“. . . 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



Monday, February 21, 2011

Here’s a Tip to Help You Lower Your Heels Down in Dog Pose

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.

lowering the heels in downward facing dog pose
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!

Namasté,

Ray and Chris

11 comments:

  1. ray,

    why or how is it a muscle originates from a specific place, and inserts in another? why not the other way around, originating and inserting the reverse?

    oh, and wanted to say how helpful it is for me when you insert explanation-clarifiers and definitions in parenthesis, thank you ;-)

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  2. Hi Adan,

    Good question. We use that terminology as a reference point, a starting to point to communicate about the muscle. It's like a language. The origin is generally the point closer to the center of the body (proxima), and the insertion farther away (distal). Typically, the origin is the more stationary attachment, while the insertion moves. Sometimes this is reversed, like with the psoas in the psoas awakening series. Hope this helps! Thanks for stopping by~you've given me an idea for a post, because many people ask this question.

    Best,

    Ray

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  3. Hello - this works well, thank you! A technique I learned from Doug Keller, which helped drop my heels drop down easily works on the other end of the body. perhaps you could do a "Daily" on it, explaining the mechanics?

    Get into DFD. Relax slightly forward.. drop the elbows and squeeze them toward each other as if you are squeezing a beach ball between them. Lift the hips and send the energy down through the heels. This usually relaxing shoulders and drops heels a lot. Once a student understands the action they will use it all the time automatically for comfort in the asana.

    thanks, Ruth

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  4. Thanks Ruth~I'll give it a try!

    Best,

    Ray

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  5. ray, that helps tremendously (re origins vs insertions), it was such a mystery ;-) thank you

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  6. NP, Adan--I like your questions. This is where I get ideas for my books and workshops. Stuff becomes second nature to docs because we learn it over and over in medical training. That doesn't mean it's obvious to everyone else!

    All the Best,

    Ray

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  7. i'm very glad to hear that ;-) i also tend to ask a lot of stuff, the few workshops i can get to -

    meanwhile i promise to try and be economical with my (online) curiosity-wanderings ;-)

    thanks ray

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  8. Hello,

    I receive your newsletter regularly and very fond of your books/homepage. Your recent explanation regarding downward facing dog made me think about my own problems with the Achilles tendons. I'm suffering for over one year now on both legs. The tendons must be inflamed and show knobs which are very sensitive against any kind of pressure. Sometimes I could not even walk anymore (no movement of the ankle was possible without an incredible hurt; I walked as if I were stiff). Then I realized that it grew worse after my Hatha-yoga lessons. Therefore I stopped doing asanas a month ago. Meanwhile it is getting better. I came down to the floor with my heels easily, but I suppose the technique must have been "wrong" just only overstretching. I'm now looking forward to reading your next daily insight regarding the stabilization of the ankles in adho mukha. Can you also give some hint on how to avoid any of such problems and doing asana praxis by not hurting / overstretching? Thank you in advance and best regards from Germany.

    Susanne

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  9. Hi Susanne,

    Thanks for your comment--glad to hear the technique is working for you. Your question is an important one that I would like to answer with a blog post because overstretching is a common problem. I used to feel it in the hamstrings myself in Dog pose and, rather than feeling good after my practice, I felt lousy from the overstretching. Once I focused on engaging the quads in the pose, this feeling disappeared. The pose got better too. It is a combination of biomechanics and physiology. The key is that engaging the quads produced reciprocal inhibition of the hams, so that they did not resist the stretch. I will go over this in the blog post in more detail.

    Thanks again for posting your experience!

    Ray

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  10. I just wanted to thank you for the work you have done here. This post has helped me in my practice in many different ways. I have been practicing for 12+ years and have never successfully gotten my heels to the floor. After reading your description of them musculature I was able to easily get directly into the pose and comfortably hold it with proper alignment. Thank you. I am looking forward to using your site to help further my practice.

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  11. I love this whole approach (best of two very different traditions in synergy). One thing I'm wondering about, however, is how the biomechanics of some poses work differently for men and women (hip architecture differs, for one thing). Your echorche figure appears to be male (traditional western default human) -- is this something can address at some point? Thanks!

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