During mythological times, Rama, a king of ancient India, had a problem. The demon king who presided in Sri Lanka, Ravana, had abducted Rama's wife, Sita. Rama and his troops set out to rescue her from the vile demon. In the ensuing battle Rama's brother, Laksmana, was severely wounded, and the only way to save him was with an herb that grew exclusively in the Himalayas. It appeared that he would be lost, for who could possibly travel to the Himalayas and back in time to save him?
Hanuman, Rama's greatest devotee, said he would accomplish this impossible task. He then took one mighty leap that stretched all the way from the south of India to the Himalayas. At that point, he wasn't sure which herb to pick, and so he carried the entire mountain with him as he made another massive leap back to the battlefield. The healers found the herb in question, and Laksmana's life was saved.
In that giant leap Hanuman embodied his love for Rama. His intense devotion allowed him to do the impossible, and this is the lesson of Hanuman: Power comes from devotion.
That mighty leap is memorialized in the pose Hanumanasana. This pose asks you not merely to stretch your legs but also to bring true devotion into your practice. Hanumanasana expresses the expansiveness possible when devotion is in the heart—the sense that you can overcome any obstacle when your yearning to help is combined with reverence and respect, as well as an intense and fiery devotion. In Hanumanasana you strive to reach much further than seems humanly possible.
When this attitude is infused into the practice of Hanumanasana, it brings with it the energy to do this magnificent posture. Though Rama himself was an incarnation of the god Vishnu, he wasn't able to make the giant leap because he was earthbound in a human body. But Hanuman, with his intense devotion to Rama, could make the leap. This story shows that even a god cannot do what a human can when the human has true devotion in the heart. For a devoted soul, nothing is impossible.
As you practice this pose, notice the duality between your reach for the pose and the pains that may accompany your attempts. When you feel pain, turn your mind inward. Instead of focusing on the pain, use your breath to access your heart, finding the inner passion that created the leap of Hanuman. Notice that when you switch the mind from pain to passion and do the asana with a sense of Hanumanic devotion, resistance begins to dissolve and the pose starts to blossom. As the mind turns, so the body responds. As the mind moves into devotion and the heart opens, so will the hips, the hamstrings, and the legs. The opening up of the legs, hamstrings, and hip flexors is a reflection of a deeper opening felt inside. When you maintain an inner quality of expansive devotion, the pose will not be a fight to open your hamstrings, but a joyous attempt at aggrandizing all your capacities.
Cervantes wrote in Don Quixote, "The road is better than the inn." And so it goes with all yoga poses, and none more than Hanumanasana. It's irrelevant whether you achieve the full pose or not. What's important is you turn your awareness inward to find the energy of Hanuman inside yourself—an energy of devotion and introspection toward your own inner divinity. As you do this, your body will release and move. This movement, which transcends your current capacity and takes you where you could not have gone without this devotion, is your offering to the divinity within.
Opening the Hamstrings
There are three major openings necessary for Hanumanasana, and the three preparatory poses that follow are geared specifically toward these particular openings. Supta Padangusthasana (Reclining Hand-to-Big-Toe Pose) opens up the hamstrings of the front leg. Eka Pada Supta Virasana (One-Legged Reclining Hero Pose) opens the hip flexors of the back leg. The Lunge provides an opportunity to lift the pelvic root toward your heart center, creating Mula Bandha (Root Lock).
In Hanumanasana most people will find that the hamstrings are the first muscles to feel a stretch. To prepare the hamstrings for this stretch in a safe way, start with Supta Padangusthasana.
Lie on your back with both of the knees straight. Draw your lower belly toward the kidneys, bringing your lumbar spine toward the floor. Simultaneously press your thighbones away from your head and into your heels, squeezing your legs together. Place your right hand on the front right thigh and press it toward the floor. Bend the left knee and hold the big toe of the left foot with the index and middle fingers of your left hand.
Take a deep inhalation, and then exhale to straighten the left leg. Keep your quadriceps (front thigh) muscles contracted powerfully in both legs, thereby keeping both knees straight. It is important to remember that whenever you stretch the hamstrings, you must consciously contract the quadriceps (that is, lift the kneecaps); only then will the mind send a message to release the hamstrings. The term that is used for one muscle releasing while an opposing muscle is contracted is "reciprocal inhibition." You might find Supta Padangusthasana difficult to do with your knees straight. If this is so, hold a belt with your left hand and wrap it around the arch of your left foot. Do not do the pose with either your left elbow or your left knee bent, as this will prevent the smooth flow of energy through the limbs and thwart reciprocal inhibition.
The tendency in this pose is to shrink the left waist and lift the left hip. Counteract this tendency by pressing the left side of your pelvis away from your head to lengthen your left waist, while dropping your left leg from your left heel into the hip and bringing your left buttock into the floor.
If you have rather short hamstrings, you'll need a long loop in the strap, and your left leg will form an acute angle (less than 90 degrees) between the back of the leg and the floor. In this case, press the left hip toward the left heel. If you have more flexible hamstrings and your left leg forms an acute angle between the front of the thigh and the floor beneath your torso, press your left heel toward your left hip, thereby settling your left buttock and pelvis toward the floor.
All students should rotate their left hip and thigh externally so their left kneecap faces their left shoulder. This positions the left pelvis and the left leg properly for the final actions in the pose. These final actions include rotating the right leg internally, bringing the right inner thigh toward the floor, and pressing the right leg out toward the heel and big toe mound while simultaneously pulling your lower belly toward the kidneys and establishing Mula Bandha.
Draw your inner thighs toward each other and continue pressing your right thigh down with your right hand. Widen your shoulder blades and then drop them toward your buttocks. Also press both your shoulders down toward the floor, concentrating more on the left shoulder because it is more likely to lift.
If you have fairly pliant hamstrings, you can open them farther in preparation for Hanumanasana by slowly moving as far as you can toward the supine variation of Hanumanasana, Supta Trivikramasana (Reclining Three Strides Pose). To do this pose, begin in Supta Padangusthasana, catch your left foot with both hands, and then slowly draw your left leg toward your head, always keeping your knee absolutely straight.
Eventually the inner left thigh will rest against your outer left ribs and your left toes will rest on the floor just above your head, while your right hamstrings press into the floor. Position your inner left calf against your left ear and then widen your elbows sideways while pulling your left heel into your left hip with both hands. This is more difficult than Hanumanasana, yet excellent preparation for it; even if you cannot get all the way into Supta Trivikramasana, the attempt will prepare your hamstrings for Hanumanasana. Do either Supta Padangusthasana or Supta Trivikramasana on both sides before you move on to the next pose.
Opening the Hip Flexors
Hanumanasana affords you the opportunity to open the back and the front of your legs at the same time. While Supta Padangusthasana opens the hamstrings, Eka Pada Supta Virasana stretches the groin and the front of the thighs-the hip flexors and quadriceps.
Lie on your back with your knees bent, feet together, and soles on the floor. Lift your left foot a few inches. Then exhaling, slowly draw your left leg into Virasana position, placing the top of the left foot beside the left hip. Separate your toes and point them toward your left shoulder, position your left hand on your left heel, and push your heel toward your left knee. While you are doing this, swing your left leg to the right until your inner left thigh touches the right ankle.
On an exhalation, press your left thighbone into your left knee while pulling the left side of your lower belly toward your kidneys and your head, thereby stretching your quadriceps and your hip flexors. Make sure your right knee is bent, with your right foot on the floor. (This pose should never be done with the right leg straight, because doing so will distort the pelvis and place strain on the sacroiliac joints.) Press the right foot firmly into the floor to recoil the left side of the pelvis and the left waist toward the floor. Keep the throat relaxed and the breath smooth and long. Stay for 18 to 36 breaths, then gently lift your left pelvis to take your left leg out of Supta Virasana. Repeatthe pose on the other side.
To intensify this pose, start again on your back with your knees bent. Pressing both feet into the floor, lift your pelvis as high as possible. Then place a wooden block underneath the sacrum, resting the sacrum on the smallest face of the block. The block should be placed with the broad dimension spanning and supporting both sides of the sacrum. On an exhalation, swing your left leg back to Virasana, pulling the shin with your left hand to bring your toes as close to your left shoulder as possible. While doing this, you will notice that your belly rises. This movement defeats your purpose—opening the groin—and must be carefully avoided by pulling the entire lower belly toward the diaphragm, creating an intense stretch across your left groin and in your quadriceps. Swing your left thigh toward the right until your left thighbone is parallel with the spine. Clearly visualize the opening across the front of the groin during each exhalation.
In the beginning your left knee will not rest on the floor, but with practice and by concentrating on moving your left thighbone toward the left knee and your belly toward the kidneys, it will. If this version of the pose is too intense, drop the block one level down, positioning it on the floor perpendicular to the spine. If the left side of the sacrum lifts off the block, press the right foot into the floor to help bring the left side of the sacrum onto the block. To open the chest, roll the shoulders under toward your midline as though you're performing Sarvangasana (Shoulderstand) and keep the throat soft. Exert yourself only on exhalations, using your inhalations to recharge your body. Remain in the pose for between nine and 36 breaths; then on an exhalation, release your left leg and repeat on the other side.
Practicing Eka Pada Supta Virasana will ease any tension around the sacroiliac joint, and it will help remedy the collapse in the groin that inevitably comes from sitting in chairs.
After consistently practicing Eka Pada Supta Virasana and Lunge you will feel taller and stronger, due in part to the release of your psoas muscle. In addition, even if Hanumanasana is not your goal, practicing Supta Padangusthasana and Eka Pada Supta Virasana will transform your hips, your sacroiliac joints, and lower back, creating a taller spine, an easier gait, and a longer stride. You will find climbing and hiking become much more pleasurable. Also, after strenuous activity that tightens the groins and the hips, these two poses will relieve both areas.
Lengthening Your Stride
The position often called a High Lunge might also be thought of as a variation of Virabhadrasana I (Warrior Pose I). It intensifies the various stretches you felt in Eka Pada Supta Virasana, because it asks your hip flexors to extend even as they are being contracted. From Uttanasana (Standing Forward Bend), bend both knees and step your right foot back until your right shinbone is perpendicular to the floor and the thighbone is parallel to the floor. Fully straighten the right leg, pressing the thighbone toward the heel and then rotating the thighbone internally until your kneecap faces the floor. Then push your hands into your left thigh, lifting your spine from the lower belly and eventually making your spine erect. Next, bend your right knee a little bit to allow the front of your pelvis to lift and your sacrum to drop. Keeping your pelvis in its new upward-facing position, slowly straighten your right leg. This leg-straightening action will intensify the stretch in your right hip flexors.
Square your hips to the front by moving the right side of your pelvis toward your left knee. Lift your inner right thigh more than the outer right thigh so that the stretch is felt across the center of your front right groin. The more dynamically you contract your right quadriceps, the more you will have to lift the lower belly to keep the groin open. Once you have established the basic alignment of the asana, these opposing actions are your primary work. To increase this already intense stretch, you may drop your left sitting bone lower while keeping the rest of the actions intact. After nine to 18 breaths, place your hands on the floor and exhale to bring your right foot next to your left. Take a deep inhalation, and then exhale to step back with the left leg and repeat the pose on the other side. As you do more and more of this Lunge, you'll start to cultivate power in your inner legs. You'll also find your lower back becoming stronger and more aligned.
Leaping Beyond Your Limits
As in all intense postures, the benefits of Hanumanasana outweigh the risks only if you work sensibly and without attachment to the outcome. I have torn my hamstring from its origin at the sitting bone by pushing too hard in Hanumanasana, quickly trying to get into the pose without being adequately warmed up and prepared. This pose must be approached with humility, even if you're already quite flexible.
Many flexible people perform the pose by further stretching their already-open hamstrings but allowing their pelvis to tip forward. This creates an imbalance in the pose and leads to lower back pain when students attempt, as they should, to lift the spine. To balance the hamstring flexibility of the front leg with the hip flexor flexibility of the back leg, the front rim of the pelvis should be lifted so that the entire pelvic rim faces the ceiling instead of tipping forward. With the pelvis in this erect position, the stretch is evenly distributed between the back of the front leg and the front of the back leg.
To set up for Hanumanasana, start in the Lunge and then place both hands on the floor by the sides of your front thigh. If your hamstrings, quadriceps, and groins are tight, you might place your hands on two blocks or two chairs, one placed on each side of your pelvis. Bring your right knee down to the floor, pointing the toes of your right foot back and resting the foot on the instep (the top of the foot). Slowly begin to straighten your left leg in front of you, sliding your left heel forward while ensuring that your right inner ankle, your sacrum, and your left inner ankle are in a straight line. Keep sliding the left heel forward until the left hamstrings are on the floor; if this is impossibly painful or simply impossible, place your left sitting bone on a block or any other type of firm prop. Adjust your hands so that your spine is as erect as possible, and use the hands to rotate the pelvis so that the front hip bones point forward, bringing your inner thighs toward each other. Your pubic bone, belly button, and sternum should be facing the big toe of your left foot. Powerfully lift your lower belly up toward your chest to make your spine erect. Press the little toe of your right foot and your inner left thigh into the floor to create more stability. If you can stabilize the pose enough to take your hands off the floor, bring them into Namaste at your heart. And for the final stretch, sweep your arms sideways and up, joining them in a Namaste above your head, keeping your elbows straight. Look straight ahead.
For a more intense opening in the back leg groin, continue to lift the lower belly upward while lifting your chin and reaching back with your arms. Focus your eyes upon your thumbs. To get more of an intense stretch in the front-leg hamstrings, bend forward with arms overhead until you end up with your belly, sternum, and chin on your front leg. In this variation, hold your foot with both hands and pull on it as if you were doing a forward bend, elbows moving sideways and apart.
When in Hanumanasana, focus on extending the bones of each leg away from your trunk energetically while pulling the flesh of your legs toward the center of your body. Notice that as you breathe and extend the leg bones away from your center, you'll get a sense of an expansive stride—the mighty leap of Hanuman. To have this feeling of a yearning reach and freedom in the hips and pelvis is more important than being able to rest both legs on the ground. If you truly tap into the energy of this asana, you will attain the pose much faster than if you simply keep mentally inflicting instructions on your body.
An intense variation of Hanumanasana requires bending the back leg to bring the back-leg foot to the floor beside the hip as in Bhekasana (Frog Pose). If you lift the front pelvis while doing this, you will feel one of the most intense openings possible in your quadriceps.
As well as tremendously lengthening the hamstrings of the front leg, Hanumanasana also tremendously lengthens the hip flexors of the back leg. And as you open your hamstrings and hip flexors, you open your stride, and a longer, smoother stride helps the spine remain neutral and free of strain.
During your first few attempts at this pose, you will notice that your mind puts up more resistance than your body. When you empty yourself of these thoughts that resist the pose, you create the space for possibility. During your most intense moments in this posture, find your breath and pause. Don't try to go any farther. Instead, go inside yourself, and with each exhalation, move your mind into your front-leg hamstrings and your back-leg front thigh and groin—all of which may resist the pose.
When you have reached the edge of your capacity, a sense of desperation may often bubble up. But by not going beyond that edge but instead pausing and breathing there, you will make that hard, sharp edge become more liquid and expansive, thereby increasing your range of possibilities. Never do this pose by bobbing in and out of it like a jack-in-the-box. Approach the pose slowly, a little at a time, and with great respect. Then the pose will give back to you its essence—lengthening your stride so that it takes you fewer steps to reach your goals. In the full expression of Hanumanasana, your arms reach for the sky while one leg stretches in front of you and the other leg roots behind you. This pose demands you focus your energy intensely so that your mind can expand, integrating past and future even as you reach for the highest heavens.
Doing this pose with care and humility will invoke the blessings of Hanuman so that instead of just shuffling down your weary path, you will begin to take giant leaps toward your own inner destiny, the specific fulfillment of the indwelling godhead's dharma. Through the practice of this wonderful pose, or this mighty leap from the possible to the impossible, you move yourself into the expansive realm that is your potential whenever you connect love and devotion to your actions. When you practice Hanumanasana while maintaining the quality of bhakti (devotion), maintaining with inner sincerity the aspiration for your heart and the God within you, you too will stride longer than ever before.
You too will stretch beyond your limits and fly like the son of the wind, the mighty devotee Hanuman.
Founder-director of Yoga Centers in Bellevue, Washington, Aadil Palkhivala began studying yoga with B.K.S. Iyengar at age 7, was introduced to Sri Aurobindo's yoga at age 10, and received an Iyengar Advanced Yoga Teacher's Certificate at age 22. For more information on Aadil and his work, see www.yogacenters.com and www.aadilpalkhivala.com.