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Monday, January 7, 2008

The Achilles Heel

This week, we're focusing on the muscles of the calf, which attach to the heel through the Achilles tendon. I looked up the story of Achilles, to remember how the tendon got its name.

The story goes like this: when Achilles was born, his mother, instead of receiving the birth of her son as a gift, received it as a source of anxiety because she knew that he must someday die. In an attempt to protect him, she tried to make him immortal by either dragging him through sacred waters, holding on to him by his heel, or basically glazing him and roasting him over a fire (again holding him by the heel), so that wherever he had been treated by the waters or the glaze/fire, he would become impenetrable. In sum, her desire to protect her son was so strong that she nearly smothered him with her protective love, creating a shell around him that none could crack (except for at the place, on his heel, where she had held him).

The underlying assumption of the story, and indeed of many yoga systems, is that life is inherently problematic, because we are born mortal, limited, conditioned beings. But the Tantric vision proposes a radically different possibility: that life, as it is, is truly a gift, and our mortal, limited, conditioned circumstance is precisely the gift. It is what allows us to experience love and joy and pain and any experience at all. To paraphrase my teacher, Douglas Brooks: the immortal has chosen the mortal, the unconditioned has chosen the conditioned, the divine has chosen you. Your life is the gift.

So the Achilles heel, the supposedly "fatal flaw", the place of vulnerability, doesn't have to be seen as a problem. Rather, it is the gift of our mortality, the gift of life itself. Yoga is to receive that gift, align to the gift we've been given, and optimalize everything we've been given (weaknesses and perfections) so that they serve us

Interestingly, the Achilles tendon (physically) is both the strongest tendon in the human body, and the one that is most frequently-ruptured (see Blandine Calais-Germain in Anatomy of Movement). It can be a source of stability and great opening, or a place of weakness, depending on how we align.

The Achilles tendon is the common tendon for the two biggest calf muscles, gastrocnemius and soleus, attaching them to the heel. Both are involved in plantar flexion (pointing the foot), so they activate when you press out through the mound of the big toe (the distal end of the 1st metatarsal) and you draw the heel energetically back and up. This initiates shin loop, an energetic flow that begins at the base of the shin (above the ankle bones), goes back, up the back of the calf, and presses forward through the top of the shin, then flows back down the front of the shin.

The activation of the calf muscles through Muscular Energy and Shin Loop is crucial in preventing hyperextension of the knee, and thus to good alignment in the hips and hamstrings. Hence, the Achilles is either our flaw or our asset. When it draws back and up, the calf muscles fire and stabilize the lower leg; when we don't engage there, the top of the shin (which tends to be the most mobile part of the leg) buckles backward, disrupting the energy flow through the whole leg. In general, the side where the calf muscles are least developed is the side where the hip flexors are tighter and the hamstrings are misaligned. This is because, the see-saw principle demonstrates, when the top of the shin moves back, the top of the thigh will move forward, jamming in the hip socket and pulling the thigh bone away from the hamstring attachments.

To investigate this in your own body, stand in Uttanasana and notice the shape of your calves and relative development of one as compared to the other. Palpate each side to check muscle tone around the whole calf. Note whether the side that is least developed corresponds to the side that has tighter hips, or where the hamstrings are more prone to injury. (An informal survey of the Nerds confirmed that this was the case across the board.)

Now, stay in uttanasana, and massage each calf muscle to get the blood flowing there and the energy to release more through the calf. Do one side at a time, manually activating both Muscular Energy to the bone and Shin Loop. Engage your legs by lifting your toes, and then use both hands to hug the muscle (forward) to the bone and draw the muscles up the back of the leg toward the top of the shin. Spend about 60 seconds per side massaging the calf muscles in this way. Pause between sides to feel the difference in energy flow from side to side. You'll probably feel that the energy flows more clearly DOWNWARD on the side you've massaged, and that the hamstrings are more open.

Sequence to strengthen and open the backs of the calves:
In all poses, lift your toes, dig the heel into the floor and pull energetically back, lifting the calf muscles up the back of the leg and pressing them forward. Pressing down through the big toe mound will help to activate the calves. Then keeping the lower leg strong, press the tops of your thighs back into the hip sockets. Once everything is lined up, extend organically from the focal point (it's the pelvis for all of these poses) down through the bones of the legs into the earth and then back up through the spine.

  • High lunge
  • Downward-facing dog: Bend your knees in dog pose to activate the calves first, then stretch the thigh bones back to straighten the legs. You can also bring one foot to hold the heel on the opposite foot, with the big toe and second toe on either side of the Achilles tendon, and then go through all of the steps to engage the calves, using your toes pulling down on the heel to get the extension and stretch through the backs of the legs.
  • Parsvottanasana: Doing this pose and other straight-legged standing poses, like uttanasana and trikonanasa, with the mounds of the toes up on a blanket roll will help you to activate Shin Loop. Start with the knee bent so you can access the calf muscles by drawing the heel back and up while pressing the mound of the big toe down. You can also try this pose with the front foot just on the heel; by digging your heel into the floor and drawing it back and up, you'll find the connection in the back of the leg.
  • Virabhadrasana 1: Focus on the back leg to get strength and stretch in the calves.
  • Prasarita padottanasana
  • Parsvakonasana
  • Trikonasana
  • Ardha chandrasana - standing splits
  • Utthita hasta padangustasana: when the leg is in the air, it is harder to access the strength in the calf muscles, because there is nothing to provide resistance for the heel and big toe mound. So pay close attention to the action of the calves.
  • Anjaneyasana (+thigh stretch)
  • Virasana: Now that the calf muscles are toned and lengthened, virasana will probably feel more spacious than usual. Use your hands to flatten the calf muscles straight back as you move to sit in this pose.
  • Supta virasana
  • Ardha hanumanasana (AKA runner's stretch)
  • Hanumanasana
  • Triangmukhaipada pascimottanasana/krouncasana/surya yantrasana
  • Visvamittrasana: To protect your hamstrings in this pose, where the foot is off the floor in front, keep the action of your calf muscles strong as you root the thigh back to straighten the leg.
  • Upavista konasana: Flex strongly at the ankles, so the Achilles tendon moves down to the floor, even while you extend through the big toe mound. Bring your hands under your calf muscles, bifurcating them with your fingertips, and then flatten the calves to the floor into the resistance of your hands. Then anchor your thigh bones into the floor.
  • Supta upavista konasana: with your arms in between your legs, hold on to the backs of the calves as resistance to root your thigh bones back (in this case, up) into the hip sockets.
  • savasana

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