Unless you are or were a gymnast, chances are that doing the side splits is at the bottom of things that come naturally to you.
After five years of doing yoga, I took a class with a different teacher and she had us doing the side splits. “What the…?” I thought. “I’ve never been asked to do this before!”
No, and that’s because we always did the same 12 poses in my other yoga class. If we ever ventured into new poses, they didn’t feature the splits, because the teacher was a guy and 90 percent of the attendees were guys.
Guys don’t like the splits.
Women don’t like the splits, either, but wider hips and a less muscle-bound frame means they have an easier time of it than guys.
So, in the vein of my previous Visual Yoga Blog, The Cheater’s Guide to Doing the Splits, here’s my inside guide to doing the side splits.
Once you set up your legs, slide your body forward so it helps open your hips more. Avoid rounding your lumbar spine or your upper back; keep your back straight so as to hinge forward at the hips.
2. Inhale a full breath and keep inhaling to where it feels like your lungs are stretched to their maximum capacity.
As you hold that maximum in-breath for a moment, press down on your heels. That’s right: by bearing down on the heels, you’re now contracting the very muscles you’re trying to stretch. So, arrive at that maximum in-breath, hold for a second while bearing down very strongly on your heels, and then exhale through your mouth slowly, letting go of the pressure on the heels. It’s a long, drawn-out, haaaaaaaaaaaaah kind of exhalation. Let yourself sink deeper into the pose, hinging deeper at the hips while maintaining a straight back.
3. Repeat step two for four of those maximum in-breaths, letting your hips and hamstrings relax further on each long, deep exhalation.
4. Now bring your feet together and lift your sitting bones off the floor, as pictured. Drop your head back. Breathe 3 normal, long slow breaths (i.e., without trying to over-inflate your lungs).
You may notice that by resetting out of the pose in step 4, going back into it feels easier, as the body is more acclimated to the pose now. Repeat steps one to four one more time, and call it good enough for now: while you could continue to repeat this till you’re very deep in the pose, give your body time to integrate the changes. Go do other things, and repeat again tomorrow. Try it at different times of the day, too, and you’ll soon find yourself in the full side splits.
Benefits: A full range of motion in the hips, more relaxed hamstrings, and hence a more relaxed lower back as well. Also, potential stardom in kung fu movies.
Avoid if: There are frankly many reasons to avoid this position, mostly if you do not have an initial level of flexibility that allows you to sit correctly in step one above. If your hamstrings are fairly tight, you will sit with a rounded low back, and folding forward with a rounded low back just compounds poor posture and the compression of your back and the possibility of straining or injuring something.
Avoid if, part 2: If you can’t do step one above comfortably, instead of folding forward and continuing to the subsequent steps, place your hands behind you on the floor and lean back on your hands and just hang out there for a few minutes at a time, breathing slowly and deeply and repeat that daily for several months till you can do step one easily and with the specified alignment.
Avoid if, part 3: On the other hand, if just getting into the pose makes the ol’ bones hurt, please do yourself a favor and skip the pose entirely. There are other things that’ll target your range of motion in this part of the body without triggering pain or discomfort; refer to my blog for ideas.
Final thoughts: You can now casually remark to anybody who walks in on you in the middle of this position,
“Don’t mind me. I used to be a gymnast and now I’m just training to be an extra in a kung fu movie. How’s your day going?”
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Ed: Catherine Monkman