“. . . 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

How to Balance Opposites in the Foot and Ankle

I think that one of the keys to a unified theory lies in the name Hatha—sun/moon and balancing opposites. Here’s a tip on balancing them for the foot and ankle.

First, the Anatomy . . .

peroneous longus and brevis in downward dog
Peroneus longus (and brevis in light blue).
The peroneus longus originates from the head and upper two thirds of the fibula. It then runs down the outside of the lower leg and under the foot to insert onto the medial cuneiform and base of the first metatarsal at the inside of the foot arch. It acts to evert the foot, plantar flex the ankle, and support the transverse arch of the foot. The peroneus brevis originates from the lower half of the outside of the fibula and inserts onto the base of the fifth metatarsal (on the outer edge of the foot). It acts to evert the ankle (and assists in plantar flexing the ankle).

The Importance of Theory (and Another Cool Tip for Deeper Breathing)

First, I want to thank Ashtanga instructor Robin Feinberg for her comment in which she states: “…‘when the going gets tough, Ashtangis breathe deeper’; ‘as your control and depth of Ujjayi grows, so grows your practice’; and to quote Sri K. Pattabhi Jois, ‘Ashtanga yoga is 99% practice, 1% theory. Practice and all is coming.’”…

I would like to focus on the theory part of Master Jois’ iconic statement, because it is theory that informs practice. As I mentioned in the last post, for a scientific principle to be valid, it has to be reproducible by other scientists. Now, take a moment and look at our Facebook page. Go to the “people who like this” section and look at the awesome pictures of yoga on display. Some of the most amazing are Ashtanga practitioners—from all over the world. This is clear evidence of sound theory informing a practice. Master Iyengar’s alignment principles have a similar scientific foundation. Aligning the joints maximizes joint congruency. This decreases the incidence of joint reaction forces being concentrated over a small region of cartilage and helps to prevent injuries in yoga. The same goes for his advice on pranayama (see below).

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).

A Cool Tip for Deeper Breathing in Yoga

First, heartfelt thanks for all of your “likes” and comments on our Facebook page. We’ve heard from practitioners all over the world on how these techniques have enhanced their practice and teaching. This is music to our ears. To show my appreciation, I want to offer a tip that can help you dramatically expand the chest. This cue on engaging the accessory muscles of breathing can provide a quantum leap in the global effect of your yoga practice. First, a little background . . .

As many of you know, I studied yoga for an extended period at the Ramamani Iyengar Memorial Yoga Institute in Pune, India. The Iyengars are true world experts in yogic breathing. During my time there, I was exposed to great teachings of pranayama from Yogacharya Iyengar, his daughter Geeta, and son Prashant. These classes were amazing; their effect would last for days.

I continued to practice pranayama when I returned from India and gradually developed an understanding of the art. During this process, I used my medical training to analyze the breathing techniques. I found that I could use Western science to amplify the effects of pranayama.

Now, part of pranayama involves breathing deeply. The body has a group of muscles that it recruits when we need to take deeper breaths, say after running a sprint. Recruiting these muscles expands the chest to a greater extent than when using the diaphragm alone. The result is increased inspiratory volume and improved lung ventilation (on the alveolar level). It occurred to me that intentionally engaging these breathing muscles would augment the volume of my inhalations during pranayama and asana practice. So I developed a series of cues to activate the various accessory muscles and incorporated them into my practice. The effect was immediate and amazing. After my practice was finished and throughout the day, my breathing felt effortless, leaving me energized.
How cool is that?

serratus anterior expanding the lungs
Activating the serratus anterior
to expand the lungs.
So, here’s a cue for activating one of my fave accessory muscles—the serratus anterior (SA) and his buddies, the rhomboids. Pause for a second. Rest your hands on your thighs. Now, exhale naturally and then gently draw the shoulders back to bring the scapulae (shoulder blades) towards the spine. As you inhale, imagine pressing the sides of your shoulders and upper arms against an imaginary wall, like a doorframe. Feel how this expands your chest. Repeat this cue two more times before reading on . . .

Combining Science and Yoga—Some Personal Reflections (and a FREE E-Book!)

In this blog post, I go over some of my own experiences with combining Western science and yoga, but first we wanted to let you know that we’ve consolidated our blog posts to date into a free e-book. You can view this book here or by “liking” us on Facebook. Feel free to spread this useful information around the yoga community by sending the e-book link to your friends, students, and colleagues.

Also, click here to read Eryn Kirkwood’s account of using the Mat Companion series in her personal practice, and visit German instructor Ursula Wenzel’s blog detailing her experience with our work (and see her excellent asana practice).

On to the Post . . .

Folks sometimes ask what prompted me to analyze the asanas from a biomechanical perspective. Well, I’m of an inquisitive mind, and I like to know the scientific basis for why I do something. When I began practicing yoga back in the day, it was not as accessible as it is now. I would travel far and wide to take classes wherever I could.  During this process, I noticed that the instructions for a given asana seemed to vary among different teachers and were at times contradictory. Sometimes both instructors were “correct” but for different reasons, which was confusing to me as well. Through it all, I met some great teachers and enjoyed the experience of yoga expanding throughout the world.

How to Draw the Knees to the Floor in Baddha Konasana

In Yoga Mat Companion Book 2 (Anatomy for Hip Openers and Forward Bends), I mention an old Chinese proverb that says, “If you are unable to attain a goal, do not abandon the goal. Rather, change your strategy to reach it.” A specific example of this would be working to bring the knees closer to the floor in Baddha Konasana (Bound Angle Pose). Say you have tried pressing on the knees, putting weights on them, etc., and you can’t get the results you want. Perhaps it’s time for a change of strategy . . .

I teach the following technique in my workshops, both to illustrate how spinal cord reflex arcs function and to help practitioners bring their knees closer to the floor.

Analyze Your Pose

We’ll use the Bandha Yoga Codex to analyze the asana. This is a simple process that you can apply to any pose to improve flexibility, strength, and precision—no matter what style of yoga you practice. Let’s focus on the lower extremities in Bound Angle Pose. Begin by looking at the general form of the pose. The hips flex, abduct, and externally rotate and the knees flex. Next, look at the muscles that engage to produce this position. The hip abductors (and their synergist, the sartorius) draw the knees apart and towards the floor. The external rotators turn the thighs out, and the hamstrings flex the knees. I usually start my work on a pose by gently engaging these muscles—I call them the synergists of the asana. This stimulates the brain centers associated with the muscles and joints and creates an imprint on the homunculus. It essentially says to the brain, “Baddha Konasana.” This is an example of the mind—body connection in yoga. Next, determine which muscles are stretching. These will be the antagonists of the muscles that produce the form of the asana. Click here to better understand agonist/antagonist relationships. The muscles that stretch in a pose are the same ones that can limit openings. In the case of Baddha Konasana, tight adductors of the hips (muscles that act to draw the knees together) can restrict lowering the knees towards the floor.

Once you have identified the muscle group that is stretching, apply your knowledge of physiology to create length in those muscles. Below is the technique for using PNF to stretch the adductors in Baddha Konasana. This works nicely to bring the knees closer to the floor (some students say it’s like magic).

Proprioceptive Neuromuscular Facilitation in Baddhakonasana
Engage the biceps to constrain the thighs.
Engage the adductors for PNF.

How to Release the Hip Internal Rotators for Padmasana (Lotus Pose)

In The Key Muscles of Yoga, I point out that athletes experience improved performance and fewer injuries when they have a fundamental knowledge of their anatomy and biomechanics. For this reason, I recommend that you add The Daily Bandha to your favorites and return every day or so to review one or two of the concepts presented here. This will allow you to integrate these tools into your yoga practice. After just a few sessions, you’ll begin to apply the techniques unconsciously, improving your poses and aiding to prevent injuries.

In our last post, we discussed the concepts of joint congruency and joint reaction forces as related to yoga. These are among the most important principles to understand for both practitioners and teachers, because many poses can take the articulations to the limits of their range of motion. Take a moment to review this post and look at the new video which shows these concepts in action in Padmasana (Lotus Pose).

Now, on to releasing the internal rotators of the hip . . .

The main muscles that internally rotate the femur at the hip are the tensor fascia lata (TFL) and gluteus medius. The gluteus minimus contributes to this action when the hip is flexed. Conversely, when the internal rotators are tight, they can limit external rotation of the joint, a key component in poses like Lotus. Practicing this asana without releasing the TFL and gluteus medius can lead to excessive joint reaction forces in the knee. This is because the rotational component of the pose is directed into the knee. The key is to use the hip (which is a ball and socket joint) to do the rotation, while protecting the knee by maintaining it as a hinge.

tensor fascia lata and gluteus medius in cradle stretch
Tensor fascia lata and gluteus medius stretching.

To release the TFL and gluteus medius, I use a technique called the “cradle stretch.” In it we lift the lower leg, as shown here. This action externally rotates the hip. Do not allow the knee to sag forward away from the body—this is important. Cradle it in the crook of the elbow so that the knee is maintained as a hinge. Place the outer edge of the foot into the crook of the other elbow and engage the peroneus longus and brevis muscles at the outside of the lower leg to evert the foot. Extending the toes also helps. This aids to maintain the congruency of the knee joint and helps to protect it from injury.

Joint Reaction Forces, Padmasana, and the Knees

First, thanks to Julia for the following question: “As a yoga teacher, I often see students in Uttanasana with hyperflexion in the lumbar spine. Aside from helping them work on hamstring flexibility over time, what do you suggest in the moment to help them take the flexion out of the lumbar spine?”

Click here for a simple technique on how to use the science behind the muscle spindle to address this common situation.

Now on to Padmasana (Lotus Pose) . . .
Yoga poses such as Padmasana can take your knees to the limit of their natural mobility. The idea is to do this without injuring yourself. Knowledge of anatomy and biomechanics can help. While it’s true that an injury can teach you a lot, I’ve been through that and those are hard lessons. For the rest of this incarnation, I’m opting for the easier lessons (at least with my yoga). We can learn a lot about how to avoid injuries in yoga from the vast fund of information available from sports science.

hip joint and knee joint
Hip joint and knee joint with meniscus and ligaments.