How to Do the Butterfly Stretch to Relieve Tension In Your Hips and Back

The gentle pose will give your body much-needed relief after your desk job. Learn more about the butterfly stretch's benefits and how to modify the pose.

Butterfly Stretch

One of the first stretches you learned as a kid may very well have been the butterfly stretch. A staple in elementary school gym class programs, the yoga pose was often used to cool your sweaty self down and calm your buzzing brain before you skipped off to English class.

And it turns out, your gym teachers may have been onto something. The yoga posture can have tension-relieving benefits for both your body and mind, making it an ideal addition to your morning routine, bedtime wind-down practice, and beyond, according to experts. Here, details on the benefits of the butterfly stretch, plus ideas to modify and progress the pose and tips on how to infuse it into your day.

What Is the Butterfly Stretch?

Also known as ​​bound angle pose or Baddha Konasana in Sanskrit, the butterfly stretch involves sitting tall on the floor with the soles of your feet touching; hands resting on your toes, ankles, or shins; and knees opened wide, giving you your very own set of wings, says Lindsay Monal, R.Y.T., a yoga teacher at YogaRenew Teacher Training. Then, you'll gently fold forward to bring your chest close to the ground.

Your feet can either be pulled close to your groin or extended further in front of your body, which slightly changes the emphasis of the stretch, she explains. But in any case, the pose is generally safe and effective at loosening up the hips and lower back, among other perks, she adds. 

Still not sure how to perform the move? Follow along with Monal’s demonstration and instructions below. 

A. Sit tall on the floor with legs extended in front of body and arms resting at sides. 

B. Bend knees and bring soles of feet together in a comfortable position in front of groin. Allow knees to gently fall open to either side of the mat. Gently hold toes, ankles, or shins and press firmly into sit bones. 

C. Lengthening through crown of head, begin to hinge forward at hips to lower torso toward the mat as far as is comfortable or until upper back begins to round.

D. Hold for several breaths and gently release, returning to the starting position with back flat.

The Key Benefits of the Butterfly Stretch

Despite its simplicity, the butterfly stretch can do wonders for your tight muscles and stressed-out mind. Here’s what the pose has to offer for your physical and mental health. 

Loosens the Hips

The hips are one the largest weight-bearing joints in the body, and keeping them in tip-top shape is essential for moving through your day with ease, says Monal. “They’re the basis for your entire spinal column and they control the legs,” she explains. “Any type of movement that you’re doing, whether it's athletic exercise or even just in your life…the hips are the major joint allowing you to move.”

When your hips are lacking mobility (the ability to actively control and access your full range of motion within a joint), you may deal with tightness in the hip flexors and low back. And those symptoms can increase the risk of pain and injury, as Shape previously reported. “If the hips are good, typically the rest of the joints in the body are able to move effectively,” adds Monal. “But once the hips are compromised, other things start to deteriorate or try to compensate, and therefore you'll have different injuries.” Thankfully, performing the butterfly stretch can help loosen up the hips so that you can unlock the mobility necessary to live injury-free, she adds. 

Stretches the Lower Back

If you’re parked in front of a desk for 40-plus hours a week, there’s a good chance your lower back is feeling uncomfortably tight, says Monal. “Because people sit a lot of the time, their spines are compressing over and over, like each disc is getting crunched on top of one another,” she explains. That compression, combined with poor posture and a lack of core strength and engagement to sit upright, can lead to tension in your back, she explains. During the butterfly stretch, however, you’ll sit tall and fold your torso forward, which gives your lower back some much-need relief. 

Calms the Nervous System

Watching butterflies in the park may feel relaxing, but practicing the butterfly stretch can be just as calming for the nervous system, says Monal. “Different poses have different energetic qualities to them, and forward folds tend to be more relaxing, more down-regulating for the nervous system,” she explains. “After a workout especially, [the butterfly stretch is] good to help your body calm and slow down and move into recovery mode.” Since feelings of anxiety are often held in the hips and cause tightness, poses that focus on the joint — including the butterfly stretch — can help move that “stuck energy,” says Monal.

Butterfly Stretch Muscles Worked

While the hips and lower back are the main targets, the butterfly stretch can also loosen up your hamstrings and IT bands. Plus, the posture stretches the inner thighs, says Sabrina Washington, a CorePower Yoga instructor in Sacramento. “This is a part of the body that just doesn't get stretched very often…so as a result, it gets a little weaker or tighter,” she notes. “[The stretch] helps keep your pelvis, hips, and groin area healthy.” 

The emphasis of the butterfly stretch can also change depending on where your feet are positioned, says Monal. “The closer you bring the soles to the feet in toward your pelvis, the more the stretch will be focused on the inner thigh and groin area,” she explains. “As you start to slide your feet further away from you, the stretch starts to move toward the outside of the leg.”

Butterfly Stretch Variations

No matter how experienced you are with stretching, you can practice the butterfly stretch thanks to variations that scale down and level up the posture. The next time you're in the mood to practice, try these modification and progression ideas. 

Modification: Butterfly Stretch with Hips Elevated

If you don’t regularly sit on the floor without support for your trunk, you might unintentionally round your spine as you try to lower your knees toward the floor, says Monal. The fix: sit on a blanket, pillow, or block to elevate the hips, which tilts your pelvis forward slightly and helps you to sit up tall as you drop your knees, she suggests. 

To ease the intensity on your hips and inner thighs, you can also practice a half-butterfly, in which you keep one leg fully extended and place the sole of your bent leg’s foot on the opposite inner thigh, adds Washington. Folks with hip or knee issues can place a rolled blanket or bolster under their knees for additional support, adds Monal. 

Progression: Butterfly Stretch with Block

As you build up flexibility and begin to inch your torso closer to the ground, try lowering your elbows to the floor while keeping your back lengthened to deepen the stretch. Then, place a yoga block or other prop under your forehand, says Monal. This simple progression will enhance the butterfly stretch’s relaxation properties, she says. “There's a pressure point between the eyebrows, at the third eye point, and it’s down-regulating for the nervous system,” she explains. “That'll really help allow your body to settle into the posture.”

Common Butterfly Stretch Mistakes

While the goal should be to lower your knees as close to the ground as possible during a butterfly stretch, you shouldn’t force it, says Monal. Beginners are often short on mobility and flexibility, and their knees may hang high in the air as a result. “But it's not like if your knees are in the air, you're not doing the stretch correctly,” she adds. “You can use your elbows to gently press into the sides of your knees to help them open a bit more, but you never want to be forcing them to the point where you're feeling pain.”

It’s also important to avoid hunching your shoulders and collapsing your chest, which can occur if you’re attempting to bring your head close to your feet, says Monal. “If you could keep your back flat and just fold forward, that would be the ideal situation,” she adds. “Then at the end, just for the calming effect, you could allow the head and neck to round down.”

And remember, the cliché “no pain, no gain” isn’t all that true. “One of the primary errors that people could make with the stretch is just going too deep, too fast,” says Washington. “[People are] conditioned that, ‘If I don't feel it, then I must not be doing it right or with enough intensity.’” Instead, ease yourself into the stretch, and only push yourself as far as is comfortable.

How to Add the Butterfly Stretch to Your Routine

While the butterfly stretch is generally safe, folks who have a history of or are currently dealing with serious hip or knee injuries should check with their health-care provider before trying the posture, says Monal. Regardless of your health, remember to listen to your body. “If it's something that you can comfortably do without feeling like you're in pain or about to start crying, it's probably okay,” she says. “But if it's something that's really causing you pain or it's too uncomfortable even to get yourself to sit on the ground, you're probably not ready to do this.”

If you’re given the all-clear and feel comfortable, try incorporating it into your morning routine to wake up your body. “When you sleep, you don't move that much so the connective tissue gets really tense and tight,” says Monal. “So moving in the morning is really great.” Or, practice the butterfly stretch before you snuggle into bed to release the stress of the day, she suggests. To make the move even more soothing, lie on your back while keeping your feet in the butterfly position, adds Washington. “You could do this with a block underneath your feet if you're laying down, which can be really wonderful and take some pressure off of your lower back,” she adds.

You can also incorporate the butterfly stretch into your warm-up routine, particularly if you’re about to do a workout that targets the hips, inner thighs, or hamstrings, says Monal. To make it more of a dynamic movement, gently move your knees up and down as if you were lightly flapping your butterfly wings, adds Washington.

Regardless of how and when you practice the posture, aim to hold the stretch for about five to 10 breaths, suggests Monal. But as with any movement or exercise, practice makes progress, so don't be ashamed to modify the stretch or hold it for just a few breaths.

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