Yesterday, in Cherie's advanced Stretch Therapy class at Sydney Stretch Therapy I had one of the best side splits stretches of my life - top 3 for sure!
Cher's class consisted of advanced piriformis on floor (with micro-movements in the stretched position around the fixed femur - circles & figure '8's, done slow and at a simmer), then squashed frog.
Next was your choice of floor, supine one-leg hamstring - for which I opted for Bhairavasana. I haven't tried this pose for a long while, and surprisingly found it relatively easy to get my foot behind my head. More interestingly, I got a great hamstring and adductor stretch out of it, and figured out some nice PNF contractions and re-patterning movements doing my stuffing around.
Next I did some back to the wall 'headupownarseasana', which also goes by the name parasarita padottanasana I. Obviously this stretch has some safety constraints to it for some people (balance and inversion), but if you practice it regularly and are confident of your skill, the back to the wall version is great as you can do PNF contractions where you match thoracic extension (isometrically into the wall) with hip extension; or rowing patterns of the arms with knee flexion as you relax the back onto the wall.
After that build up I felt the urge for strong side splits stretching building; and gave in to it! Three strong, long side splits ensued. Each time I did multiple (greater than 8) PNF contractions of medium to strong intensity, and with differing muscle groups/movement patterns - but never fully relaxed the muscles post contraction (you modulate the tension via 'over-contracting' then ease off a bit). I find this aspect to be very important for me, as to stop the knees from hyper-extending.
I've also found that tensing the pelvic floor strongly (all together and in different combinations); then calibrating the lumbars into an optimal alignment, and then waiting (30 - 90 seconds normally), produces a strong relaxation effect in the adductors without even doing PNF hold-relax or contract-relax contractions for the adductors themselves (not sure if the pelvic floor reciprocally inhibits the adductors..). I play a lot with the tension of different muscles in the whole leg, too. Very much a tension-regulation exercise.
Other strategies I use include controlled mirco-movements of the lumbar spine; pelvis; femur; tibia and fibula and feet and ankle bones - which all have interesting effects. Lining these movements up in specific sequences can really give you some interesting sensations and quite profound increases in range. I am still very much in the experimental//play phase with a lot of the variants in this pose, and a lot of them are difficult to describe anyhow. When I am more comfortable with the most effective variants I'll write something up more formally.
For the final two stretches I finished sitting on a bolster to 'relax' in the final position. I was about 5-6 inches from the ground. Side splits this year seems highly plausible!
As often happens after a *big* stretching session of this nature (breakthrough range of motion; un-winding of old injury; new pattern established; etc) I could feel body and brain processing heavily for the rest of the day (one place of note was in the fascia around the liver, interestingly enough, for Anatomy Trains and Chinese medicine peeps).
This morning I had greatly enhanced psoas awareness and glute activation (all 3 glutes) and generally felt more mobile, agile and connected (lower to upper body). Awareness in my lower leg and feet was also greatly enhanced, and I also had that 'lightfootedness' sensation I love - like someone turned down the gravity for the day.