In case you are wondering…my niece has been in town for 3 weeks and we’ve been hanging out and traveling. I will start posting again on feet, asana, biomechanics, and lots of other stuff next week.
In yoga, in exercise, in athletic training, we’ve always been told – and if we are teachers, trainers, or coaches – we’ve always instructed to keep your knees from going beyond your toes in lunge-type positions. It’s conventional wisdom. A knee that shoots out over your toes is no longer supported vertically by the bones of your lower leg and in this compromised position, it is being asked to hold the weight of your pelvis, torso, and head. Your knee joint is not designed for this type of load. Yet. Yet, what do we do in Utkatasana aka chair pose? We send both knees out over the toes and amass the weight of our pelvis, trunk, and head onto not one but two unsupported knees. Two bad knees are better than one, I suppose.
With Smart Alignment in Utkatasana, your knees don’t shift forward when they bend, but instead, your lower legs remain near vertical and your untucked butt moves back. Thus, the weight of your hips, torso, and head is held not by your knees but by your hamstrings and gluteus maximus – the big guns.
The functional benefit of engaging your hams and gluts is the role that they play in pelvic floor health. Who cares? You should. Symptoms of a weak pelvic floor can present at any age and include urinary incontinence, fecal incontinence, and organs prolapsing out of your vagina or anus. Known as pelvic floor disorders, they effect both men and women, regardless of reproductive status.
Healthy gluteal muscles are what provide optimal length to your pelvic floor muscles, which run between your sacrum (lowest section of your spine) and your pubis aka “pubic bone.” Your pelvic floor muscles, when they are at optimal force generating length, are long, taut, yet supple; and are in the perfect condition to help hold up your pelvic organs and allow you to open and close your bathrooming muscles. Your gluteal muscles keep your pelvic floor muscles at this optimal length by keeping your sacrum from counternutating, or moving your tailbone anteriorly toward your pubis. Unless, that is, you are not using them. If your tailbone moves forward – think butt tuck – it creates slack in the pelvic floor muscles, which signals them to contract to create tension to hold everything up and in. Your pelvic floor is not meant for long term force generation aka constant contracting. When it is constantly contracting, it does not become stronger, it becomes weaker. A contracted pelvic floor pulls your sacrum even more forward – a negative loop you want to avoid. Utkatasana aligned with the knees shooting over the toes is suboptimal alignment for using your butt muscles, thus suboptimal for your pelvic floor.
If you are regularly practicing Utkatasana, begin to use your posterior leg muscles as I’ve described. This will result in you essentially squatting each time, which is about the best thing you can do to ensure the long term health of your pelvic floor, because it is the best thing you can do build your butt. I can’t say it any better that Jonathan FitzGordon at CoreWalking Blog, when he wondered about disappearing butts “The butt, gluteus maximus needs to be big and strong. It should fill in your pants. That is the simplest way to describe it. The space between the belt and the hamstring in your pants should be full to exploding with a supple gluteus maximus.”
This is classic Utkatasana with the phantom yogini’s knees shooting forward. I tried to pose for this picture, but was not willing to sacrifice my knees for the cause. I won’t mention the rib thrust that is happening here. Nope, I won’t.
This is a smarter alignment for Utkatasana. Knee saving, butt firing, pelvic floor lengthening happiness. Note my neutral spine – it did not change shape from Tadasana, but retained its natural curvature. Note my lower legs – shins & calves are darn near vertical.
Sometimes, I see this presentation – knees forward, hyper lordodic spine, and rib thrust. If this were my student (actually she is) I would place my hands on her hips and guide her back until her shins are vertical. I would place my hands on her lower ribs and help her to rotate then down and in. That would likely resolve the lordodic lumber spine.
More often, however, i see this presentation – knees forward, butt tucked, flat lower back. Yoga teachers, this is what often happens when you cue to “drop your tailbone down.” This is a pelvic floor killa.
In this presentation, my external hip rotators are not firing, thus my knees knock together resulting in improper tracking which causes heat, friction, and eventual pain and degeneration of my knee joints. Ouch. This is fixed by externally rotating my hips so that my knees track forward in the same channels as my anterior superior iliac spines (ASIS) aka pelvic bones.
By bringing my feet together, it might appear that I have fixed my knees, but its a lie. If I introduced a proper external rotation in my hips, I would likely have a small space between my knees. As soon as my knees touch, the tendency to press into each other for support is there and that will take my knees into poor tracking, albeit less severe than the previous image.
Here I present knees that are safely tracking in the same channels as my pelvic bones due to the engagement of my external hip rotating muscles.
We spend most of our waking time wearing shoes and when we walk, it is on flat, artificial surfaces. Thus, the intrinsic muscles of our feet are weak and feel tight and have limited ranges of motion and almost no dexterity. We are a nation racked by painful feet, fallen arches, and dependency on orthotics and orthotic-like features designed right into our shoes that keep us further than ever from healthy, strong feet with great circulation and dexterity.
I write and study at a standing work station – sometimes for hours. I am constantly cycling through various exercises and props to strengthen, stretch, and mobilize my feet, ankles, and lower legs. To stimulate and innervate the bottoms of my feet, I often drape my weighted foot over a tennis, lacrosse, or racquet ball, as i wrote about last month. But I’ve been dreaming about making a DIY cobblestone mat to help prepare my feet for what should be a full Spring, Summer, and Fall of daily barefoot walks on natural terrain. So, finally, I got busy. While neither is quite finished and I have several others planned, check out the newest editions to my foot prop collection.
Smooth landscaping stones, a few pine cones, and a couple of wooden darning eggs are spread out in a boot tray. I still need to fill in a few spaces. The large size of the tray allows a vast array of foot positions, which means my feet (and therefore my entire body) experiences a vast number of loads to the tissues.
While not natural, I appreciate the loads provided by these wooden beads. They feel a a bit sharper than stones, more like gravel. The bright colors are cheerful and make me happy whenever I look down at my feet. These beads are temporarily renting space on a cookie sheet, but will soon be moving into a more permanent home on another boot tray.
If your feet are painful, feel tight, and are not very mobile, please spend several weeks doing the many exercises I write about on this blog. Continuing with the exercises, spend several more weeks walking barefoot inside on carpet, linoleum, wood, in that order. Start with less time and increase your barefoot time as your feet get used to the new loads. Continuing with the exercises and barefootedness, spend several more weeks draping and rolling your foot over a tennis ball. You could injure your feet if you go from zero to stones & beads too fast. Seriously. You’ve gone this long, what’s your hurry?
This post is in the context of a common yoga posture that to non-yogis looks just like standing; thus the instructions given are applicable whether you are standing around in yoga or in the world.
Yoga’s Tadasana aka Mountain Pose is taught with a variety of cues. Yoga lineage, aesthetics, cultural postural influences, and the desire to capture a certain energetic expression are often woven together in what can be a confusing tapestry of instructions that differ from teacher to teacher, class to class. One teacher may tell you to contract your gluteal muscles, while the next says to relax your butt. Oftentimes yoga teachers don’t question why they give a particular cue or what it is good for. Often we give a cue because we learned it from another teacher or from a book, article, or website. Maybe it made sense at the time, but in the interim, we’ve forgotten why. It could be that certain cues are part of a yoga lineage that we follow closely or let loosely inform our teaching. But I propose that most of the time, most yoga teachers have not given much thought to or challenged the wisdom of most of the cues they give. Bring it.
The cues you are about to read for Tadasana (or standing for non-yogis) are not from a yoga lineage or given to make you look or feel a certain way. They are based on my understanding of the optimal orientation of bony markers relative to each other and to specific planes of motion that have the greatest chance of putting your muscles at their best length for maximum force generation; and so that you optimize the flow of oxygen via blood to feed your cells, energy via nervous system to move your muscles, and cellular waste removal via your lymph system. In other words, they are alignment based.
When I cue yoga poses, I avoid giving specific measurements like stand with your feet 6 inches or two fist widths apart or four feet apart. A 6’4 person and a 5’2 person each having his feet 4′ apart is going to experience very different ranges of motion and loads relative to his height & leg length. When I can, I use distances that are relative to other body parts. For wide stances, when this is not possible or is arbitrary, I simply instruct to “take a wide stance” and then let the pose dictate the actual distance needed. An arbitrary cue for Virabhadrasana 2 aka Warrior 2 is to “step your feet wide so that they line up beneath your hands when your arms are outstretched.” If you offer this cue, I am curious why.
The following cues, from the feet up, list the body areaa, common cues, and an alignment-based cue that I’ll call “Smart Alignment,” because it is biomechanically informed. I try to provide a thorough but concise rationale for my instructions. Using these cues to position yourself in Tadasana and whenever you are standing is practice for aligning your body during movement for optimal flow.
How far apart should my feet be from each other?
Common cues: feet together, feet hips width apart, feet 6 inches fists apart; feet 2 fists apart
Smart Alignment: A smarter cue would be to place your feet pelvis width apart. This means to space your feet the same width as your pelvic bones. Your pelvic bones are sometimes called your hip pointers or even your hip bones, but those are misnomers as your hip is a joint made of your pelvis and femur and is located on the lateral side of your pelvis. Your pelvic bones are the “sharp” bones on the front of your pelvis that would poke into the floor if you were to lie on your belly. The bony markers for the feet are the centers of the front of the ankles.
Rational: When your feet are pelvis width apart, you are in the best position to build bone strength in your ankles because the force of gravity tracks vertically down your femurs. If your feet are closer together or further apart, you lose the vertical requirement of gravity to optimize bone density.
How should I point my feet?
Common cues: I rarely hear cues for how to point your feet in Tadasana, but know that some teachers instruct students to point their second toes straight ahead
Smart Alignment: A better cue would be straighten the outer edges of your feet. You can gauge this by stepping to the side edge of your mat and lining up the lateral edge of your foot along the edge of your mat. The edge of the yoga mat should align with your malleolus (lateral ankle bone) and bisect the center of the baby toe joint at its base (metatarsophalangeal joint). Place your other foot pelvic width apart and try to align it similarly, but without the advantage of having that straight line. A true geek would whip out a level…just sayin.
Rational: I go over this in detail in an earlier post on building a bunion.
How do I distribute my weight?
Smart Alignment: Shift all of your weight back into your heels
Common Cues & Rationale: I wrote extensively (for a blog, anyway) about common yoga cues and the rational for getting your weight back.
Do I squeeze or relax my quadriceps?
Common cues: Squeeze your quads; lift your kneecaps
Smart Alignment: Release or lower your knee caps aka stop gripping your quadriceps
Rational: If your quadriceps are gripping, squeezing, or contracting, your kneecaps will be lifted. Contracted quads not only draw the patella aka kneecap up, they also pull it back into the joint capsule causing increased heat and friction, which leads to joint degeneration. In yoga, there are occasionally times that you might benefit from the stabilizing effect of engaged quads – when you are learning to balance in one legged postures or balancey two legged postures like parivrtta trikonasana; or if you want to increase the stretch of your hamstrings in parsvattonasana, trikonasona, or prasarita padattonasana via reciprocal inhibition, a technique used to signal the stretching muscle to relax by contracting its antagonist muscle on the opposite side of the joint. But you should be able to fire the quads on or off (mostly off) at will. If you are not aware of what your quads are doing, then you may be damaging your knee joints. Most people are unknowingly gripping their quads.
**Please see FootLove Yoga Facebook page for video of lifting & lowering your kneecaps, then give it a try. If you are unable to lift your kneecaps, then they are already lifted, meaning you are already squeezing your quads. To help coax them down, get all of your weight back into your heels, bend slightly at the hips and try again.
What is a “neutral” pelvis? Should I squeeze my butt?
Common cues: Squeeze your butt; drop your tailbone; tilt your pelvis forward and back a few times and stop in the middle
Smart Alignment: Line up your pelvic bones and your pubic bone in the coronal or frontal plane. If you were to press your front side against a wall, these three bones of your pelvis would touch the wall; said another way, if you lie down on your back, your pelvic bones and pubic bone will be at the same height.
Rationale: This alignment maintains the structural integrity of the natural lordodic curve of your lumbar spine, optimizes hamstring length for maximum force generation, and provides an appropriate amount of tensioning in your pelvic floor muscles. When you retrovert or posteriorly tilt your pelvis, as often happens as a result of the well-intentioned cue to “drop your tailbone,” you compromise the natural curve of your lower spine, grip your quads, change the length of your hamstrings, and increase the likelihood of pelvic floor disorders.
What about my abs?
Common cues: draw your bellybutton towards your spine; engage your abs; engage your transverse abdonimus, suck your belly in
Smart Alignment: Lower or drop your ribs down and back/in so that the most prominent bones of your lower rib cage align in the frontal plane with your pelvic and public bones. Stop Thrusting Your Ribs!
Rationale: When you do this, you will feel and probably look a bit shlumpy. It’s ok. I will post soon on what that means and what you can do about it. A rib thrust is when you lift and push forward your rib cage. Imagine the way an Olympic gymnast lifts her chest and thrusts her ribs forward before she starts a routine. To do this, she simultaneously lifts her sternum aka “opens her heart” in yogaspeak (warning, a post is forthcoming on this misinterpreted and potentially harmful instruction) and pushes her rib cage forward, the combined actions of which rotate the top of the rib cage back, causing a shearing motion of the lowest vertebra of the thoracic spine to translate or shear forward on top of the uppermost lumbar vertebra. Unfortunately, the vertebrae are not designed for a shearing motion. A rib thrust puts your rib cage out in front of your pelvis, causing a non-optimal change in the lengths of the abdominal musculature and attendant change in interabdominal pressure, increased vertebral disc compression, and pelvic floor tensioning. It’s a cascade of ugly but is the predominant posturing of ribs in yoga. You Must Stop Thrusting Your Ribs.
The Good News: Ending rib thrusting is very challenging both physically (you’ve been holding this muscle pattern for years) and emotionally, because the result does not look like what you’ve always considered “good posture.” But here’s the silver lining. When your pelvis and ribs are aligned with their bony markers in the frontal plane, it puts your abdominal musculature at optimal force generating lengths which means they are constantly turned on and toned. If you align yourself in this way, you can say goodbye to crunches and other ab work that only seemed necessary because for most of your life you have not been firing your abs naturally by aligning your pelvis & ribs. True story.
Palms forward or not?
Common cues: turn your palms out
Smart Alignment: Externally rotate your shoulders
Rationale: I like to use Tadasana as an opportunity to externally rotate my shoulders, which gives the appearance of turning my palms out, but happens at the shoulders and instead of the wrists. Until you experience in your body what it means to externally rotate your shoulders, a good rule of thumb is when your shoulders are externally rotated your elbows point internally and when you internally rotate your shoulders, your elbows will point externally. Try it. In external rotation, the elbow pits and palms of your hands will face somewhat forward. If the backs of your hands are facing forward, you are likely internally rotated in your shoulders. Life most often puts our shoulders in internal rotation – computer use, driving, doing most things out if front of us – and leads to chronic muscle patterning in the shoulders. Externally rotating your shoulders brings back a lost range of motion.
How did this string get on my head?
Common cues: pretend you have a string attached to the crown of your head and its pulling you up (or some variation on the them); align your ears over your shoulders; lift your chin;
Smart Alignment: Ramp your head up/back.
Rationale: The easiest way to describe this is to visualize its evil twin Computerhead, which is a head that is constantly thrust forward, often coupled with a lifted chin. This causes chronic contractile tension in the back of your neck. The fix is simple. Without lifting your chin, slide your face back like you are making a double chin until your ears stack over your shoulders. Ironically, when you ramp your head up/back, you actually turn on the muscles in the front of your neck/throat, which until now have been locked long in extension and are thus weak and without tone. By making a (temporary) double chin now you could save yourself from a permanent one later. Once you get your head back, you may find that you have a habit of lifting your chin. If so, just let your chin drop a bit to bring the muscles on the back of your neck to optimal length. Dropping your chin will bring your natural eye gaze level with the horizon. A lifted chin, lifts your eyes, causing overuse of the eyeball lowering muscles.
Alignment, like yoga, is a practice, but one that can be done everyday, all day, anywhere.