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Hanumanasana (Splits) - Issues and solutions

Some General Comments:

This is one of those poses in which it is very easy to hurt oneself through over-stretching. This isn’t because the pose is difficult, but because it is one in which it is very easy to push onself beyond one’s current safe limitations. Also, in terms of the physical benefits of this pose, these can all be obtained more easily, safely and effectively in other poses. To my mind, the real challenge of this pose lies in acceptance of one’s current limitations and being patient enough to allow these limitations of the length of one’s muscles to gradually change through a long period of regular practice. And then, as one begins to be able to move deeper into the pose, there is the challenge of how one responds to the ego pleasure of being able to do something that looks and feels impressive but is, in practical terms of most people’s lives, trival and unimportant. Thus the real issues to do with this pose are much more to do with character (and, if you are into such a thing, ‘spiritual evolution’) than the physical.

List of some of the issues that can be relevant for practising this pose:


Splits Potential Problem Areas Image
            · Hands, arms and shoulders

            · Lumbar Spine

            · Hips and upper legs

            · Knees

            Pregnancy





Hands, arms and shoulders

In some versions of the splits, much of the weight of the body is taken with the arms so as to reduce (or at least control) the degree of weight the legs support via very stretched muscles. Doing this is obviously protective of the hip muscles (see later). However, for some people, this can lead to an unaccustomed degree of load-bearing in the wrists, arms and shoulders – this is unlikely to cause problems unless here is already a weakness or dysfunction in these areas. Wrists are often either weak or arthritic – where this is the case, placing the hands with palms face down can be uncomfortable in the wrist joint. An alternative that is often more comfortable is to make a fist with the hands and then place the knuckles on a padded surface so the wrist are in their neutral position.

A sensible alternative to using the arms and hands to control (or reduce) the degree of load-bearing (and thus stretching) through the legs is to place a support under the front thigh.


Lumbar spine

This pose can be practised with the trunk close to, or resting along, the front leg – in which case, the lower back is in flexion. Where one’s lower back has previously been strained in forward bending positions, one should take particular care not to lean the trunk so far forwards that this causes discomfort. So, in such cases, one would use one’s arms and hands to support the weight of the trunk, rather than relax the trunk along the front leg.

This pose can also be practised with the trunk essentially vertical. For those with tight (or just fairly tight) ilio-psoas muscles, this can lead to the lumbar spine being in a high degree of extension (back-bend). If this happens to a degree that causes discomfort, then one needs to reduce the pull on the ilio-psoas muscles and consciously draw the tailbone down to the floor. One way of reducing the stretch is to increase the height of support under the front thigh. Another approach would be to lean the trunk forwards – not necessarily all the way down to the front thigh. Note that the kneeling lunge offers a safer and more effective way to stretch the ilio-psoas muscles for those for whom this is relevant.


Hips and upper legs

The difficulty and danger with this pose lies in controlling the degree of stretch that occurs in hip muscles. Potentially the weight of the body presses the hips down, causing stretch and it takes effort, or care (or both), to control the degree one allows one’s weight to press the hips down and thus cause stretching. Where sufficient care or control isn’t applied, then damage in terms of micro-tears in muscles and tendons or ‘muscle strain’ often occurs. Micro-tears might not cause pain, but they usually lead to increased stiffness (temporary) and a feeling of muscles being reluctant to relax to allow further stretching. Muscle strain is usually uncomfortable to actively painful and typically takes 6 months or more to heal – and another 6 mouths for this vulnerability to being strained in this area reducing to pre-strain levels. The dangers of damaging oneself in this way are greatest where the muscles and tendons have recently been strained, or already have micro-tears. Other risk factors are weak muscles, cold muscles, muscles unaccustomed to being stretched, and, also, the older one is, the more vulnerable one’s muscles and tendons are to damage.

The muscles that are significantly stretched in this pose are – the hamstrings, the ilio-psoas muscles and potentially some of the hip adductor muscles. Notice how very important these muscles are for every day activities like walking, and common sports activities like running, kicking (e.g. a ball) and jumping. If you want to enjoy an active life, experiencing strain in any of these muscles is very inhibiting.

There are two obvious ways of controlling the amount of weight one allows or be borne through one’s legs (and hence of the degree of stretching). One is to place support under the front thigh so that how low one’s hips are (and hence the degree of stretching) is determined by the height of the support. This allows one to learn to relax in the pose, giving one’s muscles a safe stretch without any risk of the stretching increasing as the muscles relax and so, potentially, going beyond one’s current safe limits. Another approach is to take much of one’s weight though hands and arms – this is great for when one has experience with the pose, as it allows one to gradually lower one’s hips as the muscles relax and lengthen. This approach obviously requires a good degree of sensitivity to where one’s current safe limits are for this stretch. It also requires a high degree of honesty (or lack of ego encouraging one to go further and further into the pose) that can be challenging even for those very experienced with yoga (or body work).


Knees

The main thing knees have to contend with in this pose is the back knee being pressed down firmly against the floor. Unless one has sufficient padding between the knee and the floor, this will feel uncomfortable. The solution is easy – place sufficient padding in the form of something like a folded blanket under the knee. There is not much risk of the knees becoming mis-aligned in this pose – however, I do like to follow this practice with some knee bending and straightening just in case.


Pregnancy

Practising yoga in the first trimester is considered by most yoga teachers to be contra-indicated. The only explanation I have heard for this is that in the first trimester there is a fairly high tendency for spontaneous miscarriage and this could in principle be exacerbated by yoga (although, as far as I know, there is no evidence for this). Possibly a mid-wife or an expert pregnancy yoga teacher might be able to give a better explanation.

This is a pose I would suggest omitting during pregnancy (unless you are extremely experienced with the pose and have very good body awareness). An issue is that the joints of the pelvic girdle are encouraged to relax by hormones in the later stages of pregnancy (in preparation for childbirth) – thus extra care needs to be taken not to over-stretch the musculature and ligaments associated with the hips and pelvic girdle.

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