Say you’ve been working hard on your Downward Facing Dog and still can’t get your heels to the floor. This cue can give you and your students that extra bit of length in the calf muscles and enable you to lower the heels.
First, warm up a bit with five or six Sun Salutations (Surya Namaskar A). This has the physiological effect of acclimating the muscle spindle stretch receptors of the muscles that lengthen, including the calves. Then take Dog Pose and attempt to draw the top surface of the feet towards the shins. This contracts the tibialis anterior muscle (and its synergists), dorsiflexing the ankles. It also signals the muscles at the backs of the calves, the gastroc/soleus complex, to relax through reciprocal inhibition, enabling the heels to lower to the floor. At the same time, engage the quadriceps to straighten the knees and the triceps to straighten the elbows. These actions synergize lowering the heels. We illustrate stepwise tips like this for all kinds of poses in the Mat Companion series. Click here to page through the books.
|Tibialis anterior dorsiflexing the ankles to lower the heels (gastroc/soleus lengthening).|
Here’s the Anatomy . . .
First let’s look at three muscles that move the ankle: the gastrocnemius, soleus, and tibialis anterior.
The gastrocnemius has two heads: one originates from the back of the femur above the medial femoral condyle, the other from above the lateral condyle. The soleus originates from the head and upper part of the fibula and the upper third of the inside of the tibia. The gastroc and soleus combine to form the Achilles tendon, which inserts onto the back of the calcaneus (heel bone).
For the purposes of this post, the main action of the gastrocnemius/soleus complex is to plantar flex the ankle. Plantar flexion increases the angle between the shin and the top of the foot, as when pushing off during walking. Thus, a tight gastroc/soleus complex can keep you from getting the heels to the floor in Dog Pose. (The gastrocnemius also flexes the knee).
The tibialis anterior is a muscle on the front of the shin. It originates from the lateral (outside) surface of the tibia and the interosseous membrane (which spans the bones of the lower leg). This muscle inserts onto the inside part of the midfoot (the cuneiform) and the first metatarsal (think of the inner middle part of the foot arch). It acts to dorsiflex the ankle, decreasing the angle between the top of the foot and the shin.
The gastroc/soleus and tibialis anterior muscles form an agonist/antagonist pair; i.e., they have opposite actions. This means that contracting one side helps to relax the other (through reciprocal inhibition). That is why attempting to draw the top of the foot towards the shin helps release the calf and enables you to bring the heel closer to the floor.
Thanks again for your feedback! Check back for the next post, when we’ll show you a cool tip for stabilizing the ankles once you have the heels down. Oh yes, and be sure to visit us on Facebook for your free poster and e-book. Keep the comments coming. We love ‘em!