I am able to do a no-handed splits on aerial silks because I have developed this pose in a healthy, holistic way. I have developed strength in the position at the same rate as flexibility, so that I can be stable here. Balance is important too! Brad captured this moment of intense focus this summer in Santa Cruz CA.
Splits is a fundamental and signature skill in so many athletic disciplines and movement arts. This pose is also a popular flexibility goal for those who don't specifically need it in their movement practices. But splits is more than a visual delight and expression of physical prowess; training splits can help us to attune to the body, correct imbalances, and support nervous system regulation.
Note: you do not have to achieve splits to receive the following benefits. You just have to train them. If your hips are very tight, you will benefit primarily from the intention you bring to your practice and your preparatory poses.
It is totally okay not to be able to do the splits.
Splits as a personal-cultural counterbalance
Therapeutic benefit: training splits corrects strength/weakness imbalances in the hips and legs and addresses muscular tension.
Tight and weak hip flexors, glutes, and hamstrings are hallmarks of a sitting society. Our legs begin to freeze up into our sitting positions, resulting in weakness and tightness, and therefore injuries and chronic pain. Splits can be a great practice for addressing some of these imbalances and health risk factors in our world today.
How we practice matters so much. Only practicing forward/back hip opening postures will result in further imbalances in the body. Only stretching passively (relaxing in the pose) will result in instability, increasing risk of injury. Addressing the hips holistically in flexibility training, meaning involving their full range of motion and incorporating strength, supports steady and healthy progress in the splits. It allows you to have a highly functional splits, as in the no-handed splits in aerial silks.
Splits for nervous system training
Therapeutic benefit: training splits while observing the nervous system helps us to learn whether our nervous systems are accurate, underreporting, or overreacting. This allows us to enhance body awareness through careful study, and begin to notice when this is happening in other situations. This is huge for anxiety management!
In splits we approach muscle groups that are typically out of balance, and the process of developing strength and flexibility can feel very intense. The nervous system will detect this intensity and is liable to flag an injury threat. When this happens, pay careful attention to every sensation to make sure there is no risk of injury. At the same time, critically examine the nervous system's signals. Is the nervous system sending an important message, or overreacting to strong sensation? The opposite can happen too, when the nervous system signals are dull or unclear, and you end up pushing too far as a result. Watch, listen, feel. What's taking place?
The beauty of flexibility training is that nobody outside of you can tell you if what you feel is safe or not. You have to learn to understand the body's signals, distinguishing valid warnings from any anxiety that comes from the intensity. Always err on the side of caution, but take care to examine whether that line of caution has been drawn in the right place. If the nervous system is overreacting, slow down the breath and soften the face. If it has a valid point, ease out of the stretch a bit. Learning the difference is incredibly rewarding and accelerates the process of developing body awareness. Developing body awareness is a beautiful way to build confidence, but that's a whole nother blog post!
What's happening in splits?
Balancing poses: pigeon, butterfly (baddha konasana), twists
Here is a guide for leading up to, into, and out of splits. It must be preceded by a warmup to be practiced safely!
For additional guidance in holistic, healthy flexibility, have a look at the personalized flexibility program I offer. Send an inquiry through the contact form for a discount code.
What pose do you want to see broken down? Let me know!
Sara Kaiser is a certified, experienced yoga teacher. She brings a holistic approach to teaching yoga, aerial silks, meditation, and flexibility.
Photo by BVD Photography
Limited Body Perceptions
Perceptions of the body differ across cultures and change over time. Today, in many societies, we've drifted away from sacred relationship with the body. We don't integrate deep listening and compassionate body awareness into the structures and systems of our everyday lives.
Instead of nurturing a beautiful and happy relationship with ourselves, much of today's messaging about the body plays off of the human craving for validation, making judgments about appearance, putting pressure on individuals to look good in the eyes of others, and focusing on external means of change (beauty products, for example) that can be purchased to achieve beauty.
Being surrounded by narrow, judgmental messages about the body tilts us into unhealthy fixations and mind-body dissonance. This condition distracts us from the journey of cultivating and practicing connective, compassionate body presence (although this dissonance can be a powerful starting point for that journey).
We're not doing everything we can to restore heart-body-mind-world connection and body love--we do not have sufficiently accessible and effective educational frameworks, practices, and role models for lovingly exploring and cultivating a healthy relationship with the body, and seeing this body as continuous with the ever-unfolding processes of nature. It's not obvious to most of us that the ocean and the forests are in fact our own organs--lungs that, though they may be outside the distinctive human body, we need to be healthy to be able to breathe.
The combination of negative messaging and an absence of adequate alternative perspective and guidance culminates in an ethical problem: the common sense ways we talk about and engage with our own and others' bodies holds us back from an important source of happiness, and has a role in alienation, suffering, environmental degradation, and violence.
The key to moving through this challenge is recognizing that it is not our bodies that are the problem--it's the messages about our bodies that require reconsideration.
It is important to note at this point that, contrary to some common discussions, this situation does not exclusively or even predominantly affect women and girls. The problems of repressed body and ecological awareness, inhibited body-world intuition, and narrow self-perception constitute a shared human and non-human problem.
Discussion about the connection between emotional and physical experience is limited. Focus on how inner inquiry can facilitate inner awareness and well-being is missing. Even basic physiology education is inadequate. At the same time we have the vast majority of people turning to destructive activities and substances to get away from painful and uncomfortable sensations, emotions, memories, and anticipations. Practices for mind-heart-body-nature inquiry and resolution are not considered "basic education," yet if we knew how to confront and engage with the contents of our bodies, hearts, and minds, a variety of wonderful pathways would unfold before us.
Controlling, repressing, and running away from the expressions of the body are strategies supported by our institutions, sometimes purposefully and systematically, and often out of pure and simple ignorance. Students are told not to fidget in class and might even be considered in need of medication if they do. But wait a second; is it comfortable and healthy for children or adults to sit in one position for 7 hours a day? Who is in their right mind--the slumped over, sedentary white collar who sits at a desk 40+ hours a week, or the child who can't sit still at school who becomes disruptive?
Students in college pull all-nighters to study for finals (and maybe that doesn't even strike many people as problematic), and some universities open their libraries 24/7 to support this prioritization of grades over rest (mental achievement over health). Is studying between 2am and 6am going to make us more intelligent? More compassionate? More healthy? More effective members of society? Or is it going to aggravate stress and burnout? We value the conventional knowledge systems of math, science, English, and so on, but we don't consider body awareness to be on par with these disciplines--so body intuition and intelligence is not included in core curricula, and we don't even think a thing of its absence. If we prioritized body awareness along with emotional, physical, and spiritual intelligence in schools, we would see change in mental health across the board.
In P.E. classes I observed teachers pressuring students to keep up and try harder without asking how they are feeling in their bodies first. Nobody ever offered me the option to inquire into what my body was telling me, they just told me how many jumping jacks to do. I had lots of enjoyable experiences in P.E. and I liked my teachers, but if I hadn't taken up meditation, yoga, and acrobatics, I would not have the beautiful, happy, healthy relationship with my body I have today, and I wouldn't know what to do with feelings of pain, anxiety, and so on. P.E., at least in the United States, is a missed opportunity. Think of the hours upon hours that could be spent cultivating deep awareness, encouraging compassion, and actually learning about critically important features of inner experience, such as the connections between respiration and the nervous system.
When I listen carefully to the conversations around me, I notice that people almost only talk about the body in the context of pain or discomfort. I rarely hear anybody talk about how they experience pleasure in their body beyond food or drink tasting good. Abuse of pain relief medications is rampant. Healthcare facilities are overburdened, with far too little time spent on cultivating the doctor-patient relationship, an important feature for the mental aspects of healing, due to such a high demand for care. Discussion about the body's intrinsic resources for healing is emerging, but integration into our institutions and culture is yet to come.
If I expressed that forests and oceans are part of our bodies, requiring our awareness and care just like our muscles, organs, bones, and joints, I'd be saying something strange according to most people and get quickly categorized and dismissed as a tree-loving hippie. Yet, in my three years of supporting a science-based conservation organization, over and over and over again, the data said: living beings are connected with one another and their abiotic environment. To skeptics of a unified body-earth metaphysics, go ahead: imagine trying to maintain physical health without biodiversity, oceans, and clean air.
There are exceptions to these trends. There are people all around the world teaching and modeling body awareness and love in powerful, responsible, and creative ways. Growing popularity of yoga and meditation are hints of this that I am familiar with, though these are frequently compromised by capitalistic agendas and have severe socio-economic oversights.
We can't confidently say that in general, throughout our collective societal dialogues and institutions, the body is viewed and treated with respect and love, or regarded as continuous with the soil, birds, and rivers. When you recognize that the forests and oceans are essentially lungs that are outside the body you normally identify with, it ceases to be controversial that we need to care for the natural world.
The Reason for Hope
We need to learn how to listen to, nurture peace within, and explore the body in compassionate ways. Once we begin to do this, we can immediately take the next steps to break free from the limiting and defective narratives we've been drawn into. Then, ignorance can swiftly give way to insight and understanding, and we will see a revolution in the ways we live in, talk about, and relate to our bodies.
As I encounter so many people who have never been told they can regulate their nervous system through breathing, or quell anxiety with mindful awareness, or don't realize that depression can arise merely from being sedentary, or have come to believe that their body's worth comes from other people's judgments, I feel a responsibility to speak up--to point to something far better than what we've become accustomed to. It's time to inquire deeper into this pattern of heart-body-mind-world disconnect and anxiety that is repressing our greatest human qualities. It's time to create a shift. We have the choice to liberate ourselves from the rigid narratives that silence the body's subtle language and loving presence. We have the opportunity to reject the status quo and restore our relationship with this sacred ground--and recognize this body is sacred ground without distinction from the sacred ground that is nature.
We start by looking within without attachment. We begin to believe in the possibility of understanding our bodies well, and we support ourselves and others in that journey. We discover dismantle the destructive body narratives that distract us from the wonder and joy of physicality and our inner resources for pleasure and pain-relief. We create opportunities and platforms for individuals and groups to create and share a diversity of body narratives that acknowledge the diversity of bodies, and nurture connection, exploration, and peace. Schools, media, and everyday conversation support healthy body connection. Body love becomes a familiar and celebrated feature of life--not a radical thing that the rare individual here and there enjoys. People know how to engage in ethical, compassionate, curious exploration of what it is to be human, free of judgment. We choose to see, feel, and express the beauty of being alive in our own ways. We surprise one another with our creative, compassionate ideas and actions. We recognize that our body extends beyond the skin.
When we come into true peaceful connection with and acceptance of the body, healing takes place. There is so much potential for change, because we are not already doing everything we can to get in touch with ourselves, and ultimately, nothing stands in the way of that journey. There are many resources and opportunities that society's self-serving power structures will ensure you never have in life. But nothing and nobody can stop you from listening in and connecting with yourself. Distract you? Yes. Discourage you? Yes. But ultimately get in your way? No. Absolutely not. You have the option to inquire within right here and right now.
The Call to Action
One by one, we can reject the narratives we know well and redefine our relationships with our bodies. Collectively, we can shift the predominant body narratives toward connection, dignity, love, and delight.
Below you will find my first creative project to encourage us toward a loving, resonant union of body, heart, and mind. I hope my work (and play!) inspires you to construct your own project. Together we can learn more about ourselves and one another than we ever thought possible, and we can create an interwoven narrative unimaginably better than what we have now.
What you can do:
The body speaks a wordless language. As the writers of this narrative, it is time for all of us to get quiet and listen.
Read and view my take on the Body Narrative project, begins September 2nd.
Lewis Carroll's caterpillar famously asked Alice, "Who are you?" This question turned out to be not very simple, but incredibly meaningful.
What is the Self?
Human identity is often based in a very limited concept of the “self,” and as a result, our efforts to change are often like a grinding away at something—a “rearranging” or “assembling” which is not quite the same as transformation. Change is the natural course of all materials and living things, but by attaching the narrow self's agendas to our actions, we get in our own way and come out of accord with the patterns that support connection and life. Thus it is important to ask, what is the self?
Photo: Mike Monaghan
Flexibility involves more than stretching muscles, tendons, and ligaments. Hydration, stress, and inflammation are some of many factors that play into your limits and potential for developing flexibility--on the scale of a day as well as a decade. This blog post focuses on stress.
Check in with intentions
Before we dive in, I want to reinforce an important point in my philosophy of flexibility: the point is not to achieve a particular depth in a particular pose. Training flexibility is a way to deepen body awareness and stimulate healing processes within the body. Training flexibility is a universally available course of action for correcting imbalances in the body, clearing the mind, and grounding. I say this because popular attitudes toward flexibility over-emphasize physical achievement, glossing over the deeper, subtler values and benefits of this intimate practice.
Okay, now that we've oriented ourselves in a healthy and open way toward flexibility, what does stress have to do with how much we can bend?
Long story short and stripped of the anatomical details, when we perceive a threat, the body engages our muscles in preparation for self-defense. When we strengthen our muscles, we protect our vulnerable organs and tissues--this is not a time to be bendy! For the nervous system to allow muscle length, we need to believe that we are safe. Your outer environment (social, weather, airflow, temperature, sensory input, etc.) and inner environment (emotional, mental, physical, spiritual, etc.) are both contributors to your nervous system state and therefore muscle state.
If you are under constant stress, whether inner, outer, or both, the nervous system instructs your musculature to remain permanently contracted just a bit. Then as you become more stiff from that perma-contraction, that stiffness makes you uncomfortable and leads to more stress. Thus is born a perpetual cycle of increasingly tight muscles. Sounds exhausting doesn't it? And I'm not even touching the adrenals in this article!
In this self-protective state, you are likely to find limited results from attempts to stretch. When dealing with chronically tight muscles, it is helpful to approach flexibility through the nervous system before approaching the muscles.
Nervous system intervention
To interrupt the cycle of muscle tightness, we need to regularly calm the nervous system. This is simply re-training your body. The more frequently you practice calming the nervous system, the more accessible relaxation will become. Intentional relaxation exercises are more effective when practiced consistently over time.
Do not make peace conditional
Why are you stressed in the first place? This could be a question that has a practical solution or launches you on a spiritual quest. But important to note is that you do not have to resolve all of your stressors to abide in a relaxed state. If you tell yourself you can never be at peace unless x, y, z, you will never be at peace. It can seem absurd to abide in perfect calm when we know all the things wrong with ourselves and the world, but it's essential to reach beyond this mentally constructed limitation. Being at peace is not a logical matter--it arises as a result of a transformation of consciousness. We can embody peace without resolving or denying our problems, confusions, and fears.
Meditation teaches us that we do not need to muscularly react to our inner stressors, or to most of our outer stressors. Meditation helps us to be present with everything that would normally make us tense up. Remaining at ease in the midst of stressors is a skill. Anyone can train this skill.
Slow, deep breathing is one of the clearest signs the nervous system recognizes to mean: safe. Initiating intentional breathing patterns can redirect a fight-or-flight response, bringing greater clarity and calm in just minutes.
Yoga systematically challenges the stress response and then returns the nervous system to calm. Moving through a variety of postures, some challenging and some relaxing, is helpful for familiarizing with the nervous system response and becoming more skillful in directing inner energy.
Practice relaxing when already relaxed
As you become more familiar with nervous system regulation, you will start to recognize when you are being triggered into tension. You will remember techniques to calm the nervous system. This is great, but will be more effective if you also practice calming the nervous system when you are already at ease. Not only does consistency in this practice help you shift states more easily, but it also makes it more difficult for you to be triggered in the future. Many people will not feel motivated to practice calm when already calm, missing the point that it is a powerful form of prevention. Prevention may not feel as explicitly rewarding as resolving an anxiety spike, but it is exactly what will empower you to be able to do just that.
Work with Sara on a personalized integrative flexibility program.