In Yoga, a Little Preparation Goes a Long Way.
I’d been doing yoga for five years before I took a class where the teacher put us into the splits. “Holy mother of Ganesh!” I thought (or something less family-friendly), “Everybody’s flat on the floor and I’m up here, as vertical as a prairie dog!”
If you’ve never stretched this way before (or you didn’t inherit gymnast or acrobat genes), chances are that you too might find the side splits a little challenging (or for that matter, the front-back splits). But I’ve discovered through the years that with a little mindful preparation, it’s possible to get the body into this position… and harvest all its stretchy benefits.
The key to this? A meandering approach into the full position. And help from a prop: specifically, a tightly rolled-up yoga mat.
Here’s how. Remember to take the recommended amount of breaths in each pose and don’t rush any step.
1. Sit on top of your tightly-rolled yoga mat. Shift around until your glutes, hamstrings and sitting bones feel well-cushioned by this placement of the mat. You should feel comfortable. Place the hands on the floor behind you. This could be the palms, the fingertips, or a couple of yoga blocks underneath the hands. Keep your back straight. Take five very slow breaths here, feeling the remnants of the diaphragmatic movement reach down as far as your hamstrings, hips and sitting bones.
Note that this may be as far as your body can go into the entire sequence. If this feels like a challenging stretch already, do yourself a favor and go no further. Call this your splits, and practice it daily it for several weeks before you try to go any deeper.
2. Still sitting on the mat, lean to your right, raise your left arm and reach toward your right foot. Keep your right hand where it was in step 1, on the floor. If your hand cannot touch the foot with comfort, do not force the arm position or your body position. Instead, leave the hand floating however close to the foot it’s able to reach. Take five slow breaths in this position. Let yourself relax into it.
3. Reach across to the other side: left hand behind you on the floor to support you, right arm reaches toward your left foot. Five slow breaths, letting them sink in.
4. Slide forward and off the rolled-up mat. You’re sitting on the floor/regular yoga mat now, and your hips and hamstrings should already be feeling slightly more pliable from the three preceding steps. Take two slow breaths here.
Again, this may be another go-no-further point. If so, just stay here and breathe five or ten slow breaths instead and save going further for such time as your hamstrings and hips have given up a little of their normal tightness. Bear this in mind especially if you have great-grandchildren, are a newcomer to yoga or stretching, or if you haven’t been physically active since Olivia Newton-John sang “(Let’s Get) Physical.”
5. Lean forward a little and place the back of your right hand in front of your right leg, as pictured. Take two slow breaths.
6. Reach your left arm overhead toward the foot. Gently advance your right hand so as to turn your chest more toward the ceiling. Again, if you cannot reach your foot, just let your left arm hang overhead, as pictured in the second image. Take five slow breaths here.
7. Repeat, leaning to the left. Remember to inch forward with your left hand, arm and shoulder when arriving at the pose. Five slow breaths.
8. After your fifth breath, don’t come back up; instead, lean forward. Your hips joints, hamstrings and low back will be primed for the forward fold, so just place your hands on the floor and fold forward. Take five slow breaths.
9. Stay in the previous position, propped up on your hands or elbows, or if your muscles have begun to acclimate and yield to the pose and relaxation, then extend the arms out in front of you and let your body gradually arrive into the full position. Take ten or more slow breaths in it.
10. When you’re done, lie on your back and relax for a couple of minutes, letting your body absorb and process the stretch.
Benefits: Unparalleled releaser of hamstring, hip and lower back tension. Do this for the course of ten or fifteen slow breaths and it’ll feel like you’ve been put back together to the relaxation and suppleness of the day you were born. Plus, you get to think of yourself as one of those ultimately-limber people who can do stuff like this. (Ego alert! Ego alert!)
Avoid if: There are many reasons to avoid this position, or to stop along the various stopping points that I outlined. If just sitting on the rolled-up mat is enough to make you feel less than comfortable, by all means go no further. Rome wasn’t built in a day, and neither was the tension in your hamstrings, hips and low back. It is technically possible to release that tension in a relatively short time, but you want to do that under the guidance and individual attention of a yoga teacher attuned to your body and your specific circumstances. Absent the individualized attention, go slowly, stay away from pain, and just revisit the position daily, like having tea with a friend: easy, relaxed visiting.
Final thoughts: If you don’t know who Olivia Newton-John is, or if you’ve never heard the song “(Let’s Get) Physical” — you’re definitely young enough to do the splits without having to stop at step 1. You missed a very disposable phase of pop culture, and for that you should be more grateful than for being able to do the splits.