Though I was not yet familiar with the epic Ramayana, the monkey superhero Hanuman, or his legendary leap from India to Lanka (for which this pose is named), I first started exploring splits as a preteen. Partially because I just thought they looked cool and would be a neat "trick" to learn, but also because (unlike Hanuman) I was terribly afraid of heights.
See, I was really into cheerleading back then (I lack depth perception, and it was one of the few athletic endeavors available to me that didn't involve throwing, catching, or kicking a ball), and when it came to stunts, sometimes I had to "fly," which basically meant being hoisted high above the ground by fellow middle-schoolers. While I admittedly loved being the center of attention in this way, I was also scared of falling on my face (or on someone else's). I figured that if I learned to do the splits well enough, I could drop into them in front of the stunt that everybody else was doing, still satiating my preadolescent need for halftime show stardom while remaining safely on the ground. With the sort of determination that only a stubborn and terrified seventh-grader could muster, I practiced my splits every day until eventually both of my thighs touched the ground. Swelling with the pride of being "good" at something that looked cool, I continued to practice splits on the regular well through high school and college, sometimes even dropping into a lazy split to read a book, do a homework assignment, or watch TV.
Once I started practicing yoga, I felt sure that I'd already "mastered" this pose. That's why I was shocked the first time my teacher stepped in to adjust my hanumanasana, informing me (in what I'm sure was the most kind and well-intentioned manner possible), that I was doing it wrong (my words, not hers). Essentially, I was practicing the pose without muscular engagement, collapsing into my flexibility and putting my joints and my hamstrings at risk. And the truth was, my inner knees did sort of hurt, and I did sometimes experience pain around my sacroiliac joints and hamstring attachments. Despite all of the many collective hours I'd spent over the years hanging out in a passive split as I thumbed through Judy Blume novels and back issues of Seventeen magazine, I had to totally relearn the pose.
Perhaps in some sense I could say that this is when I learned the difference between hanumanasana and "the splits."
When it comes to hanumanasana, the most important thing I learned was that stability is just as important—honestly, even MORE important—than flexibility. And in truth, the pose's name, evoking the image of Hanuman's dynamic leap, does really reflect its powerful, active nature. Perhaps in some sense I could say that this is when I learned the difference between hanumanasana and "the splits."
Below are some of the favorite alignment tips, preps for, and variations on hanumanasana that I've learned over the years. I find these tips to be especially potent not only for finding a safer split, but for better understanding the strength, empowerment, and dynamic devotion that this pose's name and form calls forth.
Many of these variations can be beneficial whether your hamstrings feel tight (hi, runners!), or whether you're fairly flexible and struggle to "feel a stretch" in the pose.
Note that these poses should be practiced as part of (or following) a complete yoga practice, and are not meant to serve as a sequence on their own.
Ardha (half) hanumanasana is a great place to start (or stay!) to learn how to access the key actions that will keep you safe and supported in the pose.
From uttanasana (standing forward bend), step your left leg back into a long lunge, and lower your back knee to the floor. Shift your hips back so that they're stacked directly over your back knee. Walk your front foot forward (so that your front leg is relatively straight), and peel the sole of your foot up off the floor so that only your front heel remains on the mat and your front foot is flexed (toes point up toward the sky). Come up onto your fingertips. (You may discover that you're able to find more length through your spine if you place blocks underneath your fingertips.)
Now bring your attention to your front knee. In this pose, it can be supercommon for the front knee to lock or drop in toward the midline of the body, destabilizing the pose and putting the practitioner at a greater risk for injury. How do you get the front knee "back on track"? Find and engage the vastus medialis (inner quadriceps). One of my teachers would often refer to this as "pressing the magic button," and for me, it was the key to cultivating a more stable, sustainable hanumanasana (one that didn't leave me with lingering knee discomfort after).
Here's how you do it: Dig your front heel into your mat, and "micro-bend" your front knee (that's yoga-speak for "a very tiny bend of the knee to ensure that it is not locked"). Now bring your hand to touch your inner quadricep, above your inner knee. Can you feel the muscle firm under your fingers? If not, try bending your front knee a little more, then slowly straightening (without locking).
If you're more verbally oriented, you might also find the cue "Lift your inner knee" to be useful here.
(If you're still unsure about how to find and engage the inner quad, or if you just want to to learn more about the the vital role it plays when it comes to keeping knees healthy in asana, check out Doug Keller's article "Yoga Therapy for Your Knees.")
Maintain that activation, and press your fingertips into the floor/blocks. You might notice a corresponding "tone" in your belly when you do this. Keeping that, narrow your two front hip points (anterior superior iliac spines) toward each other, as though you were cinching a drawstring (if you notice any actual movement here it will be very slight—the idea is simply to activate your deep abdominals), roll your back inner thigh up toward the ceiling, and draw your front outer hip back.
Draw the pinky-toe side of your right foot back toward you (it will tend to drop forward), and press forward through the ball of your right big toe (it will tend to drop back) as you stretch out through your legs and extend out through your spine. You might play with walking your hands or blocks forward toward your front foot while maintaining that length.
Stay several breaths, then, to release, bend your front knee and come back into a lunge. Rock back on your right heel, and step your left foot forward to meet it. Pause for a few breaths in uttanasana (keeping all of your fingertips pressing into the floor or blocks), and see if you observe any differences between your two legs. Then step your right leg back for a long lunge and repeat on the other side.
This variation draws its name from the fact that the front leg is out wide, somewhat resembling the leg position of upavishtha konasana (wide angle seated forward bend) and is often a more accessible variation for yogis with tight hamstrings.
To set up, come into a long lunge with your right foot forward. Lower your left knee to the floor. Walk both hands to the inside of your right foot. Walk your right foot out to the right, and turn your right toes out so that they point toward the upper right corner of your mat. Press your fingertips into the floor or blocks.
Just as with the previous form of ardha hanumanasana, shift your hips back so that they're stacked over your back knee. Walk your right foot forward (still in the direction of the upper right corner of your mat), and peel the sole of your right foot up off the floor.
Keep your toes active, back toes tucked under, and either maintain a flexed front foot or point your front foot and flex the toes back toward you, often called a "flointed" foot. (If your hamstrings tend to be pretty flexible, you may find that the "floint" feels more stable.)
Bring your fingers to your right inner quad, and "press the magic button," engaging vastus medialis. Keeping that, press all of your fingertips into the floor (both hands remain inside the front leg), narrow your front hip points toward each other, and lift up through your low belly.
You can stay in the ardha hanumanasana variation, or you can begin to stretch your legs apart from each other, descending your pelvis closer toward the floor. Stay on your fingertips, or lower to your palms or forearms.
Remain here for several breaths. To exit the pose, press into your fingertips and draw back up into ardha upavishta hanumanasana (if you're not already there), then bend your front knee to come back into the lunge. Walk your right foot back toward center so it's between your hands, and turn your toes to point straight ahead (i.e., a "regular lunge"). Change sides.
To move into the more familiar version of the pose, set up in ardha hanumanasana with your right leg forward.
Activate your right inner quad ("press the magic button"). Maintaining that engagement, bring your fingertips back to the floor (or blocks) on either side of your legs and press into them.
In the beginning, keep your back toes tucked under (back knee on the floor). In this pose, there's a common tendency to let the torso turn toward the back leg and to collapse into the front hip. To counter this, draw the left side (back-leg side) of your belly toward the right side (front-leg side) of your belly to square your torso to the top of your mat, and lift your back inner thigh up. Maintaining the internal rotation of the back leg can actually be quite challenging in hanumasanasana, as the back leg tends to want to externally rotate; practicing with back toes tucked under can help you to keep this in check!
Lift up through your low belly, as though you could draw the skin of your pubic bone up toward your navel, and stretch out through both of your legs, keeping them active and engaged as you lower your pelvis closer to the floor.
Keep your toes active, either flexing or "flointing" your front foot.
With every inhale, press down into your fingertips and lengthen up through your spine—perhaps even lifting up out of the pose a little bit. With every exhale, stretch out through your legs, pressing out through the ball of the right big toe while still maintaining the lift of the inner quadriceps of the front leg and the internal rotation of the back leg.
If you're able to maintain the vastus medialis engagement and the work in the belly and inner rotation of the back leg that keeps the torso relatively "square" to the front of the mat, you can point your back foot so that the top of the foot rests on the mat. You could also play with extending your arms up to the sky. If you start to roll onto your right hip or otherwise lose stability in the pose, tuck your toes again and press your fingertips into the floor.
Stay here for several breaths. To exit the pose, press into your fingertips, draw back up to a lunge, and change sides.
Blocks Can Make All the Difference
As far as props go, yoga blocks are pretty stellar in general, but they can be especially helpful for practicing splits. That's because when you invite a few blocks to the hanumanasana party, you get to focus less on holding yourself up, and more on working those key actions in your legs and core described above.
Try placing a block underneath your front thigh. If you find you could use a little more height, try stacking two or three blocks. Place two additional blocks underneath your fingertips (the height of the blocks under your hands will vary, depending on the height of the blocks under your front thigh).
Over time, you might find that you can remove a block from your stack, bring your block to a lower height, or omit it altogether so that you can descend closer to the floor.
The Blanket Slide
Sometimes further descent into the pose is simply restricted by a sticky, grippy mat. If that's the case for you, here's a neat trick to try (note that this will only work if your practice room has a slippery floor).
Place a folded blanket at the top of your yoga mat (on the floor, not the mat itself), and set up in ardha hanumanasana, as explained above, but with your front heel on the blanket.
Maintaining strong legs (don't forget about the inner quad!) and an active core, gradually begin to slide your front heel (and the blanket beneath it) forward, until you come into an expression of the pose that's sustainable for you.
To exit the pose, press into your fingertips and slide your front heel (and the blanket beneath it) back to your starting position. Then change sides.