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Poses for Your Hamstrings

The One Thing You Need to Know to (Safely) Come Into the Splits

Spoiler Alert: It's not what you think.

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The Splits, also known as Hanumanasana, tends to be one of those yoga postures that many of us aspire to come into with grace and ease. Yet in my years of leading teacher trainings, I’ve observed that most students don’t understand the process of safely preparing to come into the Splits. The most common mistake yoga students make is placing all their focus on the flexibility the pose requires. They forcefully overstretch, wanting to rush the results, and end up exhausting the body and overusing the muscles beyond their current capacity, which can result in strain or injury.

When we over-practice any intense hip-opening asanas—such as Hanumanasana (also known as Monkey Pose) or Samakonasana (Middle Splits), Upavistha Konasana (Wide-Angled Seated Forward Bend), Mandukasana (Frog Pose), and others—without focusing on anything else, we overstretch the hip adductor muscles in the inner thighs. Lengthening these muscles can, of course, help you prepare for the Splits. But when flexibility is emphasized to an extreme and we overuse any particular muscle group without balancing it with strengthening the muscles needed to support the body during the stretch, the result can be quite painful. What we actually need to safely come into the Splits is a balance between flexibility and strength.

The relationship between flexibility and strength

Flexibility and strength complement one another and are actually dependent on one another. The body parts that are active and strong support the lengthening in the muscles where we are creating flexibility. When we practice too much stretching without complementing it with strengthening exercises, the muscles begin to weaken and eventually tear. If this damage is ignored, it can go deeper to the ligaments, tendons, and bones, which take much longer to heal.

When we want to become flexible in a particular area of the body, we must also take in consideration the parts that we need to strengthen. There are two intense and opposite movements taking place at the same time in the hips in Hanumanasana—hip extension in the back leg and hip flexion in the front leg. Hip extension refers to taking the leg away from the body, such as in Virabhadrasana III (Warrior III) or Anjaneyaysana (Low Lunge). Hip flexion occurs when we flex at the hip, bringing the leg toward the body, for example the front leg in Low Lunge or in Utthan Pristhasana (Lizard Pose).

The anatomy of the Splits

The hips are an area where many of us experience tightness, so this pose can be challenging because it means the hip extensors (hamstrings, glutes, and adductors) and the hip flexors (illiacus, psoas, and rectus femoris) must be both flexible and strong enough to maintain your balance in the position. Because the hips and pelvis need to remain in a neutral position, this requires the strength and stability of the front and back leg, as well as the psoas, abdominal muscles, and glutes to keep your chest and torso from collapsing forward.

The hip extension in the back leg demanded by Splits is possible only if the hip flexors on that side are lengthened and flexible enough to allow that leg and back knee to extend to full capacity. And the hip flexion for the front leg is supported and possible only by having strong and flexible hip extensors. If there is stiffness or weakness in the extensors (hamstrings and adductors), then this would make it very difficult for the front leg to be long and steady. The glutes also need to be active to support this intense position. If the extension in the back leg is not steady and the glutes and hamstrings (extensors) are weak or stiff, then the front leg would struggle to keep long and steady.

Practice, practice, practice

It’s essential to understand that the repetition of particular movements are recorded in our brains and bodies over time. Eventually, our muscle memory adapts to that specific movement and can relate to it based on previous experience. It is said that once developed in a particular area, flexibility cannot be lost because the muscles, rather than the brain, will remember. Tension and stiffness can occasionally get in the way, but the flexibility can return to its previous state.

Strength, however, differs. It requires the consistent practice of applying stress to the muscles. (Stress, in this sense, can be a positive thing. Through it, we develop strength.) As a teacher, I was aware of this through my studies. Yet I was able to understand this concept better through direct experience, which of course yoga teaches us is the best approach to knowledge. Following a fall, I severely damaged one of my ankles and was unable to practice asana for more than a month. When my injury healed and I returned to my practice, my previous level of flexibility was fairly easy to achieve. However, I had to put effort into developing strength once again.

How to come into the Splits

With flexibility and strength, you can allow yourself to let go of tension slowly, gently, and with patience for this intense hip opening to occur. Of course, for those who are naturally quite flexible, this asana is more accessible without much preparation, although this doesn’t necessarily mean that it is practiced correctly. We must always remember that our flexibility levels do not necessarily make us advanced yoga practitioners. In the asana practice, in any pose the important aspect is to create a steady, comfortable posture, as mentioned by Sage Patanjali, meaning harmony of mind, body, and breath, without any resistance, discomfort, or tension.

As with most things in life, it takes a lot of work and self-awareness before you can make anything you attempt appear easy. Your body and mind need to be prepared to come into Hanumasana—without any rush or force. A gradual approach to practicing the pose ensures that you can stretch and strengthen the muscles without any pain so the body can eventually surrender into the full asana.

You want to progress slowly and safely to avoid resistance or exhaustion in the leg muscles. Resistance of the physical body is common and quite easy to identify because you will feel it. Resistance of the mind is trickier to identify. Practicing yoga with awareness ultimately helps us break free of any limiting beliefs or fears. When we doubt our ability or resist mentally, even if we try to do it physically, this can be very uncomfortable. So with any asana, especially the more advanced ones, the mind must be ready to let go of any insecurity or self-doubt. The body will follow.

Here are a few things to keep in mind as you make your way into the Splits.

(Photo: Photo: Andrew Clark; Clothing: Calia)

Practice with blocks

The use of yoga blocks when you practice the Splits allow for active and passive lengthening and strengthening of certain muscles. Placing a block at whatever height you need beneath your front leg gives you a steady base to gradually release tension in the hamstrings without forcing the leg to the mat. This allows you to safely extend without creating too much stress.

(Photo: Photo: Andrew Clark; Clothing: Calia)

Using blocks beneath your hands gives you the space and support to shift your chest forward and keep your upper body upright so that you can focus on the hip extension taking place in your back leg. You can also keep the back knee down as you’re creating the flexibility needed in your body to

Breathe

As always, the way you breathe greatly impacts your practice. If you have the support of blocks beneath your front leg, you can breathe with more ease because you are not unduly stressing the body as you come into the pose. Using blocks beneath your hands also enables your chest to remain open rather than collapsing forward, which in turn enables you to breathe correctly. If you breathe with comfort, then the body can let go of tension.

Keep the pose in perspective

We must remember that asana is both a physical and spiritual practice, not a performance. I always remind my students of this because once an asana is reached, then what happens? Instead of having a desire to “achieve” a pose just because it looks nice, we could be open to exploring the journey into each asana, regardless of how far we go into it. This way we understand it, see what it can teach us, and what it does, not just for our body, but also for our mental, emotional, and spiritual self. If we practice solely to prove to ourselves that we can do a pose, then the meaning of any asana is lost.


About our contributor

Miriam Indries is a 500-hour-plus yoga teacher and YTT trainer. With a vast experience of teaching asana and meditation as well as yoga teacher trainings, she is devoted to her mission and service of sharing yoga philosophy around the world through her teachings. She spent time in India studying yoga philosophy and advanced asana practice. Miriam is also an Ayurveda Practitioner, Pilates instructor and fitness enthusiast. Additionally, she has academic qualifications in Psychology (B.A) and NLP (neuro-linguistic programming) with an emphasis on behavior, effective goal setting, and strategies for self-development. Her love for learning also led her to studies in Traditional Chinese Medicine, body language, and reflexology and she continues to remain a student of life. She currently teaches at Aegialis School of Yoga in Greece as the creator and lead teacher of the YTTs.