The splits are an ultimate test of flexibility. Master them and you'll be well on your way to becoming the Olympic gymnast you've dreamt of being since childhood. Okay, so maybe you'll just be the cool mom who can stretch it out better than her kids, but this is still an accomplished feat. In yoga, the splits are named monkey pose named after Hanuman's famous leap from southern India to Sri Lanka in the epic tale The Ramayana. Practice these nine poses to prepare to conquer monkey pose like a pro.
Standing Forward Bend: While standing with your feet together, hinge forward and fold at the hips. Grab onto your elbows, or for more intensity, grab your ankles. Beginning with this pose stretches your lower body, including your hips, hamstrings and calves. It also prepares your body for more advanced poses to come and strengthens your thighs and knees, all while producing calming effects.
Floor Hip Stretch: Focusing on your hip flexors, this seated stretch begins to open your lower body. When you bend toward the floor, hold the pose once you feel a gentle stretch. Inhale as you raise your chest, then each time you exhale, fall deeper into a forward stretch to allow your body to slowly and steadily increase flexibility.
Warrior 2: This pose introduces your body to being stable while your feet are not parallel. In this pose, your front foot faces forward while your back foot is turned out to the side. As your hips open to the side of your mat, you stretch and strengthen your lower body as you tuck your tailbone in and up.
Crescent Pose: This is a flexy pose that allows for your hips to open and your hamstrings to lengthen smoothly. In a lunge position, lift your back heel off the mat. Your arms should be lifted above your head with palms facing in, then reach backward and lift your gaze to the ceiling. Because this is a less intense pose, you may deepen your lunge by bringing your back leg closer to the mat, helping you prepare to reach a split position.
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Downward Dog Split Pose: From a downward facing dog position, move into downward dog split pose, also known as three-legged dog, by slowly raising one foot. In the peak of this pose, your extended leg should create a smooth line from hip to ankle. Repeat this pose with the opposite leg to begin stretching your legs, one forward and one back, just as monkey pose will require.
Pigeon Pose: This pose offers a deep hip stretch and allows you to practice lifting up your chest and supporting your bodyweight with your hands. From the downward dog split position, swing your extended leg forward and settle it in front of you, bent and positioned near your wrist. If you feel comfortable, you may reach your hands in front of you for a forward fold, though you should only increase the intensity of the stretch until you feel a gentle pull of your muscles.
Double Pigeon Pose: This is an even deeper hip opening pose that will allow you to continue preparing to reach monkey pose. To perform this pose (also known as double fire logs), bring one leg in front of your body and bend, then stack your other leg directly on top of it. Your shins should be stacked and feet flexed. To deepen this stretch, walk your fingertips out and reach for a forward bend. Don't forget to perform double pigeon pose with each leg resting in both positions.
Supine Splits with Strap: If your hamstrings still feel a little tight, this supported split will help you stretch at your own discretion. If you don't have a yoga strap, try using a tie or belt to pull your foot closer to your chest while keeping the other leg extended on the floor. You may have the urge to tug and release the strap quickly to "butterfly" your leg, but a safer (and more effective) approach is to pull with the strap for a few breaths, then slowly release.
Wide-Angle Seated Forward Bend: This is the final preparation stretch that will get you ready to master monkey pose. Place your legs straight out and widen them as far as they can go, pinning them downward to the floor and keeping your knees facing up. Lift your body slightly to slide your bottom forward, deepening the stretch. Once your legs are stretched as wide as you can, bend your chest toward the floor and touch your toes with your hands. Be careful not to bounce in this position; hold the stretch for a few breaths and lift up slowly.From this position, simply lift your hips and turn them 90º without repositioning your legs. Square your hips and straighten your spine to sit up tall. With one leg forward and one leg back, you've entered monkey pose! If you can't sit with your legs touching the floor, keep practicing with these preparation poses and watch your body become more flexible in the process. Don't forget to practice these poses, even monkey pose, with both legs; it makes your new-found flexibility twice as impressive.