In the book Myths of the Asanas**, which details the stories behind the names of yoga’s poses, Alanna Kaivalya and Arjuna van der Kooij tell the tale of the monkey god Hanuman, who inspired the iconic forward-splitting yoga pose: “Hanuman’s journey, as recounted in the Ramayama (the epic tale of Rama), is one of faith, fearlessness, and complete devotion. Hanuman is said to embody all of the qualities of the yogi, and his story reflects our own in many ways. How many times have we forgotten our own divinity only to fall back into the same self-defeating way of thinking over and over? Who hasn’t had a crisis of faith and wondered if some burden wasn’t too great to bear, or whether some task wasn’t impossible to complete? Hanuman teaches us that there is one thing that allows us to override all of our doubts and fears. That one thing is love.” (p.75)
Along the lines of February’s theme of self-love, here we’re leaping into the benefits of a stretching practice for body and mind. I’ll include resources for preparing to stretch and going deeper with the practice as well, but let’s start with inspiration from Hanuman’s story:
“As son of the wind, Hanuman could do anything. He could grow very large or very small, move mountains, and even change his shape altogether. But he was constantly forgetting his divinity, and so he turned to his faith–which in Sanskrit we call shraddha–to give him the confidence to do what he knew he must accomplish.” (Myths of the Asanas** p.72)
This faith allowed him to perform one of his most miraculous acts, to help save Sita, the wife of Ram, which was to spring over the ocean with a flying leap: “As he flew over the ocean toward his destiny, one of Hanuman’s feet reached forward and one foot reached back, like the famous split pose, hanumanasana, that yogis know today. Despite encountering numerous obstacles, including a demon that rose from the water to try to gobble him up, Hanuman landed confidently on the island of Lanka [to] let her know that Ram would be coming to save her.” (Myths of the Asanas** p.73)
Benefits of Hanumanasana and Splits practice
Both Hanumanasana, the full forward-facing split, and Anjaneyasana, a deep kneeling lunge that is its prerequisite, “stretch the psoas muscle, which runs from the middle of the spine to the inner thigh. […] This very deep core muscle initiates all of our movements, and it is pivotal in the fight-or-flight response that is built into our bodies. For many people, the fight-or-flight response is almost continuously stimulated by a low-grade application of stress, which is so much a part of Western lifestyles, and results in a chronically locked psoas. The effects of stress are augmented by our daily habit of sitting for long periods of time on chairs, which also shortens and tightens this long, rope-like muscle.” p.68-9
Indeed, since renewing my focus on practicing this pose, I have noticed greater relaxation in the affected areas of the stretch as well as in my psyche. In fact, as Kaivalya and van der Kooij continue, “Because of its relation to the fight-or-flight response, which typically engages when fearful, the psoas is where we generally hide fear. The process of opening the psoas and encouraging its release through these […] related poses give us an opportunity to physically shed our fears and move into a state of fearlessness.” (p.69) This makes these stretches ideal medicine for our current pandemic-lockdown lifestyles, fraught with fear and an overabundance of sitting!
Anatomy/Kinesiology of Muscle Tissue
Exciting inspiration, yes? Now let’s take a couple steps back and discuss how stretching the muscles works in general and outline some safety precautions before we leap in. If you’re already familiar with this theory, feel free to skip ahead to the technical instructions 🙂
Rory Foster breaks it down in Ballet Pedagogy**: “Muscles move, control, and stabilize our skeleton. They propel our body into movement as well as slow it down and stop it. They also stabilize the body, in both stasis posture and dynamic movement and balances. Muscles have three basic characteristics: they stretch, they contract, and they are elastic–they will return to their original length after being stretched. Muscle tissue turns into tendons toward the end of the muscles, and these strong semi-elastic tendons attack the muscles to the bones.” (p.67)
Strive for balance between strength/stability and flexibility/mobility
In order for our training to serve a practical purpose, and advance our ability to perform techniques with mastery and artistry, we need to build our self-awareness and create a balanced regiment of strength and stretching or stability and mobility training. As Foster explains, “Teachers and students should remember that strength and flexibility must have a balanced relationship. Having a loosey-goosey body may be great for high leg extensions, but it requires a good deal of muscular strength to control such hyperflexibility.” (Ballet Pedagogy** p.67)
Flexibility affects not only the shapes that we make, but also how we enter into them and transition out of them, and create a whole-body effect. Especially the spine is involved in every stretch and movement, as foster points out, “Nearly all of the stretching that is done in ballet either directly or indirectly involves the spine by arching side or back (cambre), bending forward, or rotating. Therefore, the act of lifting or lengthening the torso, especially the upper back, prior to entering into the movement will elongate the spine, giving a fuller stretch with a greater range of movement and a more aesthetic look.” (Ballet Pedagogy** p.67)
Warm Up First!
Stretching when insufficiently warm will impede, rather than support your progress, so don’t skip a good warm-up before attempting any deep stretch, and go carefully.
Any dance, yoga, or movement instructor worth their salt will implore you to warm up, as “Doing proper stretches that involve a maximum range of motion and, therefore, a definite feeling of resistance reflex in the muscles should always be done after the body is warmed up.” (Ballet Pedagogy** p.67)
Why? Because, as Foster elaborates:
“Muscles are made up of bundles of fibrous tissue encased in connective tissue called fascia. Some of the fascia fibers are gelatinous. When the body is cold, these gelatinous fascia fibers are also cold, making the muscles feel tight or stiff. Once the body warms up, the gelatinous fibers soften and flow, thereby allowing a greater and safer range of motion while stretching.” (Ballet Pedagogy** p.67)
I also find Eliza Gaynor Minden’s words of advice on stretching in The Ballet Companion** very practical:
“Only when you feel warm is it appropriate to begin stretching. Once warm, be guided by the idea of ‘gently dynamic.’ Small, controlled movements are safer than either big, ballistic movements or no movement at all. Resist the urge to hang out in a static stretch position, especially in a big straddle stretch such as à la seconde on the floor. The other extreme–sudden, forceful movement–can cause tears, sometimes the ‘uh-oh’ kind you notice immediately, sometimes the more subtle and insidious kind that heal by forming scar tissue that creates a permanently vulnerable area prone to reinjury. Before class is not the time to test your full range of motion; a low, slow, mini battement cloche before class is ok, but whacking your leg up to a full extension might pull a muscle.” (p.109)
How shall we go about getting warm, then? If you’re looking for inspiration, I’ve got ideas, in the form of free videos on my YouTube Channel!
A sampling from my Wonderful Dance Warm-up Playlist:
- “Jelly Jumping Jacks”
- “Luscious Lunges”
- “Planking Pleasures”
- “Oh Wow! Cat-Cow”
- “Sweet Leg Swings”
- “Kicky Floor Kicks”
Warming Yoga Flows from my Yogalicious Playlist:
- “Yoga Sun Salutations” Video
- “Short Yoga Flow – 10-Minute Vinyasa” Video
- “Inner Space Yoga Flow” Full One-Hour practice
Types of stretches and further words of warning
Gaynor Minden shares an important distinction between static, dynamic, and ballistic stretching: “The two types of stretches that dancers do regularly are static stretching and dynamic stretching. In static stretching, a position is held for 20-30 seconds, such as remaining in a split or straddle on the floor. Dynamic stretching is done while moving, such as doing a forward bend, an arched stretch to the side, a backbend, or a penche. It is never a good idea to do ballistic stretching […] when one bounces while in the stretch. It risks tearing muscle or fascia tissue.” (Ballet Pedagogy** p.67)
Listen to Your Body and don’t over-stretch
Gaynor Minden goes on to warn that, “Ambition, discipline, and zeal–all admirable traits–can get in the way of listening to the body. Put them aside for long enough to tune in and take an inventory of what feels tight. Try to distinguish between the salutary discomfort that indicates productive effort and the pain that warns of injury. If a movement feels ‘pinchy’ in the joints or causes residual pain, don’t do it. It’s not self-indulgent to heed your body’s messages. It’s prudent.” (The Ballet Companion** p.109)
It can be helpful to get visual feedback to check on your body’s alignment and where you can adjust the positioning, as Gaynor Minden reminds us, “Finally, the mirror is not just for primping. Try to find a spot where you can see yourself to check for symmetry and alignment.” (The Ballet Companion** p.109)
Foster reinforces the individual nature of our bodies and personal needs: “Increasing or maintaining flexibility through stretching is important, and how much and what type of stretch will depend on the individual needs of each dancer. Too much stretching, particularly if it involves ligaments, can result in hypermobile or loose joints, which will increase the risk of injury. Unlike muscles, ligaments are not elastic, and once they are stretched, they will not return to their original length.” (Ballet Pedagogy** p.67)
Be mindful getting into and out of stretching positions
This is true in both ballet dancing and also in the practice of yoga and mindful stretching, “How you arrive at and how you leave a position are as important as the position itself; this is just as true for stretching as it is in the rest of ballet. Your transitions into and out of a stretch should be slow, controlled, and graceful.” (The Ballet Companion** p.109) Each stage of the process is important, and contributes to our results.
Use your breathing to support the stretch
In the book Ballet Pedagogy**, Rory Foster explains the importance of breath support to all stretching practices, whether they be yoga as such, or more generally in dance and athletics: “Incorporating the use of breath is an important element to the mechanics of stretching, use of port de bras, and balletic movement in general. Unfortunately, teaching students to be aware of how they breathe and knowing how important breathing is in dance has diminished over the years. As the science of Yoga has become more mainstream in the West along with its teaching on the use of breath in stretching, more and more dancers are now learning and benefiting from it. Generally, we should use inhalation to elongate the spine and begin the movement, and we should use the exhalation to move further into the stretch or to increase and deepen the stretch once we are there, thereby helping to relax the reflex in response in the muscles. We use the inhalation again to bring us out of the stretch.” (p.67)
Yes, this is why I created Yummy Gentle Yoga for Dancers (and those who wish to be more dancerly), to bring out the connections between yoga and artistic movement!
I was fascinated to read the reminder that, “Movement of the legs into extension stretches the iliopsoas muscles from their insertions on the lesser trochanter of the femoral heads up through the pelvis and to their origin on the lumbar vertebrae and twelfth thoracic vertebra. This is the same place where the diaphragm attaches at the central tendon.” (Teaching Yoga** Loc 4677) Therefore we can sense in this stretch, the connection between freedom in the psoas and lower body, as well as in the flow of the breath.
Getting into Hanumanasana / training for “the Splits”
Start with a good warm-up, of course, either in the form of flowing through other simple yoga poses such as sun salutations or with another gentle but vigorous exercise such as those suggested above under “Warm Up First!”. Then start with getting familiar with some lickety luscious high and low lunges and gentle stretches of the major muscle groups of the legs and torso.
Leg and Hip Stretches:
Once your lunging shapes are well-established, you can move from a low lung into Hanumanasana in this way, as Mark Stephens details in the book Teaching Yoga** : “Place the hands on the floor and shift the hips back above the rear knee while straightening the front leg. Stay here for one to two minutes. Keeping the hips even with the front of the mat, slowly slide the heel of the front leg forward while extending the rear leg.”
It is very useful to use props such as yoga blocks or similarly-sized books to bring the floor to you and help get into the pose and enjoy its benefits. Stephens explains: “Since most students are unable to release fully into this asana, offer blocks to place (1) under the sitting bone of the front leg and/or (2) on both sides of the hips for hand support. It is important to position the hips even with the front of the mat while the sitting bone of the front leg is firmly grounded, thereby creating a symmetrical foundation for spinal extension and reducing the risk of lower-back strain.” (Loc 4340-4344)
Only after getting set up in this stable architecture, do we descend further into the stretch: “Once stably positioned with the spine upright, increasingly flex the front foot, engaging the quadriceps muscles and releasing the hamstrings. To the extent that the hips are even with the font of the mat, the back leg will more easily extend straight back from the hip. Emphasize internal rotation of the back leg, especially if exploring the backbend variation.” (Teaching Yoga** Loc 4344-4348)
As you breathe into the shape, consider how you have already overcome fear and resistance to the practice, regardless of what your shape may look like from the outside. Remember that gaining flexibility and range of motion is a long-term process, and we can only improve once we have gotten started. Be gentle and patient with yourself, and remember that, “We easily forget that there is a part of us that is also divine and can accomplish the impossible.” (Myths of the Asanas** p.72)
Maybe we think accomplishing the splits, or some other advanced yoga or dance position is impossible now, but consider what a steady practice combined with faith in yourself might do!
Blythe Stephens, MFA
she/her or they/them
** This blog is not sponsored. Amazon Affiliate links potentially give me a percentage of the purchase price.
DISCLAIMER: A Blythe Coach recommends that you consult your physician regarding the applicability of any recommendations and follow all safety instructions before beginning any exercise program. When participating in any exercise or exercise program, there is the possibility of physical injury. If you engage in this exercise or exercise program, you agree that you do so at your own risk, are voluntarily participating in these activities, assume all risk of injury to yourself.