Tap into flexibility and strength to take your splits off the ground and let them soar.
The splits go way beyond the yoga practice for me. They evoked fear in me way back in my musical theatre days when I was playing Sally Bowles in Cabaret and had to learn the splits as part of a routine. It wasn't pretty, but I stretched every night (these were my pre-yoga days) and with time, my performance resembled something that looked sorta like the splits. Lucky for me, the scene didn't call for perfection.
Fast forward to my life as a yogi, I had been practicing Ashtanga and Vinyasa Flow religiously but had forgotten all about the splits (now known as Hanumanasana) until the fateful day where I was taking class and the teacher said, "If you want to take your lunge into a split, go for it." I paused, contemplated, and thought, might as well! Next thing you know I'm in the full splits! I was in complete shock because I hadn't been practicing this pose. The beauty of my realization was that doing a full yoga practice had provided me with the tools to open my body into this posture. All I needed to do was practice and stay open minded. I've never forgotten that moment or lesson.
Today, we take the splits off the ground and let them soar. Standing splits, while related to the grounded version, requires more muscle engagement and less help from gravity. I actually find these preps to be quite delicious and the perfect warmup to attempt the pose away from the wall. Remember this pose doesn't happen by casually swinging your leg up into the air. It takes the perfect blend of flexibility and strength. Use them both.
King Arthur is a love/hate pose. This Hanuman or Standing Split prep is an excellent way to open up the quad, hip flexor and psoas. Take your mat to the wall and place your left shinbone up the wall with the knee a few inches away from the floor board. Toenails are against the wall. If you have sensitive knees feel free to place a towel under your knee or double up the mat. Take your right foot forward into lunge so that the knee is stacking over your heel. Begin with your hands on the ground to see what level of sensation you're at. If it seems safe to go deeper, place both of your palms onto your right quad and lift your torso up. As your hips and back get closer to the wall, keep your left foot to the outside of your hip just like Virasana (Hero Pose). If you want more sensation continue to press into the quad with your hands and eventually bring your back to the wall. Allow your tailbone to neutrally drop as you engage and lift your lower belly. This seemingly small action turns on the psoas, so go slow! If you're feeling extra strong and stable, try lifting your arms straight up overhead with the palms spinning in shoulder-width apart.
Bring your hands back down onto the mat, shoulder-width apart. Lift your left knee off the ground and start to climb the wall with the ball of your left foot. You're not trying to get into a split here, you just want the leg to elevate. The knee can stay bent. Pause when you can't get the foot higher. Try to square off your hips by rolling your left hip forward and down. Keep your standing quad engaged.
Transfer your weight into your hands keeping the arms straight and upper outer arms hugging in. Lift your right foot off the ground by pushing into your hands and transfer your heel to the baseboard of the wall. Walk your hands in slightly and push down to help wiggle the top leg further up and towards the wall. I prefer to keep my toes curled under during this process because it helps me to square the hips. The hips will want to externally rotate, so the curling of the toes gives you extra juice to roll the hip down and forward to level out with the right side. It's incredibly difficult to get completely square so don't push yourself too much, just do your best. If you can walk the hands in toward the wall, go for it! Remember you want to extend your chest long over your thigh and push into the ground to help engage the hold the lifted leg. After you've taken at least 8 breaths, walk your hands out and drop to your knees to rest.
Practicing Standing Splits in the middle of the room after using the wall is a bit exhausting but still quite rewarding. Start at the front of your mat in Standing Forward Fold. Sweep your left leg up behind you reaching it parallel to the ground. Inhale, get long through your chest, exhale begin to fold over your standing leg. I like the analogy of your chest being a pat of melted butter and your base leg is the toast. You want to evenly spread the butter! Basically, it isn't about how close your torso gets to your leg, but how long it gets. I also like to place my right forearm behind my base calf to give me more leverage. You can push that arm into your calf to help extend your lifted leg. Your left hand will stay grounded in line with the toes of your base foot. The hand is hip width distance from the right foot. The top leg requires flexibility, but, more than anything, needs engagement and strength. Spread the toes of your lifted leg and expand through the back of your kneecap. Continue to encourage internal spiral by rolling the pinky toe back. Again, it's very difficult to get the hips completely square, but the hope is to stay away aware. Keep your standing quad lifted and engaged and maybe plant a kiss onto your bottom shinbone.
ABOUT KATHRN BUDIG
Kathryn Budig is jet-setting yoga teacher who teaches online at Yogaglo. She is the Contributing Yoga Expert for Women’s Health Magazine, Yogi-Foodie for MindBodyGreen, creator of Gaiam’s Aim True Yoga DVD, co-founder of Poses for Paws and author of Rodale’s The Women’s Health Big Book of Yoga . Follow her on Twitter; Facebook;Instagram or on her website.