I’ll begin with a cautionary tale. As a child and a teenager, I practised ballet, a hobby that became a love and briefly a career ambition, and then simply “something I used to do”.
In my ballet world, achieving the splits was a goal. It was a peak achievement of flexibility, and, “She can do the splits” was synonymous with, “She’s worthy.”
Perhaps unsurprisingly then, when I discovered yoga, my determination to get into the full splits, or hanumanasana to give it its Sanskrit name, stayed with me.
Although I knew that my yoga practice should transcend such superficial things as “goals,” I still really wanted to be able to do the splits.
I practiced and practiced until, inevitably, I injured my hamstring tendon. Now, years on, I still experience almost daily pain and discomfort around my right sit-bone.
I see it as a daily reminder of what my yoga should be, and how easy it is to forget that.
So my intention in this article is to help you to reach the splits, and to save you the pain that I experienced.
Reaching the Splits
Before we get into the anatomy, let’s define what we mean by “reaching the splits.”
As the Yoga Sutras teach us, what we are looking for in any posture is “Stirum sukham asanam,” which means your posture should be steady and comfortable.
The goal of asana, if there is one, is to be present in the posture, experiencing both stability and sweetness or ease.
Notice this says nothing about having poker straight legs extended in opposite directions, or ensuring your sit-bones land firmly on the ground in full splits. (Learn more in 4 True Purposes for Why We Practice Yoga Asana.)
The wisdom the Yoga Sutras points to here is about finding contentment and experiencing what is.
Your “fullest expression” of hanumanasana is one in which you can find steadiness and comfort, even in the face of what is undeniably an intense posture.
Does That Mean it’s Wrong to aim for More Flexibility in Hanumanasana?
No, not necessarily, but it depends why this is your goal.
Many people do find that releasing tension in their hips and hamstrings, both of which support a deeper hanumanasana will also be beneficial for them in other areas. (Learn more in 5 Yoga Poses to Release Tight Hips.)
For others though, it’s important to recognise that more and more flexibility is not always desirable.
For naturally hypermobile types, such as myself, aiming for flexibility can actually compromise the overall health and wellbeing of your body.
Instead of limitless flexibility, it’s far safer to focus on building strength in your range of motion.
Yes, you might want to increase your hip mobility, but look too at how you can control and stabilise that range of motion.
How can you engage your muscles even in the extent of your stretch? (Learn more in Bend Without Breaking: 10 Yoga Poses to Increase Flexibility in Body, Mind and Spirit.)
Building to Hanumanasana
Here’s a few ways to build strength in the range of motion that can support you to find a happier hanumanasana:
1. Supine Hamstring Release
- Lie on your back with one leg raised and hook a strap around your foot.
- Extend your lifted leg towards straight and lift it to the point where you begin to feel sensation in your hamstring.
- Then, using the strap to hold your foot here, keep your core engaged and press your foot into the strap with around 30-50% of your strength.
- Hold for a few long deep breaths, engaging your hamstring even as you are stretching it.
- This posture is also great because its supine nature minimises strain on your lower back.
- Stand with one foot about three feet in front of the other, toes pointing forwards and fold forward over the front leg, keeping the spine long and the chest lifted.
- Bring the hands onto blocks at any height, or on to the floor, and keeping the front foot where it is, imagine you are trying to drag it back towards you on the mat, engaging the muscles of your legs to create this active opening.
3. Arrow Lunge
- Come into a low lunge posture with the back knee down and the front knee stacked over the front ankle.
- With your hands framing the front foot, lift your back knee, keeping the top of the foot on the ground rather than tucking the toes.
- Feel the opening into the hip flexor at the same time as the engagement required to lift the back knee.
- Stay here, or to find more sensation, walk your hands up onto your front thigh, still pressing the top of your back foot into the mat.
- Super strong day? Lift both arms over your head, and hold for five long, slow deep breaths.
- You’ll find this is the perfect place to practice stirum sukham asanam and find the sweetness in the intensity.
If you’re working towards hanumanasana, weave these postures into your warm up sequence.
Hanumanasana is best integrated into a dynamic, flowing yoga practice which gives your body plenty of time to warm up and open up. (Learn more in Vinyasa Yoga: A Flowing Introduction That'll Have You Falling in Love With Creative Sequences.)
A few last tips to befriend hanumanasana:
- Sit on something. Placing a bolster under my sit-bones in full splits was a game changer for me.
- I found extension and freedom through my legs, and, no longer battling with the discomfort in my hamstrings, my upper body felt light and spacious.
- Don’t be shy with the props – there’s something liberating about letting yourself use the entire pile of cushions and blanket for support.
- Let your front knee bend.
- If your hamstrings protest even with lots of support underneath you, try placing a rolled up blanket under the front knee to encourage a bend in your leg.
- Practice half hanumanasana.
- Best entered from low lunge by gradually straightening the front leg and pressing your hips back, half hanumanasana is a great way to experience a controlled, gentle way into the posture.
Whichever warm up, variation or modification you’re playing with, take it slowly. Breathe into the sensation you feel and let yourself settle into the steadiness and ease.
Trust me, liberation does not strike the moment your sit-bones hit the ground in “full splits”.
Instead, practice patience, acceptance and joy in the appreciation of what your body can do! If nothing else, your hamstring tendons will thank you for it. (Learn more in 4 Essential Asanas to Increase Flexibility.)