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Five-Minute Yoga Challenge: roll your feet on a tennis ball to loosen tight hamstrings

Cover every part of your foot, from under the toes to the heels

Cover every part of your foot, from under the toes to the heels

Is there such a thing as yoga magic?

If you struggle with tight hamstrings, this Five-Minute Yoga Challenge might lead you to say yes.

The effects can be startling the first time you try it.

Continue to roll your feet daily for a week and some of that “shock of the new” will drop away.

You’ll be left with livelier and more relaxed feet, and a new benchmark in hamstring flexibility – still enough of a change to call magic, considering that it’s achieved with a tennis ball and five minutes a day.

Why does it work?

When you massage the soles of your feet, you loosen the starting point of a network of connective tissue that runs all the way up your back body to the crown of your head. So it stands to reason that massaging your feet can loosen your hamstrings.

Having a hard time imagining what that network of connective tissue would look like?

Tom Myers, author of Anatomy Trains: Myofascial Meridians for Manual and Movement Therapists has posted a fascinating video from a human dissection showing the entire Superficial Back Line of fascia, connecting from the feet to just above the eyebrows. You will never feel the same about the distance between your feet and your head again.

Before you try this for the first time, measure your hamstring flexibility:
Come into a standing forward bend with your feet hip distance apart. Press down into your feet, lift your front thighs and straighten your legs. Roll your front upper thighs in, and widen across your hamstrings.
Unless you can easily bring your palms to the floor with your legs straight, use yoga bricks (or books or a handy stair), to support your upper body.
Make a note of how much height you need to place your palms flat, then roll up from your forward bend.
Now, stand close to a wall on a yoga mat or carpet, with one hand on the wall for balance. Place a tennis ball under one foot and start to roll the sole of your foot over the tennis ball.
Experiment with the amount of weight you can put into the ball and still have an intense, yet pleasant sensation.
Drape your toes over the tennis ball and massage the backs of your toes. Then work your way down the sole of your foot, all the way back to your heel. Roll along the inner and outer arches.
Keep rolling for at least two minutes – it helps to set a timer or watch a clock – and then move to your other foot.
Once you’ve worked both feet, revisit your forward bend. You may be surprised to find that – abracadabra! – your hamstrings have lengthened by as much as an inch or two.

Benefits: Our feet become cramped and tense from wearing restrictive shoes and walking on hard surfaces. Regular ball rolling releases tension in the muscles and fascia. Since the fascial body is a web of connective tissue, a release in one part can trigger release in the entire web.

Sequence: Especially welcome after a long walk, this exercise can be done any time, and almost anywhere. If you are free to take your shoes off when you sit to work, you can even keep a tennis ball under your desk and do impromptu rolling sessions while sitting down. Do it at the beginning of a longer practice to bring extra awareness to all of your poses.

Ouch: If your feet are particularly sensitive, a tennis ball may initially feel too harsh. Find a softer, more forgiving ball, and work with it until your feet adapt. Then move on to a tennis ball.
Beware of excess enthusiasm. Stick with a moderate pressure and a modest amount of time – two to four minutes per foot if you’re standing, 10 if you’re sitting down. It’s possible to hurt the muscles in your feet by rolling too much and too fiercely.

If you liked this post, you might also like:
Get a leg up on downward dog
Greet your feet in the footwork series

Comments on this entry are closed.

  • Paul April 21, 2013, 2:51 pm

    Thanks Eve. I can not believe it worked. My doctor said try Yoga for my knee pain caused by a tight hamstring. I am lucky to have found this site. Got first Yoga class Tuesday, wish me luck.

  • Heidi December 7, 2010, 12:10 pm

    Eve, LOVE this posting… I use a tennis ball for the feet and also for the gluteus maximus and wherever my class thinks they can use it… we let our imaginations go. Sometimes I even use a lacrosse ball as it is a little stiffer but not everyone can take that pressure.

    @Brooke, thanks for the idea of a tennis ball on the plane… hope mine makes it past TSA! :)


  • Brooke June 3, 2010, 2:35 pm

    I am sold! I now have a tennis ball at work, as well as home. I just traveled to Toronto and brought one on the flight to roll on as I sat – heaven! I was so much more comfortable sitting and my hamstrings didn’t seize up as they usually do.
    Thanks Eve!

    • Eve June 3, 2010, 9:14 pm

      Brooke, I never thought about taking a tennis ball for a long plane flight. Great idea!

  • Emma May 27, 2010, 1:57 pm

    tennis balls on pressure points is genius mcwonderfulson.

    • Eve May 27, 2010, 4:37 pm

      “genius mcwonderfulson” is high praise indeed. Thanks, Emma

  • Nan May 25, 2010, 3:38 pm

    Hi Eve,
    I taught a class w/focus on the feet last week, I received so many positive comments and lots of questions about the class. I think my students would enjoy your post very much would you mind if I linked to it? Also thank you for such great content.

    • Eve May 25, 2010, 3:58 pm

      Hi Nan,
      Feet are something, aren’t they? I think students can be amazed at how good it feels to have lively feet. And I’d love it if you linked to the post.

  • Traci May 19, 2010, 9:24 am

    Thanks for the reminder Eve. Also, in the feet are dozens (hundreds?) of meridians. If you’ve ever had reflexology you know the spine, organs etc. have corresponding meridians in the feet. By giving your feet a little roll on the ball (or foot massager) you not only release faschia, but also stimulate these meridians.

  • YogaSpy May 19, 2010, 8:34 am

    Have you seen all the wooden Japanese massage devices for the feet? Or the massage sandals that look like rubber Birkenstocks with bed of blunt “nails” on the soles?

    You’re onto something thing. My main point is… go barefoot indoors!


  • Judy May 17, 2010, 10:49 pm

    Dear Eve, I helped to instruct a human dissection work shop this past weekend at Oregon Health Sciences University. We uncovered an incredible web of fascial connections. Your suggestions regarding the benefits of keeping your feet supple and improving hamstring flexibility are absolutely true. If you include the concurrent improvement of the flexibility of the neural connections between the feet and the brain all sorts of wonderful changes can happen in the body. Keep the ball rolling. Judy