June 21, 2022

Seated yoga poses are a fascinating part of yoga asana practice. They can be a great starting point for beginners, while still offering challenge and growth for more experienced practitioners.

One of yoga’s most popular benefits is increased flexibility. Most people think they need to stretch their hamstrings, and they might be right. But the hips need to move in more than one direction, and other body parts need equal attention! A stiff upper back, for example, is a common cause of aches and pains - it could even be the source of your neck pain or headaches. 

Your joints and muscles need your help to stay healthy, mobile and strong. Dive into these seated yoga poses for flexibility, and you’ll feel the benefits!

As you practice each pose, find the position or modification that creates a comfortable degree of stretch. Breathe evenly and allow your body to relax into the pose with each exhalation. You will gain the most flexibility if you practice gently but regularly. 

Seated Yoga Poses for Full Body Flexibility

These seated poses involve both the upper and lower body – great options for gaining multiple benefits in your time on the yoga mat.

1. Ardha Matsyendrasana (Half Spinal Twist)

Ardha Matsyendrasana

The Half Spinal Twist encourages range of movement in the hips and shoulders, as well as along the full length of the spine. The rotation element helps to free the chest area, which can improve respiration.

How to come into Half Spinal Twist

  1. Sit with your legs stretched out in front of you.
  2. Bend your right leg, tucking the heel up to your left hip.
  3. Lift your left foot over your right knee and place it on the floor. Keep both sit bones even on the floor.
  4. Turn your upper body and place your left hand to the floor (or on a block) behind your spine.
  5. Reach up with your right hand, then bring your right elbow to the outside of your left knee. If flexibility allows, you can reach further to hold your left ankle with your right hand.
  6. Twist gently toward your left, looking over your shoulder.
  7. To come out of the pose, gently turn back, release your arms and unwind your legs. Don’t forget to do the other side!

Options and Cautions

  • To keep your lower back safe, stay relatively straight and focus on creating the twist in the upper (thoracic) spine.
  • Straightening the underneath leg can help to keep the sit bones evenly weighted on the floor.
  • Be cautious with this pose if you have abdominal, spinal or sacroiliac joint issues.

2. Rainbow Pose

Rainbow Pose

Rainbow pose offers a wonderful combination of muscle lengthening in the lower back and side body, as well as opening the front of the hip on the upper side. Find a bolster or a nice thick cushion, and take the time to practice this pose on both sides.

How to come into Rainbow Pose

  1. Place a cushion by your right side and sit with the soles of your feet together in front of you (Butterfly).
  2. Lift your left leg and flip it over so your left foot points out behind you.
  3. Raise your left arm up and bend your torso to the right. Lie down onto your side, with the cushion supporting your waist.
  4. Rest with your arms long, framing your head, palms together.

Options and Cautions

  • Choose a cushion sized to suit you.
  • Shift the lower arm forward to reduce shoulder strain. Place a folded towel under the head if needed to replace the arm.
  • Be cautious with this pose if you have pelvic instability, lower back issues or untreated hypertension (high blood pressure).

3. Deer Pose

Deer Pose

Although this pose has the legs positioned similarly to Rainbow Pose, the change in upper body position makes for a different stretch. There is less side body stretch, but more range required in hip and spine rotation. This is another pose to be repeated on both sides for balanced flexibility.

How to come into Deer Pose

  1. Sit with the soles of your feet together in front of you (Butterfly). Lift the left leg and swing it to the back, so that your foot is past your hip and pointing to the back.
  2. Adjust your feet close enough to your body to let your sit-bones meet the floor evenly.
  3. Gently fold your upper body forward, toward the right shin.
  4. Reach out with the top of the head, lengthening the spine.

Options and Cautions

  • Use a block under the supporting hand to keep the spine long.
  • Sit on a cushion or folded blanket to reduce hip rotation strain.
  • Be cautious with this pose if you have hip, knee or lower back issues.

Seated Yoga Poses for Lower Body Flexibility

While these poses naturally involve and can benefit the entire body, the flexibility challenge will be felt most strongly in the legs, hips and lower back.

4. Janu Shirshasana (Head-to-Knee Pose)

Janu Shirshasana Pose

Head-to-Knee Pose works on hip joint range, and particularly on hamstring length. Stretching one side at a time is useful when working the hip joint, because your hip joint bones can be a different shape on one side compared to the other. If one hip is always ‘tighter’ than the other, the reason could be your bones rather than your muscles. Stretch gently, avoid pain, and listen to your body!

How to come into Head-to-Knee Pose

  1. Sit with your legs stretched out in front of you.
  2. Bend your right leg and place your right foot against your left inner thigh.
  3. Breathe in, reach your hands up to the ceiling and lengthen your spine.
  4. Breathe out, bend forward, and catch hold of your left foot. 
  5. As you breath in, lengthen the front of your torso and gently reach with your lower belly toward your left thigh.
  6. Hold the pose for as long as is comfortable, breathing evenly.
  7. Repeat with the opposite leg bent.

Options and Cautions

  • Make sure to start the pose sitting erect on your sitting bones. If your lower back is rounding to the back, bend your knees a little.
  • Always initiate the forward fold from the hip joint, folding forward with a long spine at first. If you feel discomfort in the knee or if you have pelvic instability, support the fully bent knee with a block, cushion or folded blanket.
  • Be cautious with this pose if you have abdominal, spinal or knee issues.

5. Adho Mukha Gomukhasana (Shoelace)

Adho Mukha Gomukhasana

Shoelace pose focuses on hip rotation, lengthening many muscles around the hip joint. Be sure to practice this pose on both sides and remember that your bone structure can dictate your limits.

How to come into Shoelace Pose

  1. Sit on your heels, with your knees together.
  2. Shift your weight to your left, to sit on your left hip.
  3. Flip your right (top) leg over, so your right knee is on top of your left knee, and your right heel is near your left hip.
  4. Breathe in, push both your sitting bones into the floor or cushion, and elongate your spine.
  5. Breathe out and fold your torso forward.
  6. Rest your hands on the floor and your forehead on your knee or the floor in front of you.

Options and Cautions

  • If coming into the pose as described above creates strain in the knees, and/or you’re unable to sit tall, you can
    • Support your hips with a folded blanket or a block.
    • Straighten the lower leg out in front.
  • Be cautious with this pose if you have abdominal, spinal or knee issues.

6. Baddha Konasana (Butterfly or Bound Angle Pose)

Baddha Konasana Pose

Butterfly Pose, sometimes also called Bound Angle Pose, is also intended to free up hip mobility. This one is particularly easy to adapt to suit your body - check out the options for improving support.

How to come into Butterfly Pose

  1. Sit with your legs in front of you.
  2. Bend your knees and bring the soles of your feet together.
  3. Draw your feet as close to your pelvis as possible, while sitting upright with your weight on your sitting bones (if you feel any pain or pressure in the knees, see options below).
  4. Hold your feet, breathe in, and lengthen up through the crown of your head.
  5. Breathe out and bend forward with a straight back. Once bent forward, you can relax your back and, if possible, rest your forehead on your hands or on the floor.
  6. Hold the pose as long is comfortable, breathing evenly.

Options and Cautions

  • Sit on a bolster, thick cushion or folded blanket if you struggle to sit upright.
  • Place a support under each knee in case of discomfort, supporting your thighs an inch or so above their maximum stretch.
  • Be cautious with this pose if you have abdominal, spinal, knee or groin issues. Never force your knees down toward the floor!

7. Upavistha Konasana (Dragonfly Pose)

Upavistha Konasana Pose

Dragonfly pose looks very different for different people! Respect your body by creating gentle stretch without trying to force the position. You might feel stretch in the groin, the hamstrings or the small muscles of the hips and lower back in this pose.

How to come into Dragonfly pose

  1. Sit with your legs straight in front of you.
  2. Lean back on your hands and widen your legs to an angle of about 90 degrees.
  3. Place your hands to the floor in front, lean onto your hands and shift your buttocks forward to widen your legs, if possible. Press out through the heels of your feet and keep your knees pointed toward the ceiling. 
  4. Hinging from your pelvis, walk your hands forward between your legs.
  5. If possible, catch hold of your big toes or the outside of your feet and lower your chest and chin to the floor.
  6. Hold the pose as long is comfortable, breathing evenly. 

Options and Cautions

  • You can make this pose more accessible and safer by
    • sitting on a folded blanket
    • allowing your knees to bend as much as suits you, placing the soles of the feet on the floor
    • using your palms or forearms to support your upper body instead of grasping your toes
  • Be cautious with this pose if you have spinal, groin or hamstring issues.

8. Virasana (Hero Pose)

Virasana Pose

Hero Pose builds flexibility in the hip-joint (internal rotation), quadriceps and ankles. It’s important to support this pose to protect your knees - begin with a higher seat support than you think you need and notice how it feels in your body as you hold the pose over several slow breaths.

How to come into Hero Pose

  1. Sit on your heels on the floor, with your inner knees together.
  2. Slide your feet apart, slightly wider than your hips, keeping the tops of your feet flat on the floor. Check whether you can comfortably lower your buttocks towards the floor between your heels. If not, place a cushion or bolster under your sit-bones for support.
  3. Place your hands, palms down, on your thighs.
  4. Sit tall, lengthening your spine.
  5. Relax your shoulders and your face. Breathe consciously.

Options and Cautions

  • A block or cushion between the feet to support both sit-bones evenly will take pressure off the knees.
  • Allowing the knees to rest a little wider apart may be more comfortable.
  • Be cautious with the pose if you have knee or ankle issues. Always use sufficient support under the sit bones to avoid feeling any strain in the knees.

A note on safety

Stretches and flexibility work should never cause pain during or after the activity. You should always listen to feedback from your body and use whatever support it needs.

If you would like to read more about protecting your knees, read How to Avoid Knee Pain and Injury in Yoga.

About the author

Kalyani Hauswirth Jain

Kalyani Hauswirth-Jain is creative director & senior teacher at the Arhanta Yoga Ashrams since 2013. She teaches during the Arhanta 200 hour Yoga Teacher Training, 300 hour Yoga Teacher Training as well as a variety of 50-hour courses such as the Vinyasa Yoga teacher training.

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