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Taking a leap of faith into Hanumanasana - Monkey pose - Splits

The infamous splits. Horror of an every stiff girl in gymnastics or yoga class, the super pose in Instagram and show off move on a dance floor. Super hard for most of the people, very easy for some flexible humans made of rubber. But is it really just that?

I just recently discovered that Monkey pose is very powerful asana in so many ways, physically and mentally: it requires strength, mobility, flexibility and most of all - patience and courage. For most of us, this asana takes time to achieve and can be held back because of stress, trauma or any other tension we are holding in, as well as just lacking the flexibility due to our natural build. It also has a very inspiring history behind it, which gives this beautiful pose a whole new meaning.

Mythology behind the Monkey Pose

Hanuman, the son of wind (God of wind Vaju) and mortal woman Anjana was a half god, half human. He was famous for taking giant leaps and the most known story about Hanuman's courageous acts was to take a massive jump from Ram’s kingdom to Sri Lanka to rescue Sita, the wife of Ram, who was kidnapped by Ravana (the multi-headed demon king). It might be that due to this heroic leap he gained a nickname “powerful monkey”, which describes this asana quite well. When his power was needed, he didn’t question the importance of his mission and showed true devotion and courage to complete the task in hand.

Surprising discoveries about the splits

The psoas muscles (deep core muscles) play a big role in this pose and also in functioning of the hips. They also are the main muscles involved in the fight or flight- response in our body: muscles contract when we get frightened, experience or hold back trauma or any kind of emotional stress.

I realized I have been curving up into a tiny ball my entire life due to a childhood trauma and I’ve been collecting more and more stress into this ball over the years, never being able to release and open up. The splits are just the opposite of that, so thinking about contracting psoas muscles over 30 years it’s quite clear now why this asana has been so very hard. I'm not saying that only stress and trauma prevent me from doing full splits, but they have made a serious impact physically.

The splits is also a very active pose, where we need quite a lot of lower body strength and stability in order to stay in a neutral pelvis alignment. So this isn’t just opening up the pelvis to the side and relying on our flexibility to get close to the floor - the splits can be done in various levels and they are all correct. Understanding this, Hanumanasana suddenly appears more accessible for different body types and starting points - it’s not all about flexibility!

Ardha Hanumanasana, half splits is a great prep for full splits and is definitely a hard pose on itself. Btw, splits practice can totally be done with woolen socks on ;)

What’s happening in the body?

Besides letting go of mental and emotional stress and tension, Hanumanasana has many anatomical benefits for us who have for example tight deep core muscles, weak hamstrings and hip flexors. It opens up the hips, stretches not only psoas, hamstrings and hip flexors but strengthen quadriceps and glutes too, secretly involves a small back bend and opens up the shoulders.

While practicing this pose it’s very necessary to engage the core and lift up from the pelvic floor to lift and lengthen the spine. We need the stability of our hips into every action and movement we create: when standing, sitting, walking and of course practicing yoga. There are many muscles, tendons and ligaments attached to our hips and it’s the center of our body: our legs and upper body are attached to it! And the SI-joints are a very important part of this combo and especially in splits practice.

The sacroiliac (SI) joint is located in the pelvis. It links the pelvis to the sacrum, which is the lowest part of the spine above the tailbone. The SI-joints in the sacrum are the building bricks that give stability into our hips. Sacroiliac joint is a very stable joint - it only moves about 2% in every direction and there are no muscles that directly move it. There are lots of ligaments around the joint that actually prevents it from moving too much - there comes the stability. However, when practicing splits the “dancer” way (meaning opening hips to the side) over and over again, it can cause damage in the ligaments around the joints and they could become unstable and cause hip related problems over the years. Here is where the proper alignment in Hanumanasana steps in: keeping the pelvis neutral and hip bones facing forward allows the joints in the sacrum to stay steady.

Psoas major is hiding behind other abdominal muscles. It creates a flexion of the hip joint, external rotation of the hip and bends the lumbar vertebral column.

The front splits is a super active pose and we need our legs to be strong to hold us in this pose. Okay, sure you can just rely on your flexibility and dump your body weight onto your hips and just hang out there. But why would you want to do that? If you don't keep your whole body active in this pose, you're missing the magic.

Here's a quick breakdown of the physical actions of the full front splits:

  • The core is engaged: active lift from the pelvic floor, hugging everything into the mid-line keeps you upright and protects your lower back

  • Arms reaching over head - shoulder flexion, which is a compilation of different muscles acting at the same time: the scapulohumeral rhythm. Say what now?? Not going super deep into anatomy, but we need our rotator cuff muscles, trapezius, deltoids and serratus anterior muscles (among others) to work together in order to have shoulders in flexion. And this might not come easy for tight shoulder folks (like me!), and it's totally okay to keep hands on the hips or in front of the heart in prayer.

  • Hips squared: frontal hip bones facing forward, neutral pelvis

  • In the front leg:

- hip flexors are shortened and engaged

- hamstrings are active, engaged and lengthened

- quads are powered up to keep that leg straight. However, it is better to keep a tiny bend in the front knee to prevent hyperextension and locking the knee joint

- ankle is in dorsiflexion, which helps to keep the hamstrings active

- ankle can be also in plantar flexion, but then the quads are more active than the hamstrings

- front heel is digging down to the mat and toes pointing up or towards you, no lazy feet!

  • In the back leg:

- the back leg is in extension, thanks to strong and flexible hip flexors

- hip flexors are lengthened

- butt muscles are on fire! Strong glutes keeps the hips squared and protects the lower back

- ankle is in plantar extension, top of the foot is pressing down to the mat

- back of the thigh is spinning up towards the sky

  • Spine is long, crown of the head reaching up

Lines of energy

Monkey pose is a very powerful pose with very intense flexion and extension in the lower body and also lifting up through the spine. In general speaking the lines of energy are a vibrant current traveling in different directions in our body when practicing different asanas (or at least this is how I understand it).

I think in splits everything expands from the center of the body: from the hips and the pelvic floor. When we are in our full splits, we’re rooting back to ground with our front heel and back leg pressing firmly to the mat - sending energy to earth. Engaging mula bandha, the root lock, creates a lift from the pelvic floor all the way up through the spine helps also lift the arms up to the sky - powerfully reaching from the crown of the head and through fingertips. Activating all these energy lines helps to create a stable, mindful and strong Hanumanasana.

Some people may think these lines of energy are a bunch of nonsense, and before my teacher training I thought so too. Now I think about this as a way of visualizing the full body actions: what needs to be grounded and what needs to be lifted and lengthened.

Lines of energy in dolphin pose: pressing down through shoulders and fingers, pushing chest towards the thighs, tailbone lifting up, pushing upwards through forearms and pressing the heels down.

How to practice?

In the video library you will find specific tutorials and full length classes for full and half splits. Here's an overall view for how to start practicing!

There ain't no shame in the prop game! Personally I think using props is extremely okay, even necessary! Blocks come very handy in this challenging asana. For beginners it’s easy to start the splits journey from crescent lunge, low lunge and Ardha Hanumanasana, half splits. Here it’s possible to practice and explore the proper alignment and engaging lower body muscles. It might come as a surprise how difficult it can be to keep the hips squared while the back leg is extended!

This is a very good starting point and there is no need to push any further if it doesn't feel okay. I always tell my students to trust the process - it will come in time!

Half splits are accessible from low lunge, Anjaneyasana - straightening the front leg with a flexed ankle with a bend in the front knee, placing hands on blocks that are placed on both sides of the front leg and shoulders above the wrists. For a beginner (or someone with injury) it might also be hard on the back knee, and it’s okay to use a blanket (or something that works as a cushion) under the shin. I like to use cushion this way, because it keeps the knee elevated from the floor. Before going any further from here, taking a few deep breaths allows the lower body to adjust into this pose. This might be enough and it's a perfectly good place to start (or even stay!) but there are different progressions before the full splits that can be tried out.

A student in Anjaneyasana, low lunge, with hands on prayer - don't underestimate this warm up pose!

Go slow and steady - there is no rush. Gliding the front leg forward as much as possible and shifting the back leg backwards slowly, with squared hips and hands supported by the blocks on the floor, gives a chance to check out what is possible in that moment for the body. How the hell square the hips then, when something is pulling it back?? The work is to pull the front hip backwards and the vice versa - like putting the hip joint back into it's socket! Placing a block under the front thigh helps with the stability, prevents the knee joint from locking in and the front leg hyperextending, and therefore helps activating all the leg muscles needed in this pose. The block can be placed at any level depending on the flexibility of the front leg, but it's not there to used as shelf for the leg - actively press the back of the thigh against the block. Hard? Hell yes! But it will help to strengthen the hamstrings and you'll thank me later :)

A student making her way into splits, with JOY!

When it comes to injuries, the key is to listen to our bodies. Especially with hamstring injuries the safest way to practice is to get higher from the floor and practice alignment and muscle engagement in crescent lunge and give time for proper warm up stretches (pigeon, runners lunge, half splits). With knee injuries it’s important to create a stable and padded ground for the knee/under the shin and practice the asana with back toes under - helps to relieve the pressure in the knee.

When it’s time to take it to the next level, it’s possible to remove one of the the props or all of them. Besides what's happening in the front leg: the whole core needs to be seriously engaged, glutes of the back leg fired up, top of the back foot pressing firmly to the ground and lift up from the pelvic floor gives a solid setup for the full splits. So many things happening at the same time, this one really needs focus, calmness and courage to take the next step.

Raising the the arms up over head, perhaps with kali mudra hands, is definitely a progression worth of exploring, shifting the gaze up to the sky or follow the hands and create a back bend, if the pose is strong and stable. Even shifting the gaze can be a challenge itself!

Whatever ones level in splits practice is, it’s a journey and a leap of faith. Nothing comes overnight and understanding that Hanumanasana requires patience and non-attachment, it can be a journey that takes months or even years, will help progression in this asana. There are so many things going on in this pose and maybe the most important thing is to understand that ego has nothing to do with it. Starting to enjoy the practice itself and forgetting about the outcome will bring peace and gratitude into the mind. Personally I think this asana is more about self study and letting go of any expectations than stretching the hell out of hamstrings and groins!

This is my full splits at the moment. See what's wrong? My front knee is in hyperextension, block is partly under the knee and I'm not upright from the hips up.

How can I teach the full splits if I'm not able to go all the way down myself?

Well actually, that's not right. I AM able to do it and this is MY fullest expression at the moment. This is the level of my personal practice and it's totally okay. No matter if you're in half splits, using all the props you can find, five centimeters away from the floor or front knee bent and not even close to the floor - everything counts! If you are doing all the body actions, putting your heart and mind into the practice, it's definitely the splits.

I know how to teach this challenging asana safely, I understand the anatomy in the pose and most importantly: I let my students to choose what their splits will look and feel like. It's all about the journey and I'm still on it - and who knows how long will it take. Frankly, I don't even care :D

The splits is like grandma suffering from selective memory loss: some days are clear, successful and perfect and other days are like wait, where are my pants? And that's where we get to be merciful on ourselves - respect your body and what it's capable of doing in that moment.

Happy practicing yogis and yoginis!

Special thanks to my students: Minna Ajo & Laurent Notin :)


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