Hanumanasana is a full split named for the monkey god, Hanuman. In the epic The Ramayana, Hanuman is introduced as an energetic and playful child, later becoming known for his great devotion and heroic leaps.
Hanumanasana is meant to resemble Hanuman’s leap—and when it comes to this pose, there is no monkeying around. Hanumanasana asks of the practitioner both strength and flexibility, in order to split the legs front to back while balancing the torso vertically over the pelvis.
When approaching hanumanasana, we may be inclined to take an all-or-nothing approach. We may think Either I can do the splits or I can’t, not realizing the many variations and possibilities that lie between the extremes of “full splits” and “no splits.” After all, splits can be intimidating to many yoga students, particularly if they feel limited by either tight hamstrings or (as was the case for me) tight hip flexors.
But instead of all or nothing, we can instead view hanumanasana as a journey by unpacking its various elements and restructuring them for more ease and insight. We can use props and variations to find greater stability in the pose and to accommodate varying degrees of flexibility.
By adjusting your approach in this way, you just may find that hanumanasana becomes more accessible and more enjoyable.
Say Hello to Your Hamstrings
The hamstrings are three muscles that run along the back of each thigh from the sit bones to the backs of the knees. They extend the hip and play a primary role in bending the knee, so when they are tight, they can affect how much you can straighten your leg.
In hanumanasana, the front leg is in a position that stretches your hamstrings a lot. If this pose doesn’t come easily to you, fear not! Approaching it step by step, preparing your hamstrings for it with patience, and honoring your optimal alignment will be a lot more beneficial in the long run than immediately trying to get into the deepest split you can.
To prepare for hanumanasana, start with simple hamstring stretches such as supta padangusthasana, reclined hand-to-big-toe pose. Lie on your back and draw your right knee into your chest, keeping your left leg extended. Loop a strap around the ball of your right foot and then begin straightening that leg, keeping your foot flexed and reaching your heel toward the ceiling. Explore bending and straightening your right leg several times, perhaps drawing the thigh closer to your chest as you bend your leg, aiming to keep the thigh where it is as you straighten your leg (only to the point where you feel a nice sustainable stretch right in the belly of your hamstrings): This is hanumanasana on your back. You could also move your right leg from side to side a little in order to experience the different sensations in your hamstring muscles. When your leg opens to the right, you may feel the stretch more in the inner groin and knee, while moving it across your body could generate more sensation in the outer hamstring. Remain in the pose for 30 seconds to a minute, and then repeat with the other leg.
If your hamstrings are quite tight, you may find that you especially enjoy more supportive variations of this pose, such as practicing in a doorframe with one leg up the wall and the other leg sliding through the doorway. Another option is that of making a big loop with your strap and wrapping it around your upper back and over the sole of your foot, and then lying back to enjoy the stretch as your arms rest along your sides (as pictured below).
Other hamstring-lengthening poses to consider when preparing for hanumanasana include adho mukha svanasana (downward facing dog), trikonasana (triangle pose), parsvottanasana (pyramid pose), parivrtta trikonasana (revolved triangle pose), and ardha (half) hanumanasana (sometimes called “runner’s stretch”).
Neutralize the Situation: Internal Rotation of the Thighs
In a full split, there is a tendency for the back leg to externally rotate. We may find that we can move the pelvis closer to the floor if we turn the back leg out, but this also takes the pelvis out of its ideal alignment in the pose and can tweak the lower back. When the torso is vertical in hanumanasana, the lower back is in a slight (or even not-so-slight) extension (backbend)—particularly if your hip flexors are tight (more on that shortly). When the back leg and hip are turned out, you have to turn the torso toward the front leg in order to face forward in the pose, which creates rotation or twisting in the spine. This combination of backbending and twisting puts undesirable pressure on the lumbar discs and can have other potentially harmful effects on the spine. This is why learning how to internally rotate the back thigh in order to bring the leg into a more neutral position is a key action for hanumanasana.
Before working toward neutral legs in a challenging, asymmetrical pose like hanumanasana, it’s helpful to first explore “neutral” in simple symmetrical poses.
Tadasana (mountain pose) is an excellent way to find neutral legs. I often start in my standard tadasana with my feet about hip-width apart, and then turn my legs and feet out (to get a sense of what external rotation feels like). From this externally rotated position, I work my way back to neutral legs and feet by internally rotating the thighs and bringing my feet to parallel with the knees and toes pointing forward, feeling the contrast between external rotation and neutral. (Note: Do keep in mind that the ideal “neutral” position in tadasana can vary, depending on your own unique bone and joint structure. For more on this see Should Your Feet Be Parallel in Mountain Pose and Down Dog? by Bernie Clark.)
I recommend continuing this exploration in other symmetrical poses, such as salabhasana (locust pose) and uttanasana (standing forward bend), in order to get a feel for what it takes to keep your hips, thighs, knees, and toes in a neutral position. Then practice finding a neutral back leg in simpler asymmetrical poses such as virabhadrasana III (warrior III) and urdhva prasarita eka padasana (standing split).
Keeping the Pelvis Balanced
One of the hardest skills to learn in hanumanasana is that of maintaining a balanced pelvis in order that both sides of your torso remain long in the pose. The side waist corresponding to your front leg in a split will be shorter than the other one. Drawing the front hip back while simultaneously drawing the back hip forward and firming the back outer hip toward the midline lengthens the side waist of the back-leg side of the body, balancing it with the side waist of the front-leg side of the body, which creates a level (or almost level) pelvis. Before practicing these actions in hanumanasana, you can work with them in simpler asymmetrical poses such as parsvottanasana (pyramid pose), virabhadrasana III (warrior III), and utthita hasta padangusthasana (extended hand-to-big-toe pose), as well as supta padangusthasana.
When Hamstrings Are Long, Hip Flexors Say “So Long”
Even those with flexible hamstrings can find hanumanasana challenging. Often flexible hamstrings means tight hip flexors. When it comes to hamstrings and hip flexors, your back leg in hanumanasana can be a great teacher. Poses to test the waters of your hip flexors before delving into hanumanasana include crescent lunge and anjaneyasana (low lunge with your knee on the floor).
If you experience stubborn hip flexors in hanumanasana, you may find it difficult to achieve a vertical torso when your back leg is fully extended. You may even feel as though your entire pelvis is spilling forward, similar to the way it tilts in cow pose, and resulting in a dramatic backbend at the lumbar spine. While folding forward to avoid this can be a nice variation, if you already have very flexible hamstrings, you might not get that much out of the pose if you always practice this way, missing out on much of the stretch in the hip flexor of the back leg—which could be the aspect of the pose you need the most!
In that case, props can be tremendously beneficial for moving into an upright position safely while helping you to lengthen the hip flexors of the back leg. Try this: Place a bolster horizontally across your mat and directly underneath your pelvis so that both the front and back thigh are supported. For additional height, add blocks under the bolster or add blankets on top of the bolster to boost you up (or even use two bolsters if the ones you have are thin). Place your hands on either side of the bolster (as pictured), or have one or two blocks handy on each side in order to elevate the floor. This allows you to press your hands securely into something as you lift your torso toward an upright position without compressing your lower back.
Easing Your Way Into Hanumanasana
To practice hanumanasana, begin in a low lunge with your right foot forward and your left knee on the ground (as in anjaneyasana). Come into ardha hanumanasana (runner’s stretch) by flexing your right foot and sliding that heel forward until your right leg is extended; your hips should remain over your back knee, with the chest reaching forward to keep the spine long. It may be helpful to use a block under each hand, bringing the ground closer to you.
This is a great place to stay if you are new to splits or if you’re already feeling a big hamstring stretch. Remain here for 10 to 15 breaths, and then repeat on the other side.
If you’d like to deepen the stretch, slide your right heel forward slowly. As you slowly inch your right heel forward, check in with your hips to make sure that your right hip is drawing back (to keep the right-side waist long), and that the outer left hip is firming into the midline (so as not to sway or sit the back hip out to the side). Roll your left inner thigh up toward the ceiling so that the thigh, knee, and toes of your back leg face your mat. Over time, you may be able to lower your hips evenly toward the floor.
To make the slide effect easier, you can place a blanket under your front heel on the floor, being mindful of not sliding so far forward that you lose control of how deeply you go into the pose. I recommend first trying the pose without the blanket in order to get a sense of the limits of the stretch for you.
If you’re ready to move toward full hanumanasana but could use a little support, you can work with the bolster variation described earlier, or place one block or two stacked blocks (at their lowest heights if you're using two) under your front thigh. (Even if you think you only need one block, I recommend starting with two and working your way down from there. In time, you may be able to remove one block, and then just use a blanket.) If your fingertips don’t reach the floor, or if they struggle to do so, placing a block under each hand for additional support will help you to remain upright.
Back Foot Pointed or Toes Tucked Under?
I recommend keeping your back toes tucked under when coming into the pose (this can help you to keep the back leg from rolling open). Once your pose is established, however, you can point those back toes as long as it’s comfortable and you can maintain the internal rotation of the thigh.
Even if you’re able to sink into the pose quickly, holding back a little and exploring hanumanasana piece by piece will help you to embody more fully the different sensations of stabilizing and stretching in your pelvis, hamstrings, and hip flexors. You may also find that the pose feels a lot more comfortable when you practice with support under your pelvis or front thigh than it does when you try to push your pelvis to the floor!
Focus less on what your hanumanasana looks like and more on what it feels like. Working slowly through the steps of hanumanasana, and finding a variation that works for you, opens you up to experiencing its glorious attributes—including the feeling of expansion and grace that comes as your body leaps past old boundaries and into new terrain.