“. . . according to the Yoga Sutra (3.1), the term [Bandha] refers to the ‘binding’ of consciousness to a particular object or locus (desha), which is the very essence of concentration.”
Georg Feuerstein

Friday, November 6, 2015

Stabilizing Your Shoulders In Downward Dog

Hi Folks,

In our last post, we discussed joint rhythm for the shoulders. In this blog post I want to share some of my recent investigations on the biomechanics of the shoulder joint, with some specific tips for Down Dog. Shoulder pain is one of the problems that comes up in yoga, especially with folks who are doing Vinyasa based practice. The underlying cause of the pain can be multifactorial, but it is frequently related to impingement of the rotator cuff and subsequent inflammation of the cuff tendon (specifically the supraspinatus muscle). Inflammation of the tendon, in turn, affects function of the shoulder. Weakness or instability in the shoulder can then lead to abnormal pressures at the wrist, causing pain there as well. Thus, stabilizing the shoulders has beneficial effects beyond the shoulders. is a complex process involving strengthening the core and then linking the strong core to the shoulders.

With this in mind, let’s look at one of the key factors in shoulder impingement, namely, the acromio-humeral interval. This refers to the distance between the undersurface of the acromion and the humeral head, as measured using radiology intruments (x-ray, ultrasound, mri). The acromion is a shelf of bone on the scapula, above the spine (seen in Figure 1). It serves as the attachment for the deltoid muscle. The humeral head articulates with the shoulder joint and serves as the attachment for the muscles of the rotator cuff (on the greater and lesser tuberosities). Factors that decrease the space between the acromion and humeral head can lead to inflammation of the cuff tendon due to compression between the two bones.

Figure 1: The acromio-humeral interval. 

Research has shown that contracting the main adductor muscles of the shoulder serves to increase the acromio-humeral distance. These include the pectoralis major and latissimus dorsi. Co-contracting the biceps and triceps muscles when the arms are overhead can also draw the humerus away from the glenoid, as shown in Figure 2. Finally, externally rotating the shoulder humerus moves the vulnerable area of the supraspinatus tendon away from the area where it would impinge on the acromion (click here to learn more).

Figure 2: The long head of the triceps and short head of the biceps in relation to the gleno-humeral joint with the arms overhead.

Here’s the cue…

Warm up first a bit. Then, take Downward Dog pose. I use three steps for the shoulders. Go slowly and use gentle engagements.

  1. Contract the triceps to straighten your elbows. Then, press the mound at the base of your index fingers into your mat to engage the forearm pronator muscles.
  2. Next, fix your palms into the mat and try to drag the hands towards each other. This engages the adductor muscles of the shoulders as well as the biceps.
  3. Finally, gently roll the shoulders outward. This externally rotates the humerus bone and helps to bring the greater tuberosity away from the undersurface of the acromion.

Figure 3 illustrates the various muscles involved in these cues.

Figure 3: Attempt to drag the hands towards one another. This engages the shoulder adductors. Then externally rotate the shoulders.

As a final adjustment, I like to link the action of the shoulders to the lower extremities. The cue for this is to engage your lower gluteus max and adductor magnus muscles by drawing in with the upper inner thighs and then attempt to drag your feet away from the hands. Feel how this stabilizes your pose. See Figure 4 for the graphics.

Figure 4: Engage the lower parts of the gluteus maximus and adductor magnus as you attempt to drag the feet away from the hands to stabilize the pose.

Bear in mind that shoulder stability is a complex process. The shoulders are linked to the core; so building a strong core leads to stable shoulders. Stable shoulders help to protect the wrists, and so on. Click here to read more on your core. If you would like to learn more anatomic sequencing to improve your poses, click here to take a tour of The Yoga Mat Companion Series.

Thanks for stopping by—see you in a couple of weeks for another post on combining anatomy, biomechanics and yoga.

All the Best,

Ray Long, MD


  1. Graichen H1, Bonel H, Stammberger T, Englmeier KH, Reiser M, Eckstein F. Subacromial space width changes during abduction and rotation--a 3-D MR imaging study. Surg Radiol Anat. 1999;21(1):59-64.
  2. Hinterwimmer S1, Von Eisenhart-Rothe R, Siebert M, Putz R, Eckstein F, Vogl T, Graichen H. Influence of adducting and abducting muscle forces on the subacromial space width. Med Sci Sports Exerc. 2003 Dec;35(12):2055-9.

Tuesday, August 11, 2015

Diaphragmatic (Belly) Breathing

Your thoracic diaphragm is the main engine for breathing, supplemented by the accessory muscles of your chest and abdomen. It is also an important postural muscle with functional connections to your pelvic floor. We'll go over those connections in a future post; in this blog post, let's look at “diaphragmatic” or “belly” breathing.

Figure 1: The thoracic diaphragm (also showing psoas major muscle).

In diaphragmatic breathing, you actively expand the abdomen during inhalation. The abdominal expansion occurs via the diaphragm contracting and pressing down on the abdominal contents. Chest expansion is kept at a minimum in this type of breathing. Exhalation is a relaxed process and occurs through the elastic recoil of the chest wall and lungs.

Regular practice of diaphragmatic breathing draws the mental focus into what is known as the “belly brain”. It has a calming effect on the mind while, at the same time, potentially strengthens the diaphragm. I recommend practicing diaphragmatic breathing for 5-10 minutes per day. We have included a video link below to guide your practice and aid you in visualization of the movement of the diaphragm and abdomen.

Diaphragmatic Breathing Video:

How much does your diaphragm actually move?

The answer to this question depends on how deep of a breath you take and what part of the diaphragm you are asking about. The diaphragm is a sheet like dome-shaped muscle (when it is relaxed). Upon contraction, it flattens out and presses down on the abdomen. The net result is a negative inspiratory pressure, which draws air into the lungs.

Tidal, or resting breathing results in smaller movements of the diaphragm, while vital capacity breathing (as in a deep diaphragmatic breath) results in much larger movement. This is where you take a complete full inhalation.

The posterior, or back part of the diaphragm exhibits the greatest excursion; the amount of diaphragmatic motion decreases progressively as we come forward. Figure 2 illustrates this. MRI studies (which are considered the most accurate) have quantified diaphragmatic motion during deep breathing, with the posterior region moving an average of 10 cm (about 4 inches) between inhalation and exhalation. This decreases progressively moving forward, with the most anterior portion moving about half that of the posterior. Diaphragmatic motion decreases by about one-third in the sitting position compared to lying on your back. (see reference below)

Figure 2: Thoracic diaphragm (side view): P= posterior; D= dome; A= anterior. Note that the excursion of the posterior diaphragm is greatest.

Does the heart move with your diaphragm when you breathe?

Yes, but not the full excursion of the posterior diaphragm. The pericardium, which is a sac surrounding the heart, has fascial connections to the diaphragm. Accordingly, the heart does move during breathing. Your heart is located more anterior on the left dome of the muscle, and so it moves less than the full excursion of the posterior portions of the diaphragm, but it moves significantly nonetheless. The video below illustrates diaphragmatic and cardiac movement during breathing (I recommend you start viewing at about the 40 second point, and later at about 4:00 for deeper breathing). This cineradiography video strikingly illustrates this process. (you may also want to mute the sound :)

Thanks for stopping by. Be sure to have a look at the videos on Youtube. Check back in the next week or so as I have some new info on stretching to share as well.

All the Best,

Ray Long, MD

and Chris (illustrator/animator)

Kiryu SLoring SHMori YRofsky NMHatabu HTakahashi M.  Quantitative analysis of the velocity and synchronicity of diaphragmatic motion: dynamic MRI in different postures. Magn Reson Imaging. 2006 Dec;24(10):1325-32. 

Thursday, June 11, 2015

The Sacroiliac Joint

In this blog post we take a look at the fundamental anatomy of the sacroiliac, or SI joint. The SI joint is the articulation between the ilium and the sacrum on each side of the pelvis. As with other joints, it is comprised of the bony stabilizers, the static soft tissue or ligamentous stabilizers, and the dynamic muscular stabilizers. On the surface of the bone is the articular cartilage.

The SI joint depends primarily on the stout ligaments that cross it for stability. The bones also have shallow interdigitations that correspond on each side, thus conferring some bony stability. Finally, there are the muscles (dynamic stability) and fascia—especially the thoracolumbar fascia.

Figure 1 illustrates the bones that comprise the SI joint.

Figure 1: The bones of the sacroiliac joint.

Figure 2 illustrates the stout ligamentous stabilizers of the joint. These include:
  • The anterior (front) and posterior (back) sacroiliac ligaments running from the sacrum to the ilium;
  • The sacrotuberous ligaments running from the sacrum to the ischial tuberosity;
  • The sacrospinous ligaments running from the sacrum to the posterior iliac spine;

Figure 2: The ligaments of the sacroiliac joint.

Movement is very limited for this joint, but includes nutation or anterior tilt (flexion) of the sacrum between the ilia, counter-nutation or posterior tilt (extension) and small movements of the ilia themselves. The stable SI joint thus functions for shock absorption and transfer of torque during ambulation.

Muscles and fascia also confer stability to the joint. Figure 3 illustrates the relationship between the erector spinae muscles of the back and the muscles of the pelvic floor. You can see that the erector spinae muscles draw the sacrum into flexion (nutation) and the muscles of the pelvic floor (especially the pubococcygeus) draw the bone into extension (counter-nutation). Simultaneously engaging these muscles creates opposing forces that stabilize the joint.

Figure 3: The interaction between the erector spinae and pelvic floor muscles for stabilizing the SI joint.

Figure 4 illustrates the relationship of the latissimus dorsi and gluteus maximus muscles on opposite sides of the body. In between is the thoracolumbar fascia. Note how the fibers of these structures run perpendicular to the joint. Thus, working with core exercises such as Bird Dog Pose can help to strengthen the dynamic stabilizers of the SI joint. These muscles, along with the fascia comprise the “posterior oblique subsystem”.

Figure 4: The posterior oblique subsystem for stabilizing the SI joint.

Hope you enjoy this overview of the foundational structures of the SI joint. I’d also like to say to our friends in Asia that I’ll be teaching at the Urban Ashram in Manila next weekend. This is a four-day workshop for which you can attend any days you wish or the entire session. We’ll be going over details and applications of anatomy, biomechanics, and physiology of yoga with all of the practical applications to take your practice and teaching to the next level. This intensive is the only course I'll be teaching in Asia this year--hope to see you there! Click here for more information…

All the Best,

Ray Long, MD

Tuesday, May 26, 2015

The Pelvic Floor

Dear Friends,

In this blog post I go over the muscles of the pelvic floor. This is an essential structure for support of the pelvic organs; the muscles involved are also engaged in Moola Bandha.

On to the pelvic floor...

The pelvic floor is comprised of a series of muscles including the piriformis, obturator internus, coccygeus, iliococcygeus, and pubococcygeus. These are illustrated in Figure 1. Other muscles involved include the deep and superficial transverse perineals, the ischiocaveronus and the bulbospongiosus. We illustrate these muscles in Figure 2.

Figure 1: The Pelvic Floor

Figure 2: The Pelvic Floor

Keeping your pubococcygeus strong can help reduce urinary incontinence. All of these muscles provide links to the thoracolumbar fascia, which is linked to the abdominal core. Take a moment to look over these images to get a feel for the attachments of the muscles of the pelvic floor. Kegel exercises and Moola Bandha engage them.

I’ll have more on this next week—just wanted to give an intro to the structure and let you know about the hacking issue. We appreciate all of your support.

All the Best,

Ray and Chris

Thursday, March 26, 2015

Stretching, Growing Older and Your Down Dog

As a dog lover, I’m not alone in believing these creatures have important knowledge to pass along to us humans. With this in mind, I want to discuss how aging affects your body and bring to your attention some recent evidence from the scientific literature on how stretching--and Downward Dog--can help.

First, let’s take a look at reciprocal inhibition…

Reciprocal inhibition is a biomechanical and physiological process whereby when we contract a muscle on one side of a joint, the muscle on the other side is inhibited from contracting. This takes place to varying degrees throughout the range of motion of a joint and enables us to do things like walking. For example, when you contract your tibialis anterior to dorsiflex your foot while walking, you automatically inhibit the calf muscles. This helps to prevent catching your toes.

Reciprocal inhibition is controlled and regulated at the level of the spinal cord level and also the brain. Of course, as we reach the ends of range of motion of a joint, a process known as co-contraction kicks in to stabilize the articulation, thus modulating the inhibitory effect of the contracting muscle on its antagonist. In other words, we are not Gumby. (Most folks know this implicitly, but I point it out here to correct some confusing info from recent blogs on the subject of stretching and yoga). Figure 1 illustrates the agonist/antagonist pairs for the forward bend Paschimottanasana and the backbend Setu bandhasana.

Figure 1: Agonist/Antagonist pairs in Paschimottanasana and active Setu bandhasana.

What can happen as we age…

Scientific studies have demonstrated that reciprocal inhibition diminishes as we age (and also in certain disease processes). This is particularly important for activities such as walking. For example, if the tibialis anterior does not efficiently inhibit the gastroc/soleus muscles of the calf, the person tends to catch their toes, stumble and fall. If that weren't bad enough, our bones also weaken with age, so falls can lead to fractures--especially of the hip. This puts the person in a hospital under the care of an orthopedic surgeon as so on…(a story I know all too well). So, methods or techniques that improve reciprocal inhibition could potentially benefit us as we age.

How stretching can help…

Recent scientific evidence has shown that stretching can increase reciprocal inhibition between antagonist muscles. For this study, the authors investigated the effect of stretching on reciprocal inhibition between the tibialis anterior and the gastroc/soleus complex. They stated:

“In conclusion, we have found that 3 wk of twice-daily, static plantar flexor stretching resulted in a significant increase in RI, measured in soleus and gastrocnemius during voluntary, tonic dorsiflexion contractions.” (The full article is linked below in the references)

These are some of the same muscles we work with in Downward Dog. Thus, regular practice of this pose may help maintain reciprocal inhibition between the tibialis anterior and the calf muscles. For a tip on how to make this pose more efficient, take a read through “A Tip to Help You Lower Your Heels In Downward Dog." This blog uses active stretching to improve flexibility of the gastroc/soleus muscle complex. I received a lot of positive feedback on it, so give it a go.

Figure 2: The tibialis anterior as agonist and gastroc soleus as antagonist in Down Dog pose.

On Active Stretching…

In active stretching, one improves muscle flexibility by contracting the opposing muscle group while stretching the target muscle. In the case of the hamstrings, this means engaging the quadriceps during the stretch. Shirley Sahrmann, PhD (Professor of Physiotherapy at Washington University School of Medicine) and others have advocated active stretching as a means of increasing muscle flexibility. It improves flexibility of the muscles on one side of the joint while improving strength and function of the muscles on the other side.

A recent article from the medical literature compared active vs. passive stretching of the hamstring muscles. The authors stated:

“Such an active technique is based on reciprocal inhibition between agonistic and antagonistic muscles.”

And concluded:

“Active stretching produced the greater gain in the AKER test, and the gain was almost completely maintained 4 weeks after the end of the training, which was not seen with the passive stretching group. Active stretching was more time efficient compared with the static stretching and needed a lower compliance to produce effects on flexibility.” (AKER=active knee extension range of motion)

This makes sense to me from a yoga perspective as well--keeping in mind that there are many different ways to climb the mountain. Improving muscle flexibility is only one of the functions of asanas. Active stretching, among other benefits, improves your mind/body connection, alignment of your joints and your mental focus. Improved focus in turn helps to identify and correct imbalances. Click here to read more on the subject of muscle imbalances.

Figure 3: An agonist/antagonist pair in Warrior I (gluteus maximus and illiopsoas).

Figure 4 shows a couple of page spreads from our Yoga Mat Companion book series, illustrating a step-wise approach to working with muscle engagement in the poses.

An excerpt from "Yoga Mat Companion 1 - Vinyasa Flow and Standing Poses".

An excerpt from "Yoga Mat Companion 2 - Hip Openers and Forward Bends".

NB: Evidence based medicine ranks publications and studies according to “levels of evidence”. Level I studies are considered to be more reliable, and are based on randomized controlled trials. Level VII evidence, on the other hand, is essentially an opinion, with variable reliability depending on the source and their actual expertise. The study on active vs. passive stretching I referenced above was a randomized controlled trial (RCT), and is thus Level I(b) evidence.

Thanks for checking in! Click here for more information on combining modern Western science and your yoga. Hope to see you soon.


Ray and Chris

  1. Lavoie BA, Devanne H, Capaday C. “Differential control of reciprocal inhibition during walking versus postural and voluntary motor tasks in humans.” J Neurophysiol. 1997 Jul;78(1):429-38.
  2. Hortobágyi T, del Olmo MF, Rothwell JC. “Age reduces cortical reciprocal inhibition in humans.” Exp Brain Res. 2006 May;171(3):322-9.
  3. S. Meunier , S. Pol , J. L. Houeto , M. Vidailhet “Abnormal reciprocal inhibition between antagonist muscles in Parkinson's disease” Brain. 2000 May;123 ( Pt 5):1017-26.
  4. A. J. Blazevich , A. D. Kay , C. Waugh , F. Fath , S. Miller , D. Cannavan “Plantarflexor stretch training increases reciprocal inhibition measured during voluntary dorsiflexion” Journal of Neurophysiology Published 1 January 2012 Vol. 107 no. 1, 250-256.
  5. Meroni R, Cerri CG, Lanzarini C, Barindelli G, Morte GD, Gessaga V, Cesana GC, De Vito G. “Comparison of active stretching technique and static stretching technique on hamstring flexibility.” Clin J Sport Med. 2010 Jan;20(1):8-14.

Friday, December 19, 2014

Connect Your Feet to Your Shoulders in Side Forearm Plank Pose

Side forearm plank is another awesome pose to strengthen your core while protecting your wrists. You do this one by placing your forearm on the mat and attempting to drag it towards your feet, while engaging the core muscles on your sides to stabilize the lumbar pelvic complex. Keep your supporting arm (the humerus bone) straight up and down (at a right angle to the floor). This way the passive strength of the bone aids to support your body weight. Click here for more on this concept in Vasisthasana.

Figure 1: Side Forearm Plank Preparatory Pose

Begin by stabilizing the shoulders. Do this by attempting to externally rotate your forearm on the mat. At the same time, attempt to internally rotate your forearm on the mat as well. It’s a bit like a windshield wiper that’s fixed in place. This cue “co-activates” the infraspinatus and teres minor (external rotation) and the subscapularis (internal rotation) muscles of your rotator cuff. Feel how this stabilizes your shoulder. Folks that are new to this pose can use the preparatory version to work with this cue. Figure 1 shows the prep pose and Figure 2 illustrates the action of the forearms.

Figure 2: This illustrates the cue for co-activating the external and internal shoulder rotators (the infraspinatus, teres minor and subscapularis of the rotator cuff).

Next, press the edge of your lower side foot into the mat and gently draw it upwards toward the shin to “evert” your foot. These cues activate a series of muscles—including the “lateral subsystem”--to connect your shoulders and legs to your core. Figure 3 shows the cue for attempting to drag the forearm and the feet towards each other (while engaging the side abs).

Now let’s check out the myofascial connections in side forearm plank. When you press the side of your foot into the mat, you activate the peroneus muscles as well as the abductor muscles up at your hip (the TFL and gluteus medius). These muscles have a fascial connection to your abs, specifically the external oblique (which attaches to the rim of the pelvis). The external oblique connects to your shoulders via the serratus anterior muscle. The serratus anterior is a scapular stabilizer that works in concert with the rotator cuff. So the whole operation helps to integrate your feet, legs, pelvis and lumbar--all the way up to the shoulders.

Figure 3: This illustrates the cue of everting the lower foot and dragging the elbow towards it. It also shows the deep longitudinal subsystem.

So let’s talk about the deep longitudinal subsystem…

Your deep longitudinal subsystem is made up of the peroneus longus muscle (on the outside of your lower leg), the biceps femoris of your hamstrings and your sacrotuberous ligament (up in the pelvis), the thoracolumbar fascia and the erector spinae muscles (in your back). The biceps femoris creates a link between the lower extremities and the trunk via the sacrotuberous ligament. This ligament helps to transmit force across your sacrum, and, via the thoracolumbar fascia on up the trunk to your deep back muscles. Check Figure 3 for a color coded illustration of this connection. Click here to see this connection in the lower legs in Reverse Pigeon Pose.

This subsystem is part of the global movement system and is thought to be important in force transmission between your trunk and the ground—as in walking. We’ll have more posts on the other subsystems and how to work with them in yoga soon. Click here to see how the abductor muscles of the hip work in your poses. Click here to learn more about the thoracolumbar fascia and its importance in yoga.

Figure 4 shows the myofascial connection between the external oblique muscle (of the abs) and the serratus anterior of the shoulder girdle.

Figure 4: This illustrates the myofascial connection between the external oblique muscle of the abdomen and the serratus anterior of the shoulder girdle.

Thanks for checking in! Click here to browse through our books by clicking the links on the right. These books have lots of practical cues with key info on anatomic sequencing to integrate into your practice!


Ray and Chris

Friday, June 6, 2014

The Gluteus Medius Muscle in Yoga

Thanks to everyone for your input on Facebook for the “Muscle of the Week”, the gluteus medius. In this blog post we go over the essential anatomy of this muscle and illustrate its action in several yoga poses.

Here’s the anatomy…

The gluteus medius originates on the outer surface of the ilium bone and runs to the greater trochanter of the femur. This muscle acts to stabilize the pelvis when standing on one leg and during walking. The gluteus medius is also a primary abductor of the hip. Its anterior fibers act to synergize flexing and internally rotating the flexed hip; its more posterior fibers synergize extending and externally rotating the extended hip. The gluteus medius is innervated by the superior gluteal nerve, which is formed from nerve roots L4, L5 and S1. Figure 1 illustrates this muscle. 

Figure 1: The gluteus medius muscle with its innervation from the superior gluteal nerve. The gluteus maximus, with the inferior gluteal nerve is shown as a see-through.

Tree pose and other one-legged standing poses help to strengthen the gluteus medius, which is essential for stabilizing the pelvis of the standing leg (figure 2). Click here to read more about the function of the gluteus medius in one-legged asanas in our blog post, “Anatomic Sequencing in Yoga”. Click here to read about the connections of the gluteus medius during gait.

Figure 2: The gluteus medius stabilizing the pelvis in Tree Pose.

Figure 3 illustrates the gluteus medius contracting to help lift the leg in Ardha chandrasana (Half Moon Pose).

Figure 3: The gluteus medius stabilizing the lifted leg in Half Moon Pose.

Engaging the gluteus medius in Downward Dog pose can be used to synergize hip flexion. This muscle also helps to internally rotate the hips, thereby bringing the kneecaps to face forward. The cue for engaging the gluteus medius in Downward Dog Pose is to press the feet into the mat and then attempt to drag them apart. The feet remain constrained on the mat and do not move. However, the abductor muscles, including the gluteus medius, minimus and TFL, engage to refine flexion and rotation of the hips. Click here to read about this in our blog post, “How to Use Nutation to Refine Uttanasana.” Figure 4 illustrates how to work with the gluteus medius and minimus to refine Downward Dog Pose.

Figure 4: Engaging the gluteus medius and minims in Downward Dog Pose.

Figure 5 illustrates the gluteus medius synergizing hip extension in Purvottanasana.

Figure 5: Engaging the gluteus medius to synergize hip extension in Purvottanasana.

Finally, figure 6 illustrates stretching the gluteus medius in Garudasana.

Figure 6: Stretching the gluteus medius in Garudasana.

Many thanks for all of your feedback on stretching the gluteus medius in last weeks “Muscle of the Week” on Facebook. Check back soon for the next one…

Feel free to browse through The Key Muscles of Yoga and Key Poses of Yoga by clicking here.The Yoga Mat Companion Series gives you step-by-step anatomic sequencing for all of the major asanas, with a variety preparatory poses as well. Use these books to design your classes and optimize your practice. We’re also pleased to announce that all of our books are now available in digital format for Kindle, iPad and other digital devices. Click here to learn more…

Thanks for stopping by The Daily Bandha. Stay tuned for our next post when I'll present another subject on combining science and yoga. Also, we greatly appreciate when you share us on Facebook, Twitter and Google Plus.


Ray and Chris

Monday, June 2, 2014

The Rectus Femoris Muscle in Yoga

In this blog post we examine the rectus femoris muscle and its relation to yoga poses, beginning with an overview of the muscle and how it stretches. We conclude with some interesting synergy that can occur between the rectus femoris and the gluteus maximus in poses where both the hip and knee are extending, such as Warrior I.

Here’s the anatomy…

The rectus femoris is one of the four heads of the quadriceps muscle. It runs from the anterior inferior iliac spine to the quadriceps tendon, which attaches to the patella or knee cap. The patella then attaches to the tibial tubercle via the patellar tendon. The rectus femoris thus crosses both the hip and the knee, making it a bi-articular muscle. Note that the other three heads of the quadriceps muscle only cross the knee joint and are mono-articular (figure 1).

Figure 1: The rectus femoris muscle with its origin and insertion.

The rectus femoris combines with the rest of the quadriceps to extend the knee joint. It also acts as a synergist of hip flexion and has increased activity with abduction and external rotation of the hip joint. Figure 2 illustrates this in Supta padangustasana (performed with the leg abducted). Click here to learn more about the relationship between the quadriceps and the pelvis in our blog post, “Preventative Strategies for Lower Back Strains in Yoga.”

Figure 2: The rectus femoris contracting to flex the hip and extend the knee in Supta padangustasana.

Stretching the rectus femoris is best accomplished in poses that combine hip extension and knee flexion. Poses like Virasana (with the hips flexing) are good for stretching the other heads of the quadriceps, however, a reclining variation is necessary to lengthen the rectus femoris. Figure 3 illustrates two poses that stretch this muscle.

Figure 3: Stretching the rectus femoris by extending the hip and flexing the knee.

Finally, figure 4 illustrates the “antagonist/synergist” relationship between the rectus femoris and the gluteus maximus in poses like Warrior I. The gluteus maximus is a hip extensor and, thus, an antagonist of the rectus femoris for this action. If the foot is fixed on the mat, contracting the gluteus maximus tilts the pelvis as shown (closed chain action). Tilting the pelvis back and down creates a pull on the rectus femoris, which is transmitted to the knee joint, leading to more efficient knee extension. In this manner, the gluteus maximus is an indirect synergist of knee extension.

Figure 4: The antagonist/synergist relationship of the gluteus maximus to the rectus femoris. 

Many thanks for all of your feedback on stretching the rectus femoris in last weeks “Muscle of the Week” on Facebook. Check in tomorrow for the next one…

Feel free to browse through The Key Muscles of Yoga and Key Poses of Yoga by clicking here.The Yoga Mat Companion Series gives you step-by-step anatomic sequencing for all of the major asanas, with a variety preparatory poses as well. Use these books to design your classes and optimize your practice. We’re also pleased to announce that all of our books are now available in digital format for Kindle and other devices. Click here to learn more…
Click here to browse through all of our books.

Thanks for stopping by The Daily Bandha. Stay tuned for our next post when I'll present another subject on combining science and yoga. Also, we greatly appreciate when you share us on Facebook, Twitter and Google Plus.


Ray and Chris

Monday, May 26, 2014

The Gastrocnemius/Soleus Complex in Yoga

Big Thanks to everyone for your comments on Facebook for our “Muscle of the Week: The Soleus.” In this blog post we take a look at this muscle, its connection to the gastrocnemius and its relationship to practicing yoga.

Here's the anatomy…

The gastrocnemius and soleus muscles form the triceps surae or gastrocnemius/soleus complex. The soleus muscle originates from the head and neck of the fibula bone and, via a tendinous arch, the soleal line at the back of the tibia bone. The gastrocnemius has two heads; one originates from the medial epicondyle of the femur and the other from the lateral epicondyle. The soleus and gastrocnemius attach to the calcaneus (heel bone) via the Achilles tendon (figure 1).

Figure 1: The gastrocnemius and soleus muscles.

Both muscles act to flex the ankle and invert the subtalar joint. The gastrocnemius, because it crosses the knee, also acts as a knee flexor. Since the two muscles act to plantarflex the ankle, dorsiflexing the ankle joint acts to stretch them. Figure 2 illustrates the relationship between these muscles in cross section.

Figure 2: The gastrocnemius and soleus muscles in cross-section.

As B. W-B. pointed out in her Facebook comment on the soleus, “these muscles help to propel blood and fluids back up out of the legs for proper circulation of your legs.” This is because muscle contraction augments the flow of blood and lymphatic fluid towards the heart via a system of one-way valves within the vessels (figure 3). I discuss this concept in greater detail in a previous blog post (click here to learn more).

Figure 3: One way valves in veins.

In her Facebook comment, A. K. A. recommends placing a slight bend in the knee during dog pose to release the gastrocnemius and focus the stretch more deeply on the soleus muscle. I found this to be helpful as well.

You can also release the gastrocnemius with a series of stretches in Downward Dog pose.  Our blog post on Hanumanasana illustrates the effect of several short duration (<30 seconds) stretches on muscle length, with some links to the biomechanical literature. Finally, engaging antagonist muscles aids to lengthen muscles in a stretch through reciprocal inhibition. Figure 4 illustrates sequentially releasing the gastroc by bending the knee, using the hands to dorsiflex the ankle and then engaging the quads to straighten the knee. A similar sequence can be applied to Downward Dog. Click here for a tip on using reciprocal inhibition to aid in lowering the heels in Down Dog.

Figure 4: 1) bend the knee to release the gastroc; 2) dorsiflex the ankle to stretch the soleus; 3) contract the quadriceps to extend the knee and stretch the gastroc.

The Silfverskiöld test also illustrates the rationale for increased ankle dorsiflexion with the knee bent. We use this test in orthopedics to differentiate a tight gastrocnemius from an Achilles tendon contracture by dorsiflexing the ankle with the knee straight and then with the knee flexed.  Increased ankle dorsiflexion with the knee bent indicates that the limitation of motion at the ankle is coming from the gastrocnemius.

Finally, figure 5 illustrates the connection between the gastrocnemius/soleus complex and the plantar fascia. Click here to learn more in our blog post, “Plantar Fasciitis, Myofascial Connections and Yoga.”

Figure 5: The plantar fascia and gastroc/soleus complex.

Feel free to browse through our books, The Key Muscles of Yoga and Key Poses of Yoga by clicking here.The Yoga Mat Companion Series gives you step-by-step anatomic sequencing for all of the major asanas, with a variety preparatory poses as well. Use these books to design your classes and optimize your practice. We’re also pleased to announce that all of our books are now available in digital format for Kindle and other devices. Click here to learn more… Feel free to browse through all of our books by clicking here.

Thanks for stopping by The Daily Bandha. Stay tuned for our next post when I'll present another subject on combining science and yoga. Also, we greatly appreciate when you share us on Facebook, Twitter and Google Plus.


Ray and Chris

Wednesday, May 7, 2014

Anatomic Sequencing: Revolved Half Moon Pose

This blog post continues the theme of balancing the pelvis in yoga asanas. Our last post focused on using the adductor magnus to turn the pelvis in Warrior I; this post zooms in on the hip abductors for Revolved Half Moon Pose. 

As I discussed in “Connecting to Your Feet in Yoga”, you can learn a great deal about biomechanics by examining how the body responds to pathological conditions. In that post, I looked at a variation of flat foot deformity, the ligaments and muscles involved and how to work with yoga to strengthen the arches of the feet. Here, I examine what happens with the pelvis when the hip abductors are not functioning properly. Then I illustrate how to use this knowledge to refine asanas like Revolved Triangle and Revolved Half Moon. 

Balancing the pelvis is a key factor in normal gait as well as yoga poses. Conversely, persons with weakness in the hip abductors develop what is known as a “Trendelenberg” gait, where the pelvis tilts up and shifts toward the affected side during the stance phase of walking. A variety of conditions can affect the hip abductors, including hip pain (from arthritis) and injury to the nerve supply of the gluteus medius. 

In medicine, we test the function of the hip abductors by having the patient stand on one leg in the “Trendelberg Test”. When the muscles are competent, they automatically engage to draw the pelvis level; when the muscles are weakened, the pelvis on the standing leg side lifts (while the lifted leg side sags downward). At the same time, the spine curves toward the affected hip, with the shoulder girdle tilting towards that side.  Figure 1 illustrates the Trendelenberg Test. Note how the pelvis tilts and the spine laterally flexes when the gluteus medius does not engage properly.

Figure 1: The Trendeleberg Test; Image on the left illustrates the gluteus medius engaging to stabilize the pelvis.  Image on the right illustrates pelvic tilt and lateral spine flexion with the dysfunctional gluteus medius.

The spine compensating for the tilt of the pelvis is an example of lumbar-pelvic rhythm. Click here to read more on this important subject in our blog post, “Preventative Strategies for Lower Back Strains in Yoga”. Click here to learn more about the muscles involved in one-legged standing in our blog post, “Improving Stability in One Legged Standing Poses.”

Now, let’s look at how we can apply this knowledge to help lift the back leg in Revolved Half Moon Pose…

I begin by training awareness of the abductor muscles (especially the gluteus medius) in Revolved Triangle Pose. The cue for this is to fix the forward foot on the mat and attempt to drag it to the outside, while resisting with the hand. You will note that this helps to bring the pelvis in line with the rest of the body. Figure 2 illustrates the preparatory poses for this asana and Figure 3 illustrates the cue.

Figure 2: Preparatory poses for Revolved Triangle Pose.

Figure 3: Engaging the hip abductors in Revolved Triangle Pose.

Next, I use sequential muscular engagement to lift the back leg in Revolved Half Moon Pose, beginning with the hip abductors of the standing leg. Engaging these muscles acts to lift, rotate and stabilize the pelvis on the side of the lifted leg (in a fashion similar to what we learned with the Trendelenberg Test). Then I engage the muscles that lift the leg itself, including the gluteus maximus and its synergists of hip extension (the hamstrings and adductor magnus). The gluteus maximus contracts eccentrically.

Finally, I use the quadriceps to straighten the knee. Figure 4 illustrates the preparatory poses for Revolved Half Moon Pose. Figures 5 and 6 illustrate engaging the hip abductors in the standing leg to lift the side of the pelvis for the raised leg. Figure 7 illustrates the final step--engaging the hip extensors and the quadriceps of the raised leg. Work with a chair or block to gain stability if you are new to the pose.

Figure 4: The preparatory poses for Revolved Half Moon Pose.

Figure 5: Engaging the hip abductors to lift the pelvis on the side of the raised leg.

Figure 6: Engaging the hip abductors to lift the pelvis on the side of the raised leg.

Figure 7: Engaging the hip extensors of the raised leg (gluteus maximus, hamstrings, adductor magnus) and knee extensor (quadriceps).

Note that the deep external rotators of the standing leg also facilitate stabilizing the pelvis in Revolved Half Moon Pose. Figure 8 illustrates these muscles.

Figure 8: The deep external rotators stabilizing the pelvis in Revolved Half Moon Pose.

These steps are an example of anatomic sequencing for yoga. Each muscle group is engaged in a specific order to achieve optimal form and stability. The Yoga Mat Companion Series gives you step-by-step anatomic sequencing for all of the major asanas, with a variety preparatory poses as well. Use these books to design your classes and optimize your practice. We’re pleased to announce that all of our books are now available in digital format for Kindle and other devices. Click here to learn more… Feel free to browse through all of our books by clicking here.

Thanks for stopping by The Daily Bandha. Stay tuned for our next post when I'll present another subject on combining science and yoga.  Also, we greatly appreciate when you share us on Facebook, Twitter and Google Plus.


Ray and Chris

Monday, March 10, 2014

Refining the Pelvis in Warrior I

Yoga often happens in millimeters. This means that relatively small adjustments can produce some of the most important openings and energetic shifts. In this blog post, I describe a cue to refine the pelvis in the asana, Warrior I (Virabhadrasana I), concluding with a brief discussion of the biomechanics of this adjustment.

Here’s the cue...

In Warrior I, press the back foot into the mat and attempt to drag it toward the midline (adduction). You will feel the pelvis turn forward to “square” with the front leg. Figures 1 and 2 illustrate this action, with its effect on the pelvis.

Figure 1: Press the foot into the mat and then attempt to drag it toward the midline. This engages the adductor magnus.

Here are the biomechanics of this cue...

In Warrior I, the back leg is in extension. The prime mover muscle for this action is the gluteus maximus. One of the synergists for extending the hip is the adductor magnus muscle. Attempting to drag the foot towards the midline engages this muscle in the pose. The foot remains constrained on the mat and does not actually move, however, the force of contracting the adductor magnus decreases the angle between the femur and the pelvis, as shown. The result is that the pelvis turns (instead of the foot moving). In addition, the hip extends more effectively. All of this produces a unique opening in the front of the pelvis that stretches the hip flexors, including the psoas muscle (figure 3).

Figure 2: This illustrates engaging the adductor magnus by attempting to drag the foot towards the midline. The mat constrains the foot, and the force of contraction turns the pelvis.

Figure 3: This illustrates the flexor muscles of the back hip stretching.

Use this adjustment after “setting” the feet. The technique for this is described in my previous blog post on connecting to your feet in yoga. Click here to read more. These cues can be combined with co-activation of the hip stabilizers for the front leg, as described previously for Warrior II (click here to read more). Finally, “ease into” your movements when working with cues such as this. Build muscular engagement gradually to turn the pelvis; then gradually release it as you come out of the pose.

For many more helpful cues on biomechanics and yoga, feel free to browse through "The Key Muscles and Key Poses of Yoga". Also, see the "Yoga Mat Companion" series, which gives you step-by-step guidelines for applying these cues to all categories of poses. Click here to learn more.


Ray and Chris (illustrator)

Tuesday, December 24, 2013

Healing with Yoga: Piriformis Syndrome

Years ago I developed sciatica as a consequence of a martial arts injury. I had seen a number of doctors who finally diagnosed it as an entrapment syndrome involving the piriformis muscle and the sciatic nerve. I tried, unsuccessfully, all of the conservative methods to treat it, including physical therapy, massage, manipulation—you name it. Finally, it looked like I would either have to live with the pain or have surgery—for which there was no guarantee of success. As it happened, one day I wandered into a yoga class at the Ann Arbor YMCA.

I remember being impressed by how different (and difficult) a yoga class was, even though I was used to hard physical training from playing sports; we were working with the body in ways I had never experienced and using precise movements and muscular engagements I hadn’t seen in other exercise methods. Not only did I feel great after my first class but also, to my surprise, the next day I noticed that my sciatic pain was greatly improved. Putting two and two together, I started going regularly to classes at YMCA (and later, the basement of a church). As long as I went to class, my sciatica no longer bothered me. With this in mind, let’s take a look at piriformis syndrome.

Piriformis Syndrome:

Piriformis syndrome is characterized by buttock and/or hip pain that may radiate into the leg as a form of sciatica. This syndrome is thought to result from spasm of the piriformis which causes irritation of the sciatic nerve as it passes across (or through) the muscle. Spasm in the piriformis can be precipitated by an athletic injury or other trauma. The mainstay of treatment involves stretching the piriformis and its neighboring external hip rotators, with surgery to release the muscle reserved for recalcitrant cases.

Tightness or asymmetries in the piriformis muscle can create rotational pelvic imbalances. This, in turn, can lead to imbalances further up the spinal column, through the process of "joint rhythm". Click here to learn more about lumbar pelvic rhythm in our previous blog post on Preventative Strategies for Lower Back Strains. Below in the links is a reference to an article from the Osteopathic literature addressing this subject in relation to the piriformis muscle.

Figure 1 is an illustration of the relationship of the sciatic nerve to the piriformis muscle. Approximately 80% of the time the nerve passes anterior to the muscle, exiting below the piriformis. The sciatic nerve can also divide above the muscle, with one branch passing through the piriformis and another branch passing anterior. This variation occurs about 14% of the time. Other variations include the undivided nerve passing through the muscle and the divisions passing both anterior and posterior to the piriformis (without penetrating the muscle). Note that the sciatic nerve can penetrate the muscle without ever causing pain or other symptoms (as is usually the case). Persons with this variation may, however, be predisposed to developing piriformis syndrome from an injury.

Various relationships of the sciatic nerve to the piriformis muscle.

Diagnosis of piriformis syndrome is accomplished through a careful history and physical examination as well as radiological studies. The physical exam includes the FAIR test (flexion, adduction, internal rotation of the hip). Click here for an example of this test.

Note that other causes of sciatica must be excluded before making the final diagnosis of piriformis syndrome. These include a herniated disc causing nerve root compression. Similarly, pathology affecting the hip joint must also be excluded. Accordingly, if you have sciatic type pain, be sure to consult a health care practitioner who is appropriately trained and qualified to diagnose and manage such conditions.

To review, when the hip is in a neutral position, the piriformis acts to externally rotate (turn outward), flex and abduct the hip joint. When the hip is flexed beyond about 60 degrees the piriformis becomes an internal rotator and extensor (and remains an abductor). Muscles stretch when we move a joint in the opposite direction of the action of the muscle. Click here for a review of the piriformis muscle, its attachments and action, and the mechanism of Reverse Pigeon Pose (video below).

Figures 2-5 illustrate several yoga poses that stretch the piriformis. Parvritta trikonasana and the rotating version of Supta padangustasana lengthen the muscle by adducting and flexing the hip. Similarly, Parsva bakasana and Marichyasana III adduct and flex the hip joint, thus stretching the muscle (which an extensor and abductor when the hip is flexing).

Figure 2. Piriformis stretching in supta padangusthasana.

Figure 3. Piriformis stretching in Parvritta trikonasana.

Figure 4. Piriformis stretching in Marichyasana III.

Figure 5. Piriformis stretching in Parsva bakasana.

Figure 6. Supported setu bandha - a recovery pose which maintains the piriformis in a relaxed position.

Video 1 demonstrates stretching of the piriformis in Reverse Pigeon Pose. This asana stretches the muscle by externally rotating and flexing the hip.

Video 2 illustrates the technique for using mysofascial connections to protect the knee joint in this pose. Click here for the details of this technique.

Thanks for stopping by. If you would like to learn more about combining modern Western science and yoga, feel free to browse through The Key Muscles and Key Poses of Yoga, as well as the Yoga Mat Companion series by clicking here. Many thanks for your support in sharing us on Facebook, Twitter and Google Plus!


Ray and Chris (illustrations)

  1. Pokorný D, Jahoda D, Veigl D, Pinskerová V, Sosna A. “Topographic variations of the relationship of the sciatic nerve and the piriformis muscle and its relevance to palsy after total hip arthroplasty.” Surg Radiol Anat. 2006 Mar;28(1):88-91.

  2. Boyajian-O'Neill LA, McClain RL, Coleman MK, Thomas PP “Diagnosis and management of piriformis syndrome: an osteopathic approach.” J Am Osteopath Assoc. 2008 Nov;108(11):657-64.

  3. Filler AG, Haynes J, Jordan SE, Prager J, Villablanca JP, Farahani K, McBride DQ, Tsuruda JS, Morisoli B, Batzdorf U, Johnson JP. “Sciatica of nondisc origin and piriformis syndrome: diagnosis by magnetic resonance neurography and interventional magnetic resonance imaging with outcome study of resulting treatment.” J Neurosurg Spine. 2005 Feb;2(2):99-115.
  4. Rodrigue T, Hardy RW. “Diagnosis and treatment of piriformis syndrome.” Neurosurg Clin N Am. 2001 Apr;12(2):311-9.

  5. Papadopoulos EC, Khan SN. “Piriformis syndrome and low back pain: a new classification and review of the literature.” Orthop Clin North Am. 2004 Jan;35(1):65-71.