Foot Love Workshop Exercises – October 2015

You can find variations of some of these exercises in world-renowned Biomechanist Katy Bowman’s books & DVD included in her Healthy Foot Kit.

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Standing Exercises

All standing exercises should be done in Tadasana aka mountain pose with your feet pelvis-width distance apart, pointing forward, which means the outside edges of your feet should form a straight line (you can line up the edge of one of your feet on a yoga mat to check that it is actually straight and match the other accordingly); and your hips back so that they are stacked over your knees, ankles, and heels and not drifting or thrusting forward. Keep your weight back in your heels. I call this Smart Tadasana Alignment.

Toe Spreading

Lift your toes (this is called extension), spread them away from each other, and place them down onto the mat. Repeat several times throughout your day. You can improve your ability to actively spread your toes by passively spreading them using toe socks.

Short Foot Exercise

A full explanation is linked, but the short of it is to draw the base of your big toe towards your heel, without flexing or curling your toes. It’s OK if they grip the floor. This action lifts your arch, thereby shortening the length of your foot, and strengthening the arch-supporting muscles. Hold for 5 seconds and repeat 3 times for each foot. Try to do 5 sets of 3 repetitions per day, holding for 5 seconds each rep. You can perform the short foot exercise any time your standing in yoga postures and as you get stronger, you can do it while balancing. The Short Foot Exercise is comparable to the Strong Yoga Foot.

Balancing

Any single leg balance will strengthen your extrinsic and intrinsic foot musculature. Once you are skilled at balancing on a firm surface, you can explore a variety of unique surfaces – a folded up towel or blanket, a yoga block, a half round, a boot tray of rocks, your yard…Hold for up to one minute and repeat several times throughout your day.

Exploratory feet

Move your feet in exploratory, weird, random, bizarre, strange, silly, varied ways. This can be done sitting in Dandasana (with your legs extended in front of you) or lying down. This is a great way to mobilize your feet before you get out of bed in the morning. Repeat throughout your day.

Top of foot stretch

Extend a leg behind you, pressing the top of your foot into the mat. It is important to keep your pelvis back and stacked vertically over the knee & ankle of your front or support leg as the tendency is for it to drift forward. If balance is a challenge, please use a chair so that you can concentrate on the stretch without worrying about the balance.Hold for up to one minute. Repeat several times throughout your day.

Top of foot stretch

Top of foot stretch

Calf Elevator

Lift the heels of both feet, coming up onto your tippy toes. Try to avoid letting your ankles blow out to the sides. If they do, then only raise your heels as high as you can keep your ankles stable. Hold for several seconds. Once you are skilled at balancing on both feet, start working towards one foot at a time. You can do this either by lifting the heels of both feet, but letting the work happen mainly in one foot; or you could do this balancing on one foot! Whichever variation you choose, make sure your hips are back. Hold for up to one minute. Repeat several times throughout your day.

Calf stretch

A half round (or half moon as one of students sweetly miscalled it) is best for this stretch, but you could roll up a couple of yoga mats or blanket or use a book. Place the ball of your foot on the top of the half round with your heel on the ground. Keep your other foot even to and pelvic-width apart from the stretching calf. You can advance in this pose by slowly stepping the non-stretching foot forward. If your pelvis moves forward with you or you lose balance or get rigid, bring the forward stepping foot back and don’t progress until you can do so in a relaxed and balanced stance with your hips back. Hold for up to one minute. Repeat several times throughout your day.

I purchased a SPRI Half Round Foam Roller, 36 x 6-Inch that I cut down to one 18″ length and three 6″ lengths that I use for various purposes as yoga props.

Calf Stretch/Elevator Combination

Stand with one foot on the half-round and elevate both heels to a slow count of three. Hold for 3 counts. Lower for a slow count of three. The lowering is where you train eccentrically, generating force while you are lengthening your muscle tendon units. This is how you get stronger at greater ranges and with more control. At the place that you want to give up and drop your heel is the opportunity to exercise muscle control.

Hamstring stretch

I’ll be posting later this week on hamstring stretching, but for now, start from tadasana, place your hands on your thighs and hinge forward at your hip joints, allowing your hands to slide down your legs, keeping your spine in neutral. As soon as your spine starts to deform ie round, stop, come up a few inches and work instead on lifting your tailbone, which will move the proximal muscle attachments for your hamstrings that are located on your sitting bones away from the distal attachments that are located on your lower legs, thus stretching these muscles. Hold for up to one minute. Repeat several times throughout your day.

Ball rolling massage

Place a new, firm tennis ball on a yoga mat or carpet. Keep your heel down as you drape only your toes over the ball, weighting it as much as you can tolerate. Very, very slowly, roll the ball under your toes, from side to side, allowing your toes to spread as you go. After a while move your foot forward so that the ball of your foot drapes across the ball. Again, move very slowly side to side. Continue to move your foot forward in small sections using a side to side motion. When you are deep into the arch of your foot, you might explore some front to back motions, or invert/evert your foot to get into the lateral and medial arches. The benefit from this massage comes when you slow down, take your time, move forward in tiny increments, hang out in sore spots, and remember to breathe. This can and should be done daily as a meditation practice.

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Floor Exercises

Plantar Fascia Stretch – kneeling/squatting

In this exercise, you kneel with your knees pelvis-width apart on a mat or padded surface. Extend (curl) your toes forward. If you can, reach around and separate your toes from each other and make sure they are all extending forward. You may be able to lower your hips, shifting more of your weight onto your feet, but do this slowly and with ease as the thick band of fascia and four layers of intrinsic muscles on the soles of your feet may never have experienced this type of stretch. Images and detailed instructions are linked above.

Barbie foot

This is the exercise where you press your balls forward (of your feet, people!), all toes forward, all toes back, foot back. You know the one. In the balls forward, toes back position, your feet look like Barbie’s. You can use your arms to support you in an upright seated position, but I suggest you place your hands in your lap from time to time and hold yourself up using your own trunk musculature. Images and detailed instructions are linked above.

Bridge with marble

I know you all remember this bit of love from the workshop – a yoga bridge pose holding a marble with your toes and extending your leg. Yes, that one.  Remember, cramping is good…a good reminder, that it, that you should be moving your feet more. Again, images and detailed instructions are linked above.

Ankle circles, point/flex, invert, evert

This can be done seated with legs extended or on your back. My preference is supine with legs extended 90 degrees and soles of your feet facing the ceiling. Try to keep your legs straight and pelvis-width apart and don’t be in such a hurry. Slow, sweeping circles will assure full range of motion. If you fatigue, bend your knees, but keep moving your ankles & feet.

Exploratory feet

Exploratory feet can be done standing in Tadasana with your feet squirming around on the mat; seated in a chair with them wiggling about on a bolster; seated on the floor with them playing mischievously out in front of you; or lying supine, my favorite, with your feet in the air spazzing all over. The object is to make as many movements as you can. According to my teacher Katy Bowman, a biomechanist and math dork, if you apply a mathematical concept called a factorial, a foot with 33 joints can deform into 8,600,000,000,000, 000, 000, 000, 000, 000, 000, 000, 000 unique ways – or thereabouts. Whatever.

Toe spreaders

These exercises will help to undo the harm that shoes with small toe boxes cause to the muscles between your toes that have so little range of motion or strength that you may not even be able to generate enough of your own force to spread your toes. The third exercise, Toe Lifts, was not included in the workshop because a) I forgot; or b) We ran out of time. Whatever.

Namaste, Michele

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Strong At Any Length

I write today about paradigmatic shifts in yogasana – an evolution in three acts – inspired by three teachers, whose work I’ve been deeply studying and with whom I’ve been privileged to train in vivo. Having multiple teachers is an exercise in blessings and curses and maddening dissonance. I am constantly reconciling and reconvening the experts in my head. I call a summit of this brain trust at least once a week, usually on Facebook, where I am then schooled by my smart(er) colleagues and their respective adepts. This is a mashup of what I’ve come to understand from these bodysmarties and how I’ve integrated their wizardry into my movement and life practices.

Act One by Ray Long: The Bandha Yoga Codex: Using Reciprocal Inhibition, Muscle Isolations, Co-Activations, and Facilitated Stretches in Yogasana

I have devoured Ray Long’s books and had the great fortune of a weekend workshop with him in Vancouver. It was through his teachings that anatomy ceased being abstract, non-contextual, and tedious rote memorization. His beautifully rendered books brought anatomy to life through methodical application of stretching physiology to yogasana.  His MO is to define the position of joints in a pose, identify prime mover muscles (agonists) and their corresponding stretchers (antagonists), and use stretch reflexes – muscle spindle, reciprocal inhibition, and golgi tendon organ to facilitate muscle extension. Where I find him most masterful is in cuing how to isometrically contract a muscle using directional cues like “press the hand onto the floor to contract serratus anterior” or “the cue for engaging these muscle together is to press the sole of the back foot into the floor and [isometrically] drag it toward the back side of the mat.” I wish all yoga teachers cuing isometric contractions would read Ray’s books and learn clear, sensible instructions instead of what can sometimes come across as vague, mystifying directives.  After learning of Jules Mitchell’s work, I started using Ray’s cues for muscle contraction not to facilitate reciprocal inhibition (ie contracting the quadriceps to further stretch the hamstrings), but instead I use his money cues to isometrically contract the stretching muscle, thereby increasing strength at the end range of motion, which, it turns out, is what actually increases flexibility.

I have read and recommend the following books by Ray Long.

The Key Muscles of Yoga: Scientific Keys, Volume I

The Key Poses of Yoga: Scientific Keys, Volume II

Yoga Mat Companion 1: Anatomy for Vinyasa Flow and Standing Poses

Yoga Mat Companion 2: Anatomy for Hip Openers and Forward Bends

Yoga Mat Companion 3: Anatomy for Backbends and Twists

Yoga Mat Companion 4: Anatomy for Arm Balances and Inversions

Act Two by Katy Bowman: Neutral Pelvis: How I Learned to Stop Using My Back to Stretch My Hip and Other Lessons in Honoring My Boundaries.

I’ve already written my primer on Katy Bowman on this blog. Most relevant here is Katy’s brilliant teachings on forces, loads, visible and invisible boundaries, and errant joint motions. Let me try to explain. In yoga, your body is subject to various forces, but of primary importance is how you position your joints in relation to each other. These forces are experienced as loads on your tissues. Regardless of the yoga lineage or alignment system you follow, your alignment markers are tools for helping you establish and maintain visible boundaries in your postures. Consider reverse warrior pose. If you maintain 90 degrees of flexion in your front knee as you laterally flex your spine, you will receive a different stretch than if you lose some of that flexion in your knee as you move into the pose. Try it. Circumventing your visible boundaries, as in the reverse warrior example, will not get you what you want in the pose – in this case, a stretch in the lateral trunk muscles.

When you disregard or have no visible boundaries (alignment markers) you are probably not stretching what you think you are. If alignment points (for example “90 degree flexion in knee in reverse warrior” or “shoulders stacked over wrists in cat/cow”) are your visible boundaries, what, then, are invisible boundaries? They are hidden forces, like errant joint positions, that undermine your alignment. Take the pelvis. In Katy’s system of Restorative Exercise, a neutral pelvis is one, where the  pelvic bones and pubic bone are in the same plane perpendicular to the floor. These visible boundaries (alignment markers), when honored, assure that you are stretching your hip flexors vs. overextending your back. Try this simple test. In a standing position, put your pelvis in neutral (Katy’s post linked to above gives a great visual). Remain upright (don’t fold forward into a Vira 3 variation), extend a leg behind you as far as you can. Notice that in order to get the leg that far back, your pelvis had to tilt forward and you contracted the muscles in your lower back. You used your back to stretch your hip flexors. Now try it again, this time keep your pelvis neutral while you extend your leg. This movement was much smaller and did not involve your back at all. This is your true range of motion in your hip flexing muscles. You can apply this same concept to prone postures like Dhanurasana (bow) or Salabhasana (locust). There is nothing wrong with involving your back, if you are aware that you are doing it and desire the accompanying lumbar extension and compression. If, however, you compress your spine each time that you only meant to extend your hip, then you are using your back to do the work of the muscles that should be stretching your hip.

Act Three by Jules Mitchell: Strong at Any Length: A Yogi Turned Biomechanist Turned Yoga Stretching on its Head

I have a nerdy girl crush on biomechanist Jules Mitchell. Me and about a gazillion other yoginis. The crush is strictly science based. I am a former research librarian, whose idea of a good time is to sit at home on Friday night with a stack of research papers. Jules wrote her masters thesis on the science of stretching and she turned the world of yoga on its head (not to be confused with the king is dead kind of headstand). She slogged through hundreds of research articles trying to confirm what she thought she knew about yoga stretching – that it makes muscles longer. What she discovered is that increases in range of motion are not biomechanical, but neuromechanical – yoga doesn’t lengthen muscles, it merely increases your nervous system’s tolerance to stretch further.  This is a ridiculously oversimplified explanation of Jules’ epic, paradigm shifting, game changing, head exploding thesis. But you are in luck, because she blogged about her research along the way and you can read about it. Start with her seminal post on tissue mechanics. If you want a concise distillation of Jules’ conclusions, read Jenni Rawlings’ post Stretching is in Your Brain – another smartypants to whom I am most grateful.

Two ways that Jules applies what she learned about the relationship between strength and flexibility inform my own practice. I was introduced to the idea of training active range of motion initially by Katy Bowman.

  1. Train active range of motion
  2. Strengthen at your end ranges of motion via muscle contraction

Training active range of motion in yoga simply means that you use muscle control to get into and out of a posture. If you have to leverage one body part with another or use your hands to lift your foot/leg into position, you are “placing” yourself into a position that you are not strong/flexible enough to get into organically. When you do this, you bypass your neurology and the tax for that “deeper” pose is that you no longer provide optimal muscular stability to your joints and you are in danger of stretching your connective tissues to permanent deformation or failure.  It is when you are in an active range of motion that you increase strength and flexibility.

For instance, in the seated spinal twist ardha matsyendrasana, instead of leveraging your elbow against your knee to twist your torso, you could simply use the core musculature of your trunk to twist. Try this,  keep your hands on your shoulders and twist using only your core muscles. If you need a hand on the floor behind you for support, make sure you are not leveraging the twist further with that hand.  Notice how far you are able to twist. This is your active range of motion. Now place your opposite elbow to the outside of your knee and leverage to see how much further you can twist. The difference is your passive range of motion. At best, in passive range of motion, you are not getting stronger or more flexible. At worst, you have rotated into a range of motion that is not safe for you because you bypassed the brake signal your nervous system gave you in the active twist. It is your brain that stops you from twisting further – not short or tight muscles. This concept applies whenever you are twisting, but expecially think about losing the leverage in postures like parivrtta utkatasana (revolved chair) and parivrtta trikonasana (revolved triangle).

Here are a few more postures to try that exemplify the brilliant work of Ray Long, Katy Bowman, & Jules Mitchell.

Vrksasana – I  used my hands to pick up my foot and place it high up onto my inner thigh.

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In this second version of tree pose, I used the strength and range of motion of my hip and leg to place my foot on my thigh without using my hand and while maintaining Tadasana (no cheating my foot up by contorting my body in some other manner). You see, my brain stopped me from going further because foot high on the thigh is not a position that I ever got into on my own before beginning to train active mobility. The first time I tried placing my foot without using my hand, I couldn’t get my heel higher than my knee joint! I am living evidence that training in active mobility improves both strength and flexibility.

vrksasana_active

And how about the Bikram or Hot Yoga variation? A striking difference between passive and active range of motion. Not only does passive range of motion  make your shorter, it sometimes changes the color of your clothes. Just kidding.

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Utthita Hasta Padangustasana takes on a whole new look, when you don’t use your hand to bypass your neurology.

UHP_passiveUHP_active_xn2UHP_active_np

In the classic pose, first picture, I am in passive range of motion – I used my hand to lift my foot, much higher than I could get it there on my own. My lumbar curvature is AWOL and if I had a dog tail, it would be between my legs.

Notice in the second picture, that even though I used active range of motion to lift my leg, I am not wearing a neutral pelvis. By retroverting my pelvis (tucking my tail), thus thrusting my pubic symphysis further forward than my pelvic bones (anterior superior iliac spines) and unwittingly flexing my standing knee,  I am now using my back to do the work of my leg – in this case flexing my hip.

The third picture shows the most optimal posture, in that I am training active range of motion and keeping a neutral pelvis (you can tell by the bubbleness of my bottom and my lordodic lumbar curve), but look how low high my leg is now!??!

Parsvattonasana

And finally, I hack Ray Long’s excellent cuing and mash it up with Jules Mitchell’s love of eccentric, concentric, and isometric muscle action for strengthening at end range in one of my favorite asanas – parsvottonasana. In this pose, the front leg’s hamstring is eccentrically contracting (generating force while lengthening). Cue lifting the front heel, while keeping the knee straight, to contract the calf muscle. You have just added a concentric contraction (generated force) to a stretching muscle.  Try slowly lifting and lowering the heel a few times. Next, with just the slightest bend of your knee, firmly press the heel of the front foot into the floor and isometrically  “drag” the front foot towards the back foot (don’t actually move the foot). Because the heel is fixed in place, this action of trying to press the heel into the floor and play drag it backwards is the same muscular action that would be taken if you were trying to flex your knee and results in a contraction of your stretching hamstring – the exact recipe for increasing strength at your end range of motion.

I would be honored and humbled to receive critical comments from any of these teachers or anyone familiar with their work. Or anyone, really.

Namaste, Michele

What is Squatting Good For?

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I instructed variations of Malasana or full squatting in my yoga class last night. We followed these with what is often described as a supine squat aka Ananda Balasana aka Happy Baby pose. A student asked me to remind her why squatting is good and why in that supine variation. I replied with just one of many reasons why frequent squatting is not only good, but necessary – it keeps your pelvic floor appropriately toned and at its optimal length to support the weight of your pelvic and abdominal organs; and to efficiently regulate the opening and closing of your elimination and sex muscles. When these functions are malfunctioning, incontinence and organ prolapse occur.

Picture the muscles of your pelvic floor like a hammock between your pubis (pubic bone) and sacrum (lowest section of spine). That hammock needs a certain amount of tautness to serve its functions. Such tautness is achieved when the sacrum is a certain length from the pubis. We do many things in life that shorten the distance between the pubis and sacrum, causing slack in the pelvic floor hammock. The human body will not allow  muscles to remain slack, but instead will take up this slack by contracting or shortening the slacking muscles. A hypertonic pelvic floor muscle is a weak muscle.  If you, like many people, habitually tuck your tailbone under as a conscious or subconscious postural choice; if you are a butt squeezer/clencher for “fitness” reasons; if you’re a yogi who drops your tailbone at the drop of a cue; if you sit more on your tailbone than your sitting bones in your car or on cushioned furniture – couches, love seats, easy chairs, recliners, futons, etc. – then you are moving your sacrum/coccyx forward into your pelvic area and shortening its length from your pubis. Over time, the result of this positioning of your sacrum in relation to your pubis will cause your pelvic floor to malfunction.

There are two simple but not necessarily easy ways to bring your pelvic floor back to the right length. First, change how you position your skeleton by creating a neutral pelvis, using bony markers as guidance. Line up your pubic symphysis (the prominent bony center of your pubis where the two halves of your pelvis meet) with your pelvic bones aka anterior superior iliac spines (ASIS) evenly in the frontal plane. I describe how it looks in three orientations:

  • When standing with these bones even in the frontal plane, if you pressed your pelvis against a wall, your pubis and ASIS would both be touching the wall. If your pubis touched first, then you are posteriorly tilting your pelvis and moving your sacrum deeper into the pelvic cavity. You are butt tucking.
  • When supine, you could lay a board on your pelvis and, assuming your could move the flesh out of the way, all three bony markers would be flush to the board. If only your pubis is touching, then you are tucking your butt and will also notice that this results in a flattening of your lower spine against the floor.
  • When prone, the three bony markers will be pressing evenly into the floor. If your pubis is pressing more than your pelvic bones, then you have moved your sacrum/coccyx forward.

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This image, borrowed from my teacher Katy Bowman, shows a side view of the pelvis. The orange line represents the wall, board, or floor in the above examples. You can see how the pelvic bone and the pubis are positioned in relationship to each other in the frontal plane. You can also imagine how a butt tuck would send the tailbone deeper into pelvic space, causing the pubis to push forward of the ASIS. This would shorten the pelvic hammock.

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In this image, also borrowed from KB by way of Leonardo da Vinci, shows a neutral pelvis in relation of the rest of the lower skeleton. Note how the lower of the orange dots at the front of the pelvis would come forward if this skeleton were to tuck its butt, taking these bone markers out of neutral alignment.

The second way to optimize the length of your pelvic floor muscles is the increase the strength of your gluteal muscles. Because of how/where your glutes attach to your pelvis, these muscles, when they are strong and fully innervated, will keep your sacrum pulled back out of your pelvis maintaining proper pelvic floor muscle tone and length – provided you are not undermining them by tucking your butt or posteriorly tilting your pelvis.

Frequent squatting – multiple times per day, throughout your day – will train your sacrum to stay where it belongs and will strengthen your gluteal muscles. How can you add more squatting to your day?

  • The best way I know is to build or install a squatting platform over your toilet. I installed Nature’s Platform in my bathroom and now I squat  a minimum of how many times per day that I eliminate.

    Nature's Platform

    Nature’s Platform

  • I use a standing work station to write & study and take frequent squatting breaks, in addition to my bathroom squatting breaks
  • Squat to perform household tasks – even if it’s just for a minute. I bring the cutting board onto the kitchen floor and squat when I chop veggies; I squat  when folding clothes; I squat when pulling weeds; I squat when I’m sitting on the floor reading.
  • Add squats to your yoga practice or fitness routine

There are lots of variations in squatting and i do them all. If I am going into malasana or full bathrooming-type squat (not on my squatting platform because the back of the toilet inhibits this), I try to keep my shins vertical to the ground, my spine in neutral, and my tail untucked for as long as I can, but at some point as I get lower to the ground, my tail will tuck. If I am not going into a full squat, I work on the vertical shins, neutral spine, and really use my gluts to power lowering into and rising out of the squat.

Malasana or bathrooming squat

Malasana or bathrooming squat

Butt building squat

Butt building squat

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Back to my student last night and Happy Baby, which appears like a supine squat, but is technically not a squat at all. Most yogis get it wrong in terms of the bony markers discussed above. Most posteriorly tilt their pelves, tuck their coccyges – which in the supine orientation would present as lifting the tailbone off of the ground, and flatten their lower backs. To achieve some of the benefits of the squat and as a good way to train your body away from this malalignment in prone postures, try to keep your tailbone down and your pubis and ASIS even in the frontal plane. I find it is easier to achieve this one leg at a time as in half happy baby pose.

Namaste, Michele

Modifying Utkatasana with Smart Alignment

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.”

Classic Utkatasana

Classic Utkatasana

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.

Utkatasana with Smart Alignment

Utkatasana with Smart Alignment

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.

Utkatasana with lordosis and rib thrust.

Utkatasana with lordosis and rib thrust.

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.

Utkatasana with butt tuck

Utkatasana with butt tuck

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.

Utkatasana without external hip rotation

Utkatasana without external hip rotation

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.

Utkatasana internal rotation of hips

Utkatasana internal rotation of hips

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.

Utkatasana with smart alignment

Utkatasana with smart alignment

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.

Utkatasana with smart alignment

Utkatasana with smart alignment

Namaste, Michele

Modifying Tadasana with Smart Alignment

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.

Tadasana Alignment

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.

Namaste, Michele

Back Up Your Hips to Cure Your Feet

Alignment Habits

In an earlier post, I suggested that you have three habits that are critical for the health of your feet. And you have control over the outcomes of each habit. Total control!

  1. The shoes you (choose to) wear
  2. How you move your feet
  3. How you align yourself

Every time I consider this list, I am tempted to declare that one is more important than the others. But, I never do, because they are equally culpable in impacting the tissues of your feet. An entangled lot they are.

Take alignment. Last week, I wrote about how to position your feet, when standing and walking, with the outside edges in a straight line. Feet that do not point straight ahead, but instead point out laterally or diagonally are one of the most effective alignment habits you can have for building a bunion. But there is another alignment habit that is just as prevalent and injurious. Standing with your pelvis shifted anterior of your body’s center of mass. Huh?

The mass of your pelvis is your center of gravity. If you draw a vertical line from heaven to hell, it should go through the exact center of your pelvis. You really could be the center of the universe. “Should” is key here. Wherever the center or mass of your pelvis is, that is where the bulk of your weight will be. If your pelvis is is vertically stacked over your knees, ankles and heels and vertically stacked under your shoulders & ears, then the bulk of your weight will be over the center of your heels, which is structurally the strongest part of your foot and the only place 100% of your weight should be. When your pelvis is shifted or thrust forward of your ankles/heels, your center of gravity, mass of your pelvis, bulk of your weight loads your forefoot, the weakest part of your foot. The tiny bones, muscles, and other tissues of your forefoot are intended for intrinsic movements and supporting the arches of your feet. Bearing weight on the front of your feet can contribute to plantar fasciitis, bunions, bone spurs, hammertoes, flat feet, metatarsalgia (pain at the base of the toes), and neuropathy.

There are other reasons for vertical stacking of your joints, all of which I will write about in more detail another time.

  • minimizes the forces that cause joint degeneration
  • signals your pelvis and femurs (your “hips”) to build more bone density, making them stronger and less susceptible to fractures

Getting Your Hips Back

My yoga students attest to the broken recordness of my cuing. “Hips back, hips back, hips back.” “Get your hips back over your heels.” “Your hips should be stacked over you knees, which should be stacked over your ankles.” “Keep your pelvis from shifting forward.” “Hips back, hips back, hips, back.” I never tire of saying it.

What and where are your hips anyway? Your hip is not a bone. Your hip is actually a joint made from your pelvis and femurs. Basically, the top of your femur (greater trochanter) fits into the socket or acetabulum at the side of your pelvis. When you place your hands on you “hips,” you are actually placing them on the top of your pelvis.

Here is how to get your hips back:

  1. Stand with your feet aligned – outer edges are straight. See building a bunion.
  2. Shift your weight back, all of it, into the center of your heels.
  3. Press the balls of your feet (not your toes) into the mat, without bringing your weight forward.
  4. With your hands on your hips, the top of your pelvis, gently guide your pelvis back** until your hip joint (about where the side seam of your jeans lies) is stacked directly above the side of your knee, which is stacked directly above your the side of your ankle at the maleolus bone, which is directly over the center of your heel.

**It is critical that you don’t rotate your pelvis back (tuck your tail) or forward (Beyonce your butt), but merely shift it back.

When you back your hips up, it may fee like your butt is sticking out behind you. That’s good. That’s where it should be, behind you. It’s why we call it your rear.

The images below will give you a visual of what it looks like to have your hips thrust forward (losing) or properly backed up (winning). This is from one of my favorite books from my favorite biomechanists Katy Bowman. Her book Every Woman’s Guide to Foot Pain Relief: The New Science of Health Feet is my go-to source for most things feet and is absolutely relevant for men too. In fact, I wish she had named it “Every Human’s Guide…” because other than a few strictly female bits, it is applicable regardless of gender.

Pelvis forward of center of gravit

Pelvis forward of center of gravity

In the image above, The stance on the left shows Katy’s center of gravity, her pelvis, is where it belongs. In contrast, she is definitely not vertically stacked in the stance on the right.

hipsback10002

In the image above, Katy’s pelvis is clearly shifted forward until the bulk of her weight is over her forefoot, which, overtime, could have disastrous consequences for her feet. On the right, her hips are backed up and her pelvis is over her knee, ankles, and heels.

hipsback10003

In the image on the left, Katy’s alignment is signaling the bone cells in her hips to build more bone density because the weight of her torso is stacked vertically. Her stance on the  right, overtime, will prove degenerative to her joints.

I’ll leave you with one final thought. Backing up your hips is a practice. It takes intention, practice, and time to instill this new alignment habit. Start today.

Namaste, Michele