The grace that ballerinas, gymnasts, and yogis alike exude as they slide into the side splits leave the rest of us wondering how we can strike this pose, too. At first glance, the side splits may seem light-years away, but with some discipline, strength and flexibility, side splits can become a part of anyone’s stretching routine. If you are serious about taking on the side splits, it is important to keep the body mobile. This means stretching throughout your day. To optimize results, hold the following poses for 30 to 60 seconds to enable the muscles to relax into the poses. Returning to each stretch at least twice will allow for deeper opening as well. Making sure the body is warmed up before stretching is recommended, and stretching in a heated space will keep muscles warm throughout these stretching postures.
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Navasana (Boat Pose)
Core strength is essential to sustaining all active yoga postures. Navasana helps to build front body strength in the abdominal region, back body strength surrounding the spine, and hip flexor strength at the top of the femur bone. To come into boat pose, sit on the ground with the soles of the feet close to the hips. Interlace the hands just above the backs of the knees and lift the legs. Shins can be parallel with the ground or legs can be fully extended. Sit up tall and press the chest up toward the legs. Hold for 30 seconds.
Ardha Chandrasana (Half Moon Pose)
Strengthening the front-body muscles in the legs is the next step to achieving side splits. Half-moon pose creates activation through the quadricep muscles that draw opening through the hamstrings. Flexing through the toes of the lifted foot stimulates the same activation necessary for side splits. To move into half moon pose, from standing, bring the right fingers or palm to the outside of the right pinky toes. Let the left arm and left leg float skyward and flex left toes toward the body to engage through the left leg. Work to draw the chest and hips open toward the left. Eyes can focus down toward the feet, or up toward lifted left fingers. Hold for 30 seconds and repeat on the other side.
Trikonasana (Triangle Pose)
Extending our Ardha Chandrasana from strength into stretch, Trikonasana extends the hamstring stretch of half moon into the psoas region. With side splits in mind, trikonasana allows you to practice engaging through the knee caps to activate the backs of the legs from the glutes down the hamstrings and into the calf muscles. This lifting motion through the knees protects the knee joints as well. Try out a triangle pose by bringing feet 3 to 5 feet distance apart. Turn right toes out to the right and left toes in at a 45-degree angle. Bring arms out parallel with the ground. Reach forward and down through the right palm. Let the fingers rest on the leg or the inside/outside of the right foot and allow the left fingers to float toward the sky. Eyes can focus toward the right toes or lifted left fingers. Hold for 30 seconds and repeat on the left side.
Parivrtta Trikonasana (Twisted Triangle Pose)
An extension of the triangle pose, twisted triangle brings an extension into the back of the hip joints with the strength of the psoas muscles. The posture brings a stretch down the backs of the legs into the muscles of the calves as the muscles that surround the shin spiral inward. For this pose, the opposite hand can be placed to the inside or outside of the front foot. To explore a triangle variation, bring the feet 3 feet apart. Turn the right toes out to the right and left toes in at a 45-degree angle. Bring the right palm to the low back. Reach forward and down with the left hand, placing the palm on the inside or outside of the right foot. Let the right arm reach up toward the sky. Eyes can be down toward the right toes or up toward right fingertips. Hold for 30 seconds. To come out of the pose, bring the right hand to the low back and press up. Repeat on the left side.
Prasarita Padottanasana (Wide-Legged Forward Fold)
Drawing on the length generated in trikonasana, prasarita padottanasana brings the psoas into complete flexion. This movement enables maximum opening through the backs of the legs from the hips all the way down hamstrings and calf muscles. To come into this forward fold, bring the feet 4 to 5 feet width distance apart. Draw the arms out at the sides. With arms extended out, reach forward and down through the chest. Bring the hands in line with the toes. Walk the palms back behind you so that the fingers face the heels. Begin to rock weight out of the heels and into the toes to activate the backs of the legs. Hold for 60-second intervals. To come out, bring the hands back in line with the feet. Bring the arms out to the sides. Come up with a flat back to build core strength.