Even though you know that yoga is never about reaching a final destination, it’s natural to have goals for your practice. The trick is to be able to set yoga goals without becoming attached to an expectation for any particular outcome. Go ahead and practice those inversions, but don’t get caught up in negative self-talk if you don’t achieve those goals according to some pre-set schedule. Go ahead and practice each day with the goal of increasing your flexibility, but don’t get frustrated by the length of time that it’s all taking to see any progress. Set your intentions, but never forget to enjoy the journey!
Monkey Pose (Hanumanasa), where the legs are split from forward to back, is a challenging posture that falls into the category of “Dream Poses” for many yoga practitioners. Not only does this pose require flexibility in the hamstrings (front leg), but it also requires flexibility in the hip flexors (back leg). Whether or not you ever find yourself in the full expression of Hanumanasana, you can still enjoy the journey with these very effective, preparatory poses. Before beginning this sequence, be sure to warm up your body with multiple rounds of sun salutations.
Head-to-Knee Seated Forward Bend
Take a seat on your mat with your legs extended straight in front of you. Bend your left knee and bring the sole of your left foot to the inside of your right thigh. Sit up tall, and flex your right foot to engage the hamstrings. Rotate your torso slightly to the right to align your belly button with the center of your right thigh. If your hamstrings are quite tight, sitting up tall might be enough of a stretch for you. Stay here and take deep breaths. For a deeper stretch, fold over your extended right leg, being mindful to find extension in the spine and avoid rounding the upper back. Hold this pose for 5-10 breaths before releasing the stretch.
Seated Forward Bend
A seated forward fold is an intense stretch that simultaneously stretches the hamstrings on both legs. Sit on your mat with your legs extended straight in front of you. Flex both feet to energize the legs and to engage the hamstrings. Sweep your arms up over your head, find length in the spine, and hinge forward from the hips as you reach for your feet. Rather than focusing on bringing the forehead to the shins, focus on pulling your chest forward to lengthen the spine. Beginners can use a strap around the soles of the feet and hold the strap with both hands. Hold this pose for 5-10 breaths.
Low lunge is a great front-body stretch that targets the hip flexors. Begin in Downward Facing Dog and step your right foot in between your hands. Lower your back knee to the ground, and untuck the toes. Bring both hands to the top of your right thigh, and begin to bend deeply into the front leg. Be sure to keep the torso upright to get the most effective stretch in the hip flexors. Feel free to keep your hands on your front thigh for support, or extend your arms and lift your chest toward the sky for a backbend. Take 5 deep breaths before releasing the stretch.
From Downward Facing Dog, step the right foot to the outside of the right hand, lower the back knee to the ground, and lift the back foot up so that the toes point up toward the sky. Sweep your right arm back, and grab the outside edge of the lifted foot. Begin to pull the foot in toward the body to stretch the quadriceps. If you are unable to reach your foot with your hand, feel free to use a strap around your foot to make the stretch accessible. Next, begin to roll onto the outside edge of the front foot and allow the right knee to fall to the side for a hip stretch. Hold this pose for 5 full breaths before slowly releasing your back foot and rolling back down onto the sole of your front foot.
Pigeon pose is an effective hip opener that not only stretches the outer hip of the front leg, but it also stretches the hip flexors with the extension of the back leg. To come into the pose, begin on hands and knees in Tabletop position. Bring your right knee onto the mat behind your right wrist. Tuck the toes on your left foot, and begin to extend the left leg straight back. Sink the pelvis toward the floor. If you find that you are rolling to the right, place a block under right hip. Rather than folding forward over your bent leg, walk your fingertips back and practice sitting upright to effectively stretch the hip flexors. Hold this pose for 10 breaths before moving on to the next pose.
From Downward Facing Dog, step your right foot in between your hands. Lower your back knee to the ground, and rise onto your fingertips. Draw both hips back in space while straightening the right leg, until the left hip is aligned directly over the left knee. Flex the right foot to energize throughout the length of the extended leg. Begin to walk the fingertips forward. Fold over the straightened leg, while maintaining length in the spine. Focus on pulling the chest forward, rather than bringing your forehead to your shin. Hold this pose for 5-10 deep breaths before moving on.
Split with blocks
Begin in a half split, and slowly extend your back leg by pressing into the floor with your hands while scooting back on your knee a few inches at a time. Use a block (or two) under the hip of the front leg to support the body. The extra height from the block effectively lifts the floor by several inches and allows you to practice the full expression of the pose at any stage of flexibility. Sit up tall to get the most effective stretch in the hip flexors, and keep the toes of your back foot tucked to help keep both hips equidistant to the top of the mat. Breathe deeply, and hold this posture for 5-10 breaths. If your body feels ready, and you happen to be using two blocks under your front hip, try removing one of the blocks and holding the posture for another 5-10 breaths.
Split (full expression of the pose)
If and when your body is ready, you will find that the full expression of Monkey Pose is a natural extension of practicing with the support of blocks. Remove the block from under the right hip. Keep your legs active by hugging the inner thighs in toward each other and flexing your right foot so that the toes point upward. You have the option of keeping the toes of your back foot tucked to help keep your hips aligned properly. Leave your fingertips on the floor for support or for a deeper variation, bring your palms together in front of your heart or extend your arms toward the sky. Hold this pose for 5 full breaths before releasing the stretch and repeating the entire sequence on the opposite side of your body.