“. . . 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

Tuesday, October 29, 2013

Visualization, Biomechanics and Yoga: The Popliteus Muscle

Techniques of visualizing are employed in many disciplines. Elite athletes, from NFL quarterbacks to champion racing car drivers often integrate visualization into their training regimens. A racer will use this technique by entering a meditative state and picturing the details of the track they are going to drive, seeing every curve and bump and visualizing themselves driving a safe and flawless race. Then they go out and drive a safe and flawless race.

Visualization is also a powerful tool utilized by the medical field, particularly as an adjunct to cancer treatment. Patients relax and then picture detailed images of their immune system attacking and defeating the cancer. Indeed, visualization techniques were even utsed by my surgical training program; we were trained to conduct a mental “walk through” of the surgery we were preparing to perform, picturing each step going perfectly--with excellent results. And, as we demonstrated in our previous blog post on the piriformis muscle, an animation can be a powerful tool for integrating knowledge of the body into actual practice.

In this blog post we use visualization, combined with knowledge of function, to access one of my favorite “hidden” muscles—the popliteus. We will see how picturing the function of this muscle leads to engaging it. This engagement in turn provides additional stability for the knee in poses like Lotus, Baddha konasana and Janu sirsasana. First, let's look at the muscle itself.

Here’s the anatomy…

The popliteus muscle originates from the lateral (outside) surface of the lateral condyle of the femur (with a small slip to the lateral meniscus and fibular head) and inserts onto the inside of the back of the tibia, as shown in Figure 1. It acts to flex and internally (medially) rotate the tibia when the leg is not weight bearing and is a synergist of the medial (inside) hamstrings—the semimembranosus and semitenonosus—for these actions. It is here we will focus our attention for this blog post. The popliteus also “unlocks” the knee joint as we begin to flex it from the extended position, so strengthening this muscle can be beneficial for avoiding hyper-extending the knees. Overall, the popliteus is an important rotational stabilizer of the knee joint; engaging it enhances joint congruency. That is why I teach this cue in my workshops on Lotus pose.

Figure 1: The popliteus muscle viewed from behind the knee.

Here’s the cue…

The key to poses like Lotus, Baddhakonasana and Janu sirsasana is to obtain range of motion of the hip joint, while maintaining congruency of the knee (click here for an explanation of joint congruency). So before I practice these poses, I typically warm up with some asanas that release the muscles about the hip joint. Click here for Reverse Pigeon Pose, and here for a tip on protecting the knee in this pose.  Click here for a technique on releasing the internal rotators of the hip and here for a technique to release the hip adductors.

As a general consideration, when working on isolating smaller difficult to access muscles like the popliteus, begin with a couple of short duration visualizations. Don’t try too hard, but simply imagine the action of the popliteus in Baddha konasana as shown in Figure 2 and gently contract the muscle.  Then release and take the counter pose, Dandasana.  Repeat the process, picturing the popliteus muscle near the knee joint engaging to synergize flexing the knee and internally rotating the tibia.  Several short duration repetitions allows the brain to create circuitry to more efficiently access this important knee stabilizer. Do this process over several days, after which you will be able to engage the muscle at will and with increasing refinement.  Use gentle muscular engagement and “ease into and out of” your poses, paying attention to detail. If you experience pain in your stretch, then carefully release and come out of the pose.

Figure 2: Visualizing the popliteus muscle flexing and and internally rotating the tibia in Baddha konasana.

Muscles have evolved so that when they engage they not only move the joint but also stabilize it, maximizing joint congruency. Our books are designed to enhance the visual experience of this process for the reader. We use carefully designed vivid images that stimulate the visual cortex of the brain, in essence “lighting up” the muscles that are engaging in each part of the body during each pose.  In fact, many practitioners say that they can actually “feel” the muscles when looking through the Key Muscles and Key Poses of Yoga. The Yoga Mat Companion series deepens this visual experience by illustrating each pose in a step-wise fashion. This visual experience then translates to improvement in your asanas. Click here to page through all of our books.

Thanks for stopping by. Be sure to tune in this week for our next post. Also, many thanks for your support by sharing us on Facebook, Twitter and Google Plus.


Ray and Chris

Wednesday, October 23, 2013

Protecting Your Knee in Pigeon Pose

Working with the muscular stabilizers surrounding the individual joints is a central tenet of both injury prevention and rehabilitation. In this blog post we illustrate how to work with myofascial connections to protect your knee in Pigeon and Reclining Pigeon pose

Let’s begin with an experience I had at one of my recent workshops in helping a student recover from a yoga injury. One of the participants mentioned to me that he had sprained his knee a couple of weeks before while overdoing it in Pigeon pose. I examined him and concluded he had a mild sprain. First, I told him to lose the neoprene sleeve he was wearing (which was doing nothing). Then we began working with the muscular stabilizers of the knee, in particular using a progressive series of postures that culminated in Lotus pose—all while paying close attention to engaging the muscles that provide dynamic stability to the knee joint. By the end of the workshop, his knee was completely pain free and felt normal. At which point he made an insightful comment: “injured my knee doing yoga wrong, healed it doing yoga right.” Put another way, “poses don’t injure people; doing poses incorrectly injures people—and doing them correctly heals.” With this in mind, let’s look at how to engage the muscular stabilizers and myofascial connections on the outside of the leg in Pigeon pose.

Here’s the cue…

Maintain the ankle in a neutral or slightly dorsiflexed position, extend the toes and then press the ball of the foot forward (as shown). This engages the peroneus longus and brevis and tibialis anterior muscles of the lower leg, and activates a myofascial connection between these muscles and the TFL and biceps femoris muscles of the thigh. Slightly externally rotating the ankle activates the hamstrings on the lateral (outside) of the thigh. These actions create a type of dynamic “brace” on the outside of the leg, protecting the inside of the knee. Similarly, the outside of the knee is protected from overstretching. You can experience this opening on the inside of the knee even while you are reading this by crossing one leg over the other and activating these cues. 

Protecting the knee in Reverse Pigeon: Figure 1 (left) illustrates everting the ankle to access the muscles on the outside of the leg. Figure 2 (right) illustrates the opening on the inside of the knee.

Figures 1 and 2 illustrate this cue for Reverse Pigeon and figures 3 and 4 for Pigeon Pose. Click here for an animated video of the piriformis muscle in Reverse Pigeon pose and click here for an animated video that illustrates joint reaction forces and the beneficial effect of releasing the internal rotators for Lotus pose.

Protecting the knee in Pigeon Pose: Figure 3 (left) illustrates engaging the muscles on the outside of the knee. Figure 4   (right) shows the piriformis muscle stretching in Pigeon Pose.

Thanks for checking in. We greatly appreciate when you share us on Facebook, Twitter and Google Plus. For many more tips on combining Western science and yoga, check out The Key Muscles and Key Poses of Yoga and the Yoga Mat Companion series (you can page through each book on the right of this page). Be sure to tune in next week for a special edition of The Daily Bandha that you will not want to miss!


Ray and Chris

Tuesday, October 15, 2013

The Piriformis Muscle and Yoga: Part I

If a picture's worth a thousand words, then what is an animated video worth? In this blog post we look beneath the skin to see what happens with the piriformis muscle in Reverse Pigeon Pose and provide an overview of the muscle, its attachments and action, and its role in stabilizing the sacroiliac joint. We also examine the use of joint rhythm to optimize the stretch. 

The piriformis muscle originates on the anterior (front) surface of the sacrum and inserts onto the greater trochanter of the femur (thigh bone). Figures 1 (a) and 1 (b) are front and back views of the piriformis muscle. Figure 1 (c) illustrates the stout ligamentous stabilizers of the sacroiliac joint. 

Figures 1 (a) is a front view of the piriformis, (b) is a back view and (c) illustrates the ligaments that stabilize the sacroiliac joint. (click on image to enlarge)

Note that the piriformis is a muscular stabilizer of the sacroiliac joint. Imbalances between the piriformis muscles can contribute to subtle asymmetries within the pelvis, which can then be transmitted to the vertebral column. This underscores the importance of achieving a balanced stretch between the two sides when working with this muscle in yoga. Learn more about the stabilizers of the sacroiliac joint and lumbar spine in our post on the thoracolumbar fascia. We discuss the details of the static and dynamic stabilizers of the joints in The Key Muscles and Key Poses of Yoga.

Here's the biomechanics...

To understand why Reverse Pigeon Pose works to stretch the piriformis we need to know that the actions of this particular muscle vary according to the position of the hip joint. For example, 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. In Reverse Pigeon Pose, the hip is flexed and externally rotated, thus stretching the muscle (which extends and internally rotates the hip in this position). This video illustrates the stretch (click on image to open in a separate window).

When viewing the video, note how flattening the back moves the origin of the piriformis on the sacrum further away from its insertion on the femur, thus accentuating and refining the stretch. This is an example of lumbar-pelvic and femoral-pelvic rhythm. The last section of the video, where we have digitally hidden one half of the pelvis to expose the movement of the sacrum, illustrates this concept. Learn more about joint rhythm in our post “Preventative Strategies for Lower Back Strains in Yoga.”

Figure 2: variations for stretching the piriformis muscle.

Figure 2 illustrates some variations for this stretch. Figure 2 (a) is the classic stretch that is typically utilized in yoga. Figure 2 (b) is a modification for persons that cannot practice the full stretch. This variation is also useful to experience the effect of flattening the lumbar in the pose. Figure 2 (c) stretches the piriformis of the lower side leg by adducting and internally rotating the femur. Figure 2 (d) adducts (draws toward the midline) the upper side leg, thus opposing the action of the piriformis for abducting the femur. Figure 2 (e) illustrates a variation commonly employed in physical therapy as part of the regimen for Piriformis Syndrome, a condition that can cause sciatica (we cover this condition in an upcoming post). In this variation, the upper leg crosses all the way over, thus adducting the femur and stretching the muscle. This is a good alternative for those who experience knee issues in the classic stretch. Our next post illustrates a technique for protecting the knee in Reverse Pigeon Pose (and similar asanas).

I typically do several 20-30 second stretches on each side, easing into and out of the pose. We explain the rationale for this length of time in a pose in the blog post on Hanumanasana (front splits). If you experience pain in this (or any) stretch, carefully come out of the pose. Folks with sciatic type pain should consult a health care practitioner who is appropriately trained and qualified to diagnose and manage such conditions. Follow their guidance, working with yoga as an adjunct in prevention and treatment (where appropriate). Click here to learn about Piriformis Syndrome and how yoga can help.

Now you're ready to take the Bandha Yoga QuickQuiz for the piriformis muscle! Click here to start.

Thanks for stopping by. Stay tuned for our next post on protecting the knee in poses like Reverse Pigeon. We also greatly appreciate when you share our posts on Facebook, Twitter and Google Plus.


Ray and Chris

Thursday, October 3, 2013

Improving Stability in One Legged Standing Poses

Practicing yoga benefits our activities of daily living. We breathe easier, sit more comfortably and feel stable and strong when standing and walking. For this post, we’ll focus on the muscles that are active during the “mid-stance” phase of walking—which is essentially a one legged standing pose. Then we’ll develop some cues for engaging these muscles to improve stability in poses such as Tree pose and Hasta padangustasana. Improved stability in these asanas in turn enhances the beneficial effects of the practice.

Figure 1: Illustrating the phases of gait with the mid-stance phase highlighted.

The walk cycle is traditionally divided into several phases, as illustrated in figure 1. Researchers have used surface EMG’s to detect which muscles are most active during each of the various phases of walking. For example, during the mid-stance phase, the hip muscles that show a higher level of contraction include the gluteus minimus and tensor fascia lata (figure 2). The gluteus minimus helps stabilize the head of the femur (ball) in the acetabulum (socket). The tensor fascia lata acts to stabilize the pelvis and knee. These muscles engage automatically when we stand on one leg (unless there is an underlying pathological condition). We can improve their function in one legged standing poses by consciously engaging them in a variety of other asanas, including Downward dog, Uttanasana, and Upavista konasana.

Figure 2: The gluteus minimus stabilizing the head of the femur in the acetabulum and the tensor fascia lata (and gluteus medius) stabilizing the pelvis. Note that the TFL also stabilizes the knee.

Another muscle that is active during the mid-stance phase of gait is the rectus abdominis, which runs from the pubis to the front of the ribcage and xiphoid process of the sternum. This muscle aids to stabilize the lumbar spine and pelvis during this part of the walk cycle (figure 3). Consciously engaging the rectus abdominis during one legged standing poses thus helps to maintain balance. The transversus abdominis also contributes to stability through its myofascial connection to the thoraco-lumbar fascia.

Figure 3: Illustrating activation of the rectus abdominis in Tree pose.

Here’s the cue…

Begin by working with a support, such as a chair or the wall so that you can focus on integrating the muscular engagement without having to also focus on balancing (figure 4). Take Tree pose (Vrksasana) and, on your exhalation, gradually tense the abdomen; a visual cue is to draw the navel inward. Activating the abdominal muscles increases intra-abdominal pressure and tightens the thoraco-lumbar fascia, thus lifting the torso and stabilizing the lumbar spine. Working with the abdominals also amplifies the mind body connection to this region, creating a "functional focal point". 

Figure 4: Engaging the abdominals in supported Tree pose.

Cues for stabilizing the core are best worked with over a period of several practice sessions (using a support for balance). The targeted muscular engagement becomes increasingly refined and efficient with each successive session and is easier to use with the final pose.

Figure 5: Engaging the abdominals in Navasana.

Other poses that improve core strength, especially that of the abdominal muscles, include Navasana (figure 5) and Chaturanga dandasana (figure 6). Click here for a tip on co-activating the gluts and abs in this pose. For many more techniques and practical cues on integrating Western science into your practice, check out the Mat Companion Series and The Key Muscles and Key Poses of Yoga (use the “look inside” feature to page through the entire books).

Figure 6: Co-activating the gluts and rectus abdominis in Chaturanga dandasana.

If you would like to learn more about combining modern Western science with the ancient art of yoga, please join us for a week in paradise at Blue Spirit Costa Rica for our second annual intensive on anatomy, biomechanics and therapeutics for Hatha yoga. I will be teaching state of the art techniques on these subjects, including much new material relating to therapeutic applications of yoga--all with great 3-D illustrations, excellent food, beautiful facilities and expertly taught daily Hatha yoga classes. We encourage you to register soon, as this workshop is nearly full. 

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


1) Crommert ME, Ekblom MM, Thorstensson A. “Activation of transversus abdominis varies with postural demand in standing.” Gait Posture. 2011 Mar;33(3):473-7.

2) Winter DA: The biomechanics and motor control of human gait: normal, elderly and pathological, ed 2, Waterloo, Canada, 1991, University of Waterloo Press.