Just a few days ago, I was sitting on the beach with my beloved, and we were dreaming about our lives. (What better thing is there to do on a beach?) It brought us back to a memory of the last time we had sat on a beach dreaming together, and that was about three summers ago. We mapped out our lives then, each of us with our own vision of who we wanted to become and what we wanted to do. We wrote it all down diligently. We got home and set to work on our goals. And we probably forgot what we were working on within six months. The amazing thing is that, three years down the line, when we look back, we find that we have accomplished most of what we had set out to do.
To me, this is a reminder of how powerful a force intention can be in our lives. When we set our hearts to something, it doesn't mean that we're going to get it, but it definitely sets us along a trajectory. I like the Sanskrit word "vrata" for intention or commitment, because it implies taking a turn, pointing yourself in a certain direction. (Vrata is related to such words as vrtti and parivrtta.) The idea is that in making a commitment, you turn (a la Robert Frost) down a particular path, and the path you choose makes all the difference. Not that one is right or the other wrong, but that when you set out in a certain direction, it creates a trajectory. And that trajectory can hold you and carry you, even when you don't remember how you turned onto this path in the first place.
I've been working on creating a stronger vrata in my own body through the action of the shins hugging to the midline. The shins build a pathway in the lower body that helps to line up the knees, hamstrings, and psoas muscles, as well as open space in the hips and the lower back.
- Open to Grace: involves placing yourself and pointing yourself in a certain direction. To create the optimal starting point for the pathways you'll build in the lower body, line up the feet so that they are straight ahead, from the middle of the ankles to to the 2nd toe mound.
- Muscle Energy: Drawing toward the midline is one of the three aspects of Muscle Energy, and to me it most clearly reflects the act of drawing your path, of creating a trajectory for yourself, and thus holds a strong power of intention. In the lower body, a key point of focus for creating that path is hugging the outer shins to the midline. What's interesting is that, hugging the midline itself involves a bit of a circuitous path. The muscles on the outer shins (called the peroneals) are activated by spreading the pinky toe to the side, and that creates an energetic flow from the outer pinky toe back toward the outer heel. The peroneal muscles themselves have a spiraling quality (all of our muscles are formed in spirals) and so when you engage them, the outer shin doesn't just draw to the midline, it also flows back, toward the back plane of the body. Holding the energy of the outer shin to the midline and back can become a marker of how powerful you are holding the vrata of your intention.
- Inner Spiral: The action of the shins creates a trajectory, and Inner Spiral, which takes the inner thighs in, back and wide, opens up the pathways of the lower body. In particular, the widening aspect of Inner Spiral works into the resistance of the outer shins to broaden the hamstrings, track the knees and psoas, and open space in the hips and lower back. What I've found is that we often forget about the vrata created in the outer shins when we start to access Inner Spiral. (Notice when you do Inner Spiral if the heels widen, or if your knees knock in...) The paradox, of course, is that you can't actually do Inner Spiral without the strong, steady resistance of the shins hugging to the midline, because they create the trajectory for the flow of energy in Inner Spiral.
- Outer Spiral: Once the lower body is lined up through these actions, Outer Spiral reinforces the commitment of the legs. As it flows from the waistline down to the outer edges of the feet, Outer Spiral takes the outer seams of the legs (including the outer shins) back and toward the midline. To me it's a reminder that we have to keep renewing our intention, again and again, to make sure we're still on the path we want to be on.
- Organic Energy: From the focal point, extend energy down to the earth and back up through the extremities.
- Modified Utkatasana: Try this pose with your hands on your knees, so you can focus on the alignment of your legs. Make sure the feet are lined up parallel, and that the knees are lined up straight ahead with your feet. Set yourself on the path you want to be on from the very start. Then lift and spread your toes (especially those pinky toes) to get the legs energized and the outer shins to fire. Hug the legs to the midline, and support this action with your hands on your outer upper shins, pressing in to the midline, without letting the knees knock in. Keep that commitment strong as you now turn the inner thighs in and back, moving wide into the strong resistance of the outer shins. You'll probably feel some space open up in the lower back. Now anchor the tailbone down and stretch into the full pose.
- Uttanasana: Here you can really feel how the shins spin energetically to the back plane of the body, rather than just to the midline. With parallel feet in uttanasana, bend both knees (it's easier to track the legs with the knees bent) and lift and spread your toes. Spread the pinky toes to the sides and see how that fires up the outer shin muscles. As you draw the pinky toes wide, notice how the outer edge of your foot energetically draws from the pinky toe mound to the outer heel. This creates a steady action in the foot and lower leg. Now keep that (focus on the energy flow of the outer shins) as you turn the inner thighs back and press them wide into the resistance of the shins. Notice if the heels widening or the knees knocked in as you added the Inner Spiral. If so, reconnect in the actions of the outer foot and outer shin, and keep that vrata strong as you open through the inner thighs. Now stretch the legs all the way straight, without wavering from the pathways you created.
- Runner's Stretch/Parsvottanasana/Trikonasana: In all of these poses, you can use your front forearm pressing up against the outer shin to build a stronger trajectory in the lower leg. Once that is established, to open the hamstrings optimally on the front leg, turn the inner thigh in and back and then widen the back of the leg off to the side. Notice if your foot turned in as you did that. Keep the 2nd toe mound vertical, the kneecap vertical, and the outer shin flowing to the floor even as you widen the underside of the leg. This will help track the hamstrings without over-stretching the attachment, for a good juicy opening.
- Parsvakonasana: Start in the prep form of the pose, with your front forearm on the front thigh. Power up the legs, especially by spreading the pinky toes and drawing to the midline, and then spin the inner thighs in and back and wide. Look at the back leg first. What is the energy flow on the outer shin? Did it turn forward when you added inner spiral, or is it still moving back? Look at your front leg, and notice if the knee knocked in. And then re-set. Keep the energy flow on both shins strong, so the pathway is clear, as you add Inner Spiral, and the opening in the pelvis will be powerful.
- Pigeon (and variations): All of the pigeon variations are great places to work on these actions. I like to even hold underneath the shin on the front leg with one hand, and keeping steady action in the toes, manually lift the shin (that's to the midline) and spin the outer upper shin back (toward the pelvis). The inner thighs will naturally descend and open more easily. Try this in the narrow-angled pigeon, as well as variations with the front shin parallel to the front edge of the mat (including twisting to both sides)
- Standing baby cradle: This pose is nice because you can hold the outer shin with your hands to ensure that the commitment is honored as you go into deeper hip openers. I like to hold under the shin with one hand, and set the inner upper thigh back with the other.
- Eka pada galavasana/Dragonfly: Begin in a prep pose, like utkatasana with one ankle crossed over the opposite knee. Flex the foot and extend evenly through all four corners of the foot (especially the inner foot). Spread the pinky toes wide (in this case, that's toward the floor) to create a steady action in the outer leg. Then manually turn the inner thigh in, back and wide, without letting your foot waver (that's the point of origin for the pathways in your legs and hips, so keep the intention there strong!). Stay in the prep pose, or take it into the arm balance. For dragonfly, twist toward your top foot and wedge your upper arm into the arch, pressing your inner foot strongly into the arm. Then lean to the side to place both hands, stand down through your foot into your arm, and fly.
- Virasana/Supta Virasana: You can often trace knee pain in virasana to its source in the feet, the point of origin for aligning the pathways of the legs. In virasana, the feet should line up with the shin bones (which, you'll note, are not parallel but rather slightly flared to the sides), with all four corners of the feet pointing straight up. Sit on some padding if this alignment is hard to create. Spread your toes (manually, if they need a little extra boost), especially the pinky toes, and then draw energetically from the pinky toe mound up through the outer heels to fire up the outer shins. Use your hands to hold the shins to the midline, and create a firm commitment in the lower body. Then allow the inner thighs to settle and press them wide into the resistance of your hands. That will hep line up the knees and make space in the lower back. Add Outer Spiral and Organic Energy as you lay back for supta virasana.
- Sucirandrasana (Eye of the Needle Pose)
- Baddha Konasana
- Upavista Konasana: This is the pose I go to if I ever have a tweaky hamstring, and I've had great success focusing on the action of the outer shins to help heal hamstring pain in this pose. Line up the feet vertical (through the second toe mounds) and fire up the legs. As you hug the legs toward each other, keep the energy flow of the outer shins moving down, toward the floor. Then bend your knees enough to reach your hands under the thighs and grab hold of the fibers of all three hamstrings. Watch that your toes don't knock in. The outer shins should stay steady in their action to the midline and flowing down, and then use your hands to widen the fibers of the hamstrings into that resistance. Once you've got them tracked, anchor the thighs straight down the floor, sliding your hands out from underneath.
- Building on these principles you can go into any number of hip openers and forward bends. Try: TMP, Baby Cradle, Bharadvajasana 2, and lotus variations!