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Thursday, February 21, 2008

How to Expand the Middle: 5 Steps to a Deeper Thigh Stretch

I just returned from the Advanced Intensive in Tucson with John Friend, and I'm pleased to report that I actually felt a thigh stretch. It was revelatory.

We were studying the Spanda-karikas, a rich and trippy Tantric text that is all about the nature of the universe (that means you) as pulsating, throbbing, vibrating consciousness. When I first learned about the idea of spanda several years ago, I went out and bought the book, thinking it sounded like a good read. Instead, it was rather impenetrable, much like any text on yoga philosophy that you pick up and try to read on your own. But going through the 52 verses of the Spanda-karikas with John's guidance (he has his own translation and commentary in the works, and we got a limited first edition), group discussion, and intense asana practice, it seemed so practical and relevant to our everyday experience.

The verse that struck me this weekend was Stanza 17 (in Jaideva Singh's translation):

"The fully enlightened has, always and incessantly, the undeviating knowledge of the Self in all the three states [waking, dreaming and dreamlessness]; the other one (viz. the partially enlightened) has it only at the beginning and end of each state."

To me, what this verse is saying is that enlightenment is an everyday experience. We all get the hit of connection, whenever we're in the excitement of the start of something new, or in the sweetness/bittersweetness of a cycle coming to an end. (Do you ever notice how you can drop really deep into meditation as soon as the bell to conclude rings? That's it!) This is what we call abhisara -- the peaks and the troughs of the waves are places of intense connection, where we are held "in intimacy with the divine" (Douglas Brooks' definition). We're all going to get those moments of awakening in our lives, and the invitation is to cherish them but not cling to them, because they will come and go. We can't live our lives always at the peak, or at the trough. Life moves in waves. Everything is spanda.

But there's more here. Enlightenment is what we'll get, whether we do yoga or not. So why do yoga? The key is the middle. We all have experienced the dullness of routine, whether it be in relationship, at work, or in our yoga practice. For as exciting as something may be the first time, after you've been doing it for a while it can get -- let's face it -- boring. When you get used to something, you stop paying attention so carefully. This is that middle part of the wave.

What this verse is saying, I think, is that as we become more established in our yoga (our engagement of ourselves and the world), enlightenment becomes more and more everyday, not just at the beginning and end of cycles, but throughout the whole cycle.

It is no coincidence that Anusara's principles of alignment also move in spanda, in pulsations and waves. They are meant to establish us in the spanda that is pulsing us.

All this is to say, here's how you can get a deeper thigh stretch...

So when I announced to the YogaNerd class that we were going to do ONLY thigh stretches for 1.5 hours, I was met with the comment that "there are only really 3 thigh stretches, aren't there?" Well no, actually.

You can get a thigh stretch in something as simple as a lunge (back leg) if you do it with a certain kind of alignment.

Three of the four quadriceps muscles (all but the rectus femoris) will stretch if you just bend your knee to full flexion (as their primary action is extension of the knee). The rectus femoris spans both the knee and the hip joint (as a hip flexor), and so in order to stretch this muscle you must also get extension at the hip. Similarly, the psoas muscle (which I include here, as it does cross the hip joint to attach at the lesser trocanter of the femur) will only get a stretch when the pelvis is in extension. That means that in such poses as anjaneyasana, the thigh stretch will only reach the rectus femoris and the psoas if the pelvis is tipped upright or (even better) back toward a backbend. If it tilts forward (as it will tend to do) so that the belly and (sometimes also) the top of the pelvis are resting on the front thigh, it's really not getting in there.

Here's how you line it up to get the most out of your thigh stretch:

  1. Soften and release passively with gravity. When you bring the foot in, keep your pelvis squared off to the front (you'll probably need to turn toward the front leg side).
  2. Engage the muscles of the legs, particularly by drawing from the peripheral parts (feet, or knee when it's on the floor as part of the foundation) to the focal point (usually the pelvis, in the poses below). When the leg is in ardha bekhasana variation, use your hand pressing down on the metatarsals (bring your foot all the way to the butt, really) while flexing your toes back toward your hand.
  3. Root the thigh bone back in the hip socket. If the top of the femur is pushed forward relative to the acetabulum, you'll feel the stretch more at the tendon, rather than at the belly of the muscle (which is where we expand the middle). When the leg is in ardha bekhasana, press the base of the thigh bone (right above the kneecap) into the floor and drag it forward, so the skin and muscles on the front of the thigh draw up. This activates the thigh loop, and through see-saw principle, will root the top of the femur back into the hip socket. As much as you press your foot down toward your butt, keep the muscles on the front of the thigh drawing forward and up. If you feel the skin above the knee start to slide back, you know you've lost this action. Notice, however, how when you get the femur rooted back , the pelvis will want to tilt anteriorly. So, to get into the rectus femoris and the psoas, keep the top of the femur back and then...
  4. Get the pelvis upright, by drawing the tailbone (and bottom of the sacrum, and buttocks flesh) downward.
  5. Stretch that baby, extending from the focal point down into the earth and the back up and out through the spine.
Practice: Thigh stretch, thigh stretch.

Lunge: really, a lunge can be a thigh stretch, if you get the top of the femur rooted back AND simultaneously get the pelvis upright (or, why not?, moving toward a backbend)

Eka pada rajakapotasana 1: back leg in ardha bekhasana
Eka pada rajakapotasana 2, 3, 4: see above
Ninja variations: all of the EPRK poses can be done at the wall, with the back knee up against the wall. Work to bring the pelvis upright (even flush up against the wall). Try doing these with your back toes tucked under (onto the wall) and use your hand pressing down on the heel toward the floor to deepen the stretch

Ardha bekhasana: try this one by lifting your pelvis up off the floor at first (your front arm will be more like in cobra pose), so that you're just on the base of the thighbone on the thigh stretch leg, then go through the steps above, lastly sliding your pelvis back to the floor without losing the action of drawing the base of the thighbone forward and up.

Supta virasana: as you go back in this pose, try lifting your pelvis up off the floor, and, keeping the tops of the thighs flowing down toward the floor, lengthen your tailbone and buttocks so much toward your knees that the pelvis comes to neutral.

Ustrasana: 1 leg in ardha bekhasana
Setubandha: 1 leg in ardha bekhasana
Urdhva dhanurasana: you get where this is going...


Anonymous said...

Deares Z,
How do you do setu bandhad with ardha bekasana leg? i cannot figure it out!

Zhenja said...

Hello. Here's how you do it:
Go into setubandha, with your hands supporting your hips. Then lift your right foot off the floor (so the knee goes up) and grab hold of your foot with your right hand. Bring the foot to your outer hip, track the knee in line with your hip, and then slowly extend out through the knee, bringing it first level with your hip and then toward the floor.