My September Journey Into Splits

September 18, 2017 Caroleeena healthHoopingsplitsUncategorizedYoga

This month, I set a goal of trying to get better at forward splits. I’ve made a lot of progress very fast and I want to share how.

I can tell you some things about splits. Most people who teach them teach them in ways that are painful and not very good for your body, especially your connective tissue, and these ways also are painful on the knees. In high school gymnastics, I was lucky to have a very good coach who understood this and taught us splits in a gentle way that didn’t hurt and all of us got splits by the end of three months. I am going to attach a yoga practice that teaches exactly the way she taught us.

I encourage you to have lots of pillows, or yoga blocks, or even a blanket rolled into fourths and then rolled into a bolster to help you! This is not supposed to hurt. When I started, I used three couch pillows and the bolster from my bathtub and a quilt. Sometimes I even used four pillows. If it hurts, add another pillow. Again, it is not supposed to hurt. This method of stretching is now being called “yin yoga” because it is supposed to be gentle, relaxing and patient. (In reality, it is Hatha yoga according to the original texts which encouraged holding poses mostly forward bending poses, while seated, for 5 to 15 (and sometimes 200 minutes. We don’t hold them that long but know that you can for even faster results. If you find one that speaks to you, hit “pause” and stay there!)

Relaxing into these few poses and not pushing yourself opens the hamstrings, the quads, and the muscles around the sit bones in the pelvis. A lot of people rush right into lunges and then splits but if these three sets of muscles are not stretched, it is going to be painful and perhaps even harmful. Do these until you feel really gummy and THEN try to move into splits. This teacher does a great job of guiding you in a way that allows not only the muscle to stretch but the connective tissue at each end. (Connective tissue is reluctant to stretch and forcing it can cause injury so you want to relax into these poses until the muscles relax and stop doing all the work, then breathe and wait because that connective tissue is the last bit to stretch and it’s what we really want to allow to passively stretch. Unlike muscle, which stretches a lot, connective tissue only stretches a little but it gets tight and hard if we don’t stretch it and that makes it hard for us to move at all! Tight connective tissue is what makes you feel like you can’t straighten up when you first get out of bed, not tight muscles, so slowly increasing flexibility in our connective tissue is wonderful for our overall health and important for us as we age.)

I committed to do this practice or a shorter one like it every day for September but I also committed to not be mean to myself if I skipped some days. I have skipped some days but I’ve also found some shorter practices for when I have less time. I want to share those too. All of these practices are pretty gentle. Most of them are seated. I recommend that you do what you need to do to make yourself comfortable in each pose and I will share some accommodations I have used to make me more comfortable:

  1. Three yoga mats. And when I am on my knees, I sometimes fold one or two over at the edge so it is even thicker under my knee
  2. A chair on either side of the mat. That way I could balance on my forearms while trying to do the actual split and let them hold the weight of my upper body while my pillows underneath my legs hold my lower body. (I didn’t have to do this very long but it helped. A lot.)
  3. A home-made bolster where I folded a quilt length-wise 3-4x and then rolled it into a bolster
  4. Pillows, pillows, pillows. Put those things everywhere that feels uncomfortable and try to make yourself feel comfortable, even if the position feels awkward.These early classes do a great job of guiding you to feel good places.
  5. Stacked Fists and Hands — Sometimes you need to put your head down but it won’t go all they way down. You can use pillows but you can also stack one fist atop the other on top of your pillow. Then, as your body starts to relax, you can make one fist a flat palm and then your body drops a little lower, then you can either take that palm out or make the other fist a flat palm too, whichever feels better to you. Do what feels good!
  6. Modify and Adjust — If you need to do an accommodation in any practice that makes it not exactly like the teacher is doing it, DO IT. For example, during the splits part in the main video, I had to lean to my right on my right side instead of staying squared over my hips. That was just very uncomfortable to me and it would make me leave the pose early. So I’d lean right and later I’d lean left and eventually I was able to stay upright. I modify many positions and I encourage you to also. Listen to your body. It is your very best teacher. NOW I can sit upright but I probably would have quit if I hadn’t made that one adjustment. Do what feels right to you and don’t do anything painful.
  7. Be okay with flopping out of the poses! It can be challenging to get up when you’ve stretched a long time, especially when you have stretched connective tissue. Feel free to flop! Fall over sideways. Let your hands help your legs get back together. Use your hands to push you up if you need help getting up. It’s hilarious too so have a good laugh.
  8. Recognize that this is not a competition. You are not even trying to be better than you were last time you were on the mat. You are just returning to the mat for a practice. Use gentle self-talk. Laugh at yourself. Coach yourself like you would a child you love. Celebrate progress but, most of all, enjoy the journey. Every single person in any state of health can get more flexible. Stretching also makes us feel better immediately and for days at a time. Give yourself the gift of stretching. Cultivate compassion for yourself, patience with your progress and love for your body.
  9. Drink water after your practice, avoid coffee before. Coffee makes us stiffer! (I love coffee so I try to practice before I drink it.) Water not only increases our juiciness and flexibility, it helps rinse out the toxins and lactic acid that are released from stretching

Here is a sports medicine article about what happens when you stretch muscles properly that elaborates on all I’ve been saying. http://www.besthealthmag.ca/best-you/stretching/stretch-muscles-properly/

Magnesium

If you’ve done your first practice and woken up feeling sore, I have two suggestions. First, powdered magnesium that you stir in water and drink. Natural Calm is one form. There are many . You can get it at GNC or WholeFoods or some drug stores or online. This is it: https://www.vitacost.com/natural-vitality-natural-calm-raspberry-lemon

Magnesium is a natural muscle relaxer and it is also the mineral we need MOST in our body. We use it for building muscles as well as many other very important things. (I also take it when I am feeling anxious or having trouble sleeping. Within minutes it just makes your tense body relax. It’s wonderful.) The thing is, magnesium pills are a waste of money. Magnesium must be absorbed through the stomach and pills don’t break down until the intestine so do yourself a favor and invest in some powdered magnesium to stir in water and drink. I use it for treating sore muscles all the time. I haven’t taken an Ibuprofen for sore muscles since January of 2009 when I learned about Natural Calm from a holistic nutritionist. I am still so grateful for that info. (Another way to take in magnesium is to take an Epsom Salt bath or soak your feet in Espom Salt for 15-20 minutes. Epsom Salt is magnesium sulfate and it is absorbed through the skin. Natural Calm is magnesium citrate and it is absorbed through the stomach. Same mineral. Different forms.)

My other suggestion if you feel stiff or sore is to just sit on your floor or bed, one leg in front of the other and do large circles from the waist, in both directions. Then turn from the waist and look back over each shoulder. Last thing, bend forward from the waist (legs bent or straight, it’s up to you) and rest on some pillows while your legs and lower back stretch out. (Know that the most important stretch you will do all day is the one before you get out of bed. Make sure to just elongate your body, reaching toward the headboard, trying to touch the footboard with your toes. I have a headboard I can grab on to and I use it to pull in to a stretch. Start your day with a stretch and you will feel better.)

With this morning stretch, especially if you feel tight, remember we are lengthening both muscle fibers and connective tissues. The cure for soreness as we do that is MORE stretching, even if you don’t want to do it. You’ll feel better after. And remember not to bounce! Gentle stretches. And add some hooping or other movement to get your blood moving and you’ll be back to feeling gummy in no time!

Potassium

A couple of nights into this practice, I started getting leg cramps. What helped me was eating a banana in the morning and taking a potassium at night with a glass of water. I also kept a bar of Ivory soap in the bedside table to use to rub out cramps. That’s what my grandma used to do and I don’t know why Ivory soap in particular but I can tell you it works. (And when you’re having leg cramps and you don’t have potassium, you’ll try anything.)

Other Practices I Love — some shorter, some faster, some slower

If you are ready to try a different practice, one that will still help with splits but is even more gentle, one where you also do not even have to get up off the floor, I recommend this one. The last bit is a meditation, which you can not do if you are pressed for time but it is very relaxing and will make you feel great. This teacher, David Prosychyn is one of my very favorites. All his classes are gentle and accessible to everyone. I recommend checking them all out. This video will not embed no matter what I do but I highly recommend checking out this link and subscribing to David’s channel.

A Deep Release for the Hips, Hamstrings and Lower Back with David Procyshyn

Here is a delicious yin yoga practice that is also great for splits stretches. You’ll notice the poses are held a little longer than the last video. If you’re seeking a break from splits but still want some hip openers, this is a good one. It also stretches the outside of the hips, which is something most hoopers need. Most of it is lying down with just a couple of sitting parts and it’s relaxing. Great for before bed or upon rising. It’s only 30 minutes also.

If you’ve been doing some of the other practices over the last few days, you may notice your low back feeling a little tight. Most of those practices don’t stretch the low back so this one is a nice break. Only 30 minutes with Yogi Nora. I love her sweet smile and attitude. She only does a few poses, offers lots of accommodations and some little pep talks too. I always pull my blanket over me and rest on the floor after this one. It’s a great one for before bed. At some places the sound goes out on the video. Don’t worry. You won’t miss anything. It’s a yin practice so you’re just relaxing in silence anyway. I hope you enjoy this one. It makes me feel great.

This is a shorter practice that is not a yin practice but I recognize that sometimes you just don’t have much time for holding poses. This is about 15 minutes that will get you into a split pretty fast. It’s a good practice for waking up and getting your energy flowing in the morning. I have been doing this one a lot when I don’t have a ton of time.

 

Sometimes I will do a straddle pose practice to release the groin and surrounding muscles and connective tissue. To make this one easier, put a bolster or pillow under your bum and a pillow under each knee and rest forward on a stack of pillows! Remember, comfort is key because only by relaxing muscles can we gently stretch our connective tissue. Also, I have a coccyx injury and this practice brings me a lot of relief for that!

This is another wonderful practice that I am happy to recommend! I just did it and I feel GREAT! Wonderful hip openers, nice and slow, a unique resting pose at the end that really opened up my chest too! I can hardly wait to do this one again. It’s a delightful hour and the longest practice on this list but also one of my favorites.

 

Every few days I throw in a center splits practice just to help me stretch all the muscles around the groin and hips. This one is very informative. It is not a yin practice so it’s faster than most but you can listen to the informational part at the front and then slow the volume down using the youtube settings button and turn it in to your own yin practice. It just makes her sound a bit sleepy or drunk. I pretend I’m doing drunk yoga.

 

Just to summarize, in less than a week, I went from four pillows high between me and the floor to two pillows and in 15 days, I can almost touch the floor. I am not practicing every day but I haven’t missed more than two days in a row. Here are my before and afters, but on different legs. (It’s hard to photo yourself doing a split!)

Before (5 days in, from 4 pillows to 3):

 

 

 

 

Now (15 days) Right Leg:

 

 

 

 

Left Leg:

 

 

 

 

 

p.s. I have also created a youtube playlist of tutorials I like of mostly yin yoga for splits. I will continually update it and it is here.

https://www.youtube.com/playlist?list=PLTpIRNM5Y6KtsMk2dXO-M5Poy6Tsu2poc

caroleeenasplitsyin yoga


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