Main event: Hanumanasana, forward split

This week we have been moving towards Hanumanasana, or the forward split, during practice. This fantastic pose requires both forward bending action at the front leg/hip interface, and back-bending action at the back leg/hip interface, along with suppleness in the hamstrings.

(Note that in class, we add many additional poses before trying hanumanasana, so go slowly if you are trying this on your own, and above all, be gentle with your body – the hamstrings tend to be vulnerable to tearing if pushed too quickly into a stretch.)

But first, as we continue to explore hip biomechanics, it is important to examine the “duck” and “tuck” action of the hips – or, referred to in a more scholarly manner, the anterior and poster tilt of the pelvis (see photos below). Neither extreme is helpful in yoga poses, as too much the anterior tilt compresses the lower back vertebrae and discs, and too much posterior tilt rounds the upper back and strains the lower back muscles and ligaments.

Utkatasana (fierce pose) demonstrating the duck (anterior tilt) and tuck (posterior tilt) of the pelvis.

Being able to isolate these movements in various asanas will give one a better sense of one’s patterns – whether one tends towards lordosis (over-arching the lower back = anterior tilt) or kyphosis (over-rounding the lower and upper back = posterior tilt). These patterns tend to show up in all other poses, so being aware of them allows one to correct them. In addition, the patterns will show up in riding as well, with anterior tilt leading to a stiff lower back that cannot follow a horse’s movement, and posterior tilt leading to extremely tight hip flexors and rounded shoulders, again leading to an inability to elegantly follow a horse’s movement.

Some good poses in which to try both extremes of duck and tuck and then find the “happy medium” follow. These poses also allow one to explore more hip action and also lead to our main event pose.

Start with Supta padanghustasana (lying down hand-to-big-toe pose) and Anjaneyasana (lunge) variations from last week’s practice. Think about how your pelvic tilt changes as you practice these poses.

Supta padanghustasana: Press the foot into the strap with the same pressure as you pull on the strap. Keep bottom of extended leg moving toward floor.
Bending and straightening the leg can help in finding space in the hip socket
Turn foot and knee out at the same angle starting at the hip joint. Keep hip bones even on floor – do not be tempted to go too far at the expense of alignment.
You can allow the leg to cross all the way over the body for this twist. Draw the upper hip away from the shoulder and keep pinky side of foot drawn back/flexed.

Anjayenasana, or high and low lunge poses, provide nice counterposes throughout the practice – throw in this pose anytime you feel like you’d like to stretch out the hip flexors to rebalance the body during the sequence.

Anjaneyasana – high lunge: Counter pose to forward folds
Anjaneyasana – low lunge: Arms can be raised above shoulders for additional stretching of hip flexors. Press top of back foot into ground for stability; pad under back knee with blanket if uncomfortable.

Then move onto Prasarita padottanasana (wide legged forward fold) variations below.

Prasarita padottanasana starting variation, with hips over ankles and spine extended. Note that feet are parallel to each other.
Prasarita padottanasana variation with knees bent and long spine helps one access the hinge at the hips, which will be necessary for the next variation of the pose.
Prasarita padottanasana variation with head moving towards floor. Hands are between feet and front spine is long – the bend comes at the crease of the leg/hip interface, not at the waist. Weight is shifting slightly toward balls of feet. Think “duck” to lift seat-bones here.
Prasarita padottanasana with arms clasped being back. Note what happens to the lower back when you first bring the arms together behind your back – likely a “duck” anterior tilt. Correct this by drawing your lowest ribs together and your abdominal wall up towards the ribcage.

Next, practice Utthita padangusthasana, standing hand-to-big-toe pose variations. It’s like the earlier hand-to-big-toe pose, except standing – how is it a different experience for you now that the orientation of your body to gravity has changed? Note that forward folding poses progress in difficulty from supine (lying back, least difficult) < standing < seated (most difficult).

Utthita padangusthasana with leg forward and to the side. Explore pelvic tilt even in this pose.

Parsvottanasana, intense side stretch (as pose that looks nothing like it’s English name, in my opinion!) really asks the hamstrings to extend. Again, please be gentle with yourselves, and only go to about a 6 or 7/10 intensity level on this pose at first.

Parsvottanasana preparation – one can also put one’s hands on blocks to help keep the front of the spine long
Parsvottanasana intensified – the belly, then the lowest ribs touch down on the extended front leg.

Next is Upavistha konasana, or wide legged seated forward fold. Note that a posterior tilt (tuck) is very common here, as is rounding the back – resist both by placing a folded blanket under your seat and bringing the belly down first.

Upavistha konasana. Keep the knees and toes pointing straight up towards the ceiling, even as you move deeper into the pose. The front of the spine remains long.

Finally, move into Lizard pose (no Sanskrit name that I know of!). Start with the hands down, then bring the forearms onto a block or the floor. Hug the arm with the front knee (which will want to splay out). The back knee on the floor or a blanket makes the pose a little more accessible; lifting the back knee adds intensity.

Lizard pose – note that the foot is outside the hand.

And finally – Hanumanasana, or forward split pose. It is vital to keep the back leg from turning out in the hip socket by continuing to turn the knee towards the floor, and drawing the back leg’s hip forward, while the front leg’s hip draws back.

Hanumanasana. Use blocks and the breath to help yourself ease into the pose – and don’t get overly ambitious!
Hanumanasana-ahhhhhhh 🙂

Happy practicing and ~namaste!

Sylvia

Author: Sylvia Vitazkova, PhD, CYT

Dr. Sylvia K. Vitazkova is a certified yoga teacher, life coach, horsewoman, and conservation biologist. Sylvia’s formal study of yoga began while she was an undergraduate at Cornell University, and intensified when she began to practice Ashtanga Yoga in 1997 while attending Columbia University for doctoral studies in biology. Sylvia soon realized that she wanted to help others experience the consciousness and transformation that her own practice fostered in her and began to teach in 1998, subsequently studying in Mysore, India, in 2002. Sylvia continues to evolve her practice by learning from senior teachers, the most influential of whom has been Barbara Benagh. Her teaching focus is on correct alignment, the joy of being fully present in one’s body, and the psychological and spiritual context within which the physical practice is embedded. Parallel to being a yoga teacher, Sylvia had a full-time career as a professor of Conservation Biology, having taught undergraduate and graduate courses, including a course she created on nature and spirituality, which brought her two areas of expertise together. She has conducted and published the results of her research on wildlife in the tropics, and has been involved in the creation of a number of conservation studies programs. Sylvia’s experience in mentoring students naturally led her to life coaching, in which she became certified through George Mason University in 2014. A lifelong connection with horses has been woven throughout these experiences, from her first pony while a child in Africa, to teaching at riding camp in the U.S., then Claremont Riding Academy in NYC, to the current and ongoing exploration of how yoga can be a tool for better and more connected riding. Sylvia now leads InBodied Living LLC, a wellbeing organization and consultancy, with her partner, James Houston. 

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