal to the side of a door frame and your buttocks touching the wall. Keep one leg on the floor against the wall (for example, extended along the hallway wall) and stretch the other leg up the door frame. Flex your foot until you feel a stretch in the leg of the hamstring touching the door frame. Rest for 30 seconds, then move to the other side of the door frame and stretch your other leg. To deepen the stretch, scoot closer to the wall or wrap an exercise band around the ball of the extended foot and pull one end toward the floor with each hand. Adding the exercise band allows you to get a good calf and arch stretch along with your hamstring stretch.
Chair or Barre Stretch
Place your left hand on a ballet barre or the back of a straight-backed chair. Grasp the toes of your right foot in your right hand and stretch your leg out to the side. As you become more flexible, channel your inner ballerina and work toward lifting your leg all the way up while keeping it straight and pointing your toes. As your flexibility increases, you'll be able to wrap your wrist under your heel and hold the outer edge of your foot, at which point you'll know you're prima-ballerina stretchy. Not only does this stretch help with tight hamstrings, it helps with balance. For extra-challenging variations, try taking your hand off the barre or going on releve on your standing foot once you've achieved the stretch.
S.R. Becker is a certified yoga teacher based in Queens, N.Y. She has a Master of Fine Arts in creative writing and has worked as a writer and editor for more than 15 years. Becker often writes for "Yoga in Astoria," a newsletter about studios throughout New York City.