Like arm strength and balance, flexibility might be the subject for a lot of stories you tell yourself. Thoughts patterns like, “I’ve always been so tight” or “My hamstrings just don’t stretch” can become unwelcome mantras every time you come to your mat. Let those thoughts go.
If you talk with other students, you’ll find most of them want to be more flexible. Like you, unless they trained as dancers or gymnasts, they’ve spent most of their lives with their bodies in contraction — driving, sitting at a desk, standing in the grocery store, working out by running or cycling. Some of the “bendy” types will be able to stretch out all of those contracted muscles more easily than students with denser musculature, but no body type has a monopoly on flexibility. Yoga provides an overflowing toolkit for softening and extending muscles and allowing everyone to take their “bendiness” to new lengths.
Hanumanasana (Monkey Pose) might seem as far as away as Sri Lanka looked to the Hindu deity Hanuman, standing at the tip of southern India before his heroic leap. Fortunately, your journey can begin at your own pace and you can look forward to enjoying each step along the way.
Starting out on the journey to flexibility begins with a change in your attitude, and that starts with leaving your ego outside of the door to your practice space. Forget the past; focus on what your body is telling you. Listen to your body’s signals about where your edge is. Pushing, straining, powering past that point could lead to a pulled hamstring (which takes six months or more to fully heal) and a lot of unnecessary frustration. Commit to going with the flow.
Rather than forcing your body when you stretch, think about softening. Visualize the muscles like flowing rivers that are liquid, flowing, and supple. And, don’t expect it to happen overnight. The ability to split your legs requires flexibility not only in obvious ways, such as your hamstrings, but also in most of the muscles and tendons around your hips, including your hip flexors. Even your low back comes into play.
Each of the poses below will help you lengthen one or more of those muscle groups:
Benefits: This pose stretches and strengthens the quadriceps and calves. It also benefits the chest, lungs, tummy, and groin by opening them.
How it's done: Stand with feet together and take a step back with the left leg. Make sure the bent knee in front is even with the ankle. With toes curled to the mat, lower knee to the floor. Raise arms overhead. Tilt the base of your pelvis forward to prevent injury to the lower back. Reach your chest to the sky. Hold Pose. Repeat on the other leg.
Benefits: This pose provides a hamstring stretch that prepares you for a full split.
Benefits: The full version of this pose provides a deep release in your groins, hamstrings and hip flexors.
Modification to help ease you into Hanumanasana. Place a bolster
under your pelvis when you try the splits. Stay there with your hands on
the bolster for a few breaths, then try removing your hands from the
bolster for a few breaths, then release.
Heat it. Don’t stretch cold. Try a few rounds of Sun Salutations before working into deep extensions like these. T his will make you less likely to hurt yourself, and it will make stretching easier.
Breathe. As you stretch, keep your breath long and smooth. Bringing oxygen to your muscles will help them release and will help you feel less sore.
Keep in mind that the final pose isn’t the goal in itself. As you work toward replicating the monkey god’s famous leap (according to the Ramayana, he was retrieving a jewel for his mistress), enjoy the benefits in the rest of your practice. Feel the length in your legs in poses like Virabhadrasana I, for example. And take this intention into your day. Instead of squatting to pick up something, do a forward fold. Take a break from watching TV and enter into a seated forward bend of your choice. Bend at the knees, move one leg forward and ground your heel. Then sit back into your hips for a hamstring/hip flexor stretch that you can do anywhere.
Staying flexible in your thinking is important to building physical flexibility. Allow the poses to unfold, using your breath — not your control freak side — to fill out each movement. Enjoy the experience and explore just how limitless you can be.