“. . . 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 Use the Adductor Muscles to Refine Downward Dog

In our blog post, "Strong Thigh Muscles Benefit People with Knee Osteoarthritis,” we gave a tip for activating the tensor fascia lata in Downward Facing Dog. This synergizes the quadriceps for extending the knees, aids in flexing and internally rotating the hips, and helps to align the kneecaps to face forward. You can further refine alignment in this pose by using the adductors longus and brevis and their synergist, the pectineus. Co-activating these muscles and the TFL balances external and internal rotation of the femurs while at the same time synergizing hip flexion.

synergists of flexion in downward doge pose
Co-activation in Downward Facing Dog pose.
First the Anatomy . . .

The adductors longus and brevis originate from the superior and inferior pubic rami, respectively. The longus inserts onto the middle third of the linea aspera, a ridge of bone on the inside of the femur. The brevis inserts onto the upper third of this ridge. Both muscles act to adduct (draw the thighs together), flex, and externally rotate the hip joint. They also stabilize the pelvis.

Satya, Biomechanics, and Yoga

“One who shows a high degree of right communication will not fail in his actions.” 
(T.K.V. Desikachar’s translation of Yoga Sutra II.36)

Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras have much practical wisdom that can be directly applied to life. In fact, evolution of a civilization (or its destruction) can usually be traced to satya (truthfulness) or asatya (untruthfulness). A similar dynamic exists for an individual’s personal evolution.

Satya and asatya also have practical benefits and consequences for sustainable design of the practice and teaching of yoga, because truth and theory go hand in hand. Base your teaching on sound theory (satya) and the benefits will automatically manifest in your practice. By the same token, if your theory is based on falsehoods (asatya), the benefits won’t manifest. You can see examples of both satya and asatya in our posts on “The Importance of Theory” and “Strong Thigh Muscles Benefit People with Knee Osteoarthritis.”

Satya is also said to be "that which has no distortion." Relating to yoga instruction, this means clarity of expression. Precise cues elicit a predictable response. Vague or distorted cues elicit confusion. And no matter what your personal style of communication, you can always benefit from knowing the biomechanical basis for what you’re teaching.

Balancing the Forearms, Wrists, and Hands in Dog Pose

A starting point for combining Western science with yoga lies in the term Ha/Tha. This Sanskrit word means Sun/Moon or Yin/Yang and implies a balancing of energies or forces. Balance creates stillness. Apply this concept in your yoga practice by examining the various forces operating around a given joint in a pose, for example, the feet and ankles in Downward Facing Dog. You can also use it to correct hyperextending knees and elbows.

So, look at the elements that contribute energy or force throughout the body—including gravity and muscular effort—and the transmission of those forces from the muscle-tendon unit to the bones. Focus on those you can consciously affect—contracting and lengthening skeletal muscles, for example. In general, once you have the form of a pose, you want to minimize the muscular effort required to be in the asana and maximize the use of the inherent strength of the bones by aligning them. For an example of this, look at  how to use the big toes to align the bones of the legs in Uttanasana.

What about poses where a particular movement predominates, for example, in Urdhva Dhanurasana where the hip joints are more extended than flexed? Consider a recipe for food. You wouldn’t necessarily use equal portions of salt and pepper to create the final taste. In Urdhva Dhanurasana, contraction of the hip extensors predominates while the hip flexors lengthen. Balance in a pose such as this is the right amount of engagement combined with the right amount of release. All of this produces a motor and sensory imprint on the brain and establishes the mind—body “connection” of yoga.

Now, let’s look at how to use this principle for the forearms, wrists, and hands.

A Tip for Helping to Correct Alignment in Hyperextended Elbows and Knees in Yoga

Aligning the bones accesses their inherent strength so that yoga poses ultimately require less muscular effort to maintain. For example, in our last post we gave a tip on using the big toes to correct the tendency for the pelvis to drift back in standing forward bends and one-legged standing poses like Warrior III. This correction brings the leg bones upright and perpendicular to the floor, which better supports the body weight. Aligning the bones in this manner also has the benefit of increasing joint congruency and spreads the joint reaction forces more evenly across the articular cartilage. Conversely, engaging the muscles that align the bones has been demonstrated to have a protective effect on the joint cartilage.

hyperextension in downward dog pose
Dog Pose showing the direction of force through hyperextended elbows vs aligned elbows.
Hyperextending the knees or elbows in yoga poses can be disadvantageous because it misdirects the forces that create the form of the asana. For example, if the elbows are hyperextending in Dog Pose, then the force of the hands pushing into the mat is angled inward. Ideally this force should be directed through the long axes of the forearm bones, humerus, and shoulders and then through to the trunk and pelvis. Aligning the bones of the arms helps to create the proper form of Downward Facing Dog. Pressing the body back in this manner then synergizes the stretch of the muscles at the backs of the legs. 

A Benefit of Using the Big Toes in Yoga

Have you ever noticed how the pelvis seems to drift backwards in standing forward bends, especially Uttanasana? Sometimes you get an assist from a teacher who pushes the pelvis forward from the sacrum to align the hips and leg bones back over the ankles. Oftentimes, however, when they remove this assist, your pelvis drifts back again . . .

using the big toes in uttanasana
Pressing the big toes into the mat
in Uttanasana.
If you’ve had this experience, here’s a cue you can use (for yourself and your students) to align the pelvis and the bones of the lower extremities perpendicular to the floor. As always, warm up with Surya Namaskaras. Then take Uttanasana. Engage the quadriceps to straighten the knees. This aids to release the hamstrings through reciprocal inhibition and helps to align the bones that form the knee joint. Now press the fleshy part of the big toes firmly into the mat. Feel how this brings the pelvis forward and the legs upright—the desired position of the pose.

Strong Thigh Muscles Benefit People with Knee Osteoarthritis (and a Tip for Engaging the TFL)

A series of recent articles from opinion leaders in the academic medical community have demonstrated the benefits of quad strength for persons with arthritis of the knee joint. One of these studies, which used MRI to directly assess knee cartilage, is particularly important because it sheds new light on an older study—that did not use MRI—that suggested stronger quads were associated with a slightly greater risk of arthritis progression in persons with malaligned knees. Here’s a quote from the Mayo Clinic article, which was published in the December 2008 issue of Arthritis & Rheumatism:

“In summary, in men and women with symptomatic knee OA [osteoarthritis], we found no association between quadriceps strength and cartilage loss at the tibiofemoral joint, including in malaligned knees. However, greater quadriceps strength, which may prevent lateral offset and tilt of the patella, protected against cartilage loss at the lateral compartment of the patellofemoral joint, a frequent site of symptom generation in knee OA. Subjects with greater quadriceps strength were also more likely to have less knee pain and better physical function. Our results suggest that strong quadriceps muscles have an overall beneficial effect on knee OA.”1 For Science Daily’s composite of this article, click here.
Also, see Mayo Clinic researcher Dr. Amin’s comments at The American College of Rheumatology Annual Meeting on Nov. 15, 2006:

“A stronger quadriceps muscle helps keep the patella from moving laterally and tracking abnormally with movement... Our study results emphasize that it’s important to encourage people with knee osteoarthritis to maintain strong quadriceps muscles as recommended by their physician.”