During a couple of weeks on vacation, I set myself a couple of tasks in my yoga practice: the first was to do every pose listed on the 3 Anusara syllabi (in preparation for my advanced asana retreat). The second was to figure out why my lower back is so stuck in forward bends. Doing all of the poses was simply fun! Understanding my lower back was a revelation.
A general principle of Anusara Yoga therapeutics is that the thighs govern the health of the lower back, because the way the femurs set into the hip sockets determines the curve and support for the lower back. This is something I have worked with for years, but in certain forward bends, I have found it nearly impossible to get the thigh bones to set back enough and hence, my lower back has been locked.
So I began by investigating the Thigh Loop, which is the principle of alignment that takes the tops of the femurs back into the hip sockets. Very quickly I realized that while I had been initiating the thigh loop, I wasn't really following through with the full action and so I wasn't getting the full benefits of this action.
Thigh Loop, like all of the principles of alignment in Anusara Yoga, initiates to the back plane of the body. To me, it's like understanding that the inner shift and transformation of our yoga happens first, and then our outer lives and actions reflect what has already transformed on the inside. So, the Thigh Loop takes the heads of the femurs back into the hip sockets. But it doesn't stop there; it then flows down the back of the leg/hamstrings to the top of the shin, presses the top of the shin forward (where it reinforces the top of shin loop and helps prevent the leg from hyperextending) and then lifts up the front of the thigh (engaging the quadriceps along the way) and re-sets the top of the femur back.All of this time, I had just been pressing the thighs back. It would be like making the inner shift, without a corresponding outer shift.
During vacation, I was also catching up on the New Yorker, and there was a book review on experiments in green living by Elizabeth Kolbert that caught my attention. While these individual experiments might be well and good in terms of individual enlightenment about the impact of our lives on the environment and the excesses of modern day living, they fail to become more than mere stunts if the authors don't take what they have learned toward making a real difference in the world. Kolbert takes issue with Colin Beavan's "No Impact Man", noting that his time might have been better spent trying to persuade his neighbors and building management to change the wasteful heating policy rather than simply turning off his own heat and living off the excess with his windows open in a New York winter. She finally pokes a suggestion that a good sequel to his book might be: "Impact Man".
This hit home with me, as it reminded me that what's at stake in our practice of yoga (indeed, in life) is so much more than just our individual transformation and insight. Rather, it's how we take what we have learned and make an impact on the world for the better. Back to the Thigh Loop, it reminded me why all of our principles of alignment begin to the back body, but end in the front body: the inner transformation must be made an outer, forward-looking offering in order for us to fulfill our practice. May we make an impact.
As soon as I made the adjustment, my lower back unlocked and forward bends have been a lot easier. How does this change the world? It doesn't. But the process of understanding it was important, because it is a reminder that yoga has stakes much higher than forward bends.
Click here to listen to the full class.
- Open to Grace: Remember that the stakes of a practice of yoga are greater than just individual transformation.
- Muscle Energy: The engagement of our muscles is a reminder that our practice is one of engagement, to make an impact rather than to sit by passively.
- Ankle Loop/Shin Loop: The Thigh Loop builds on the foundation of the lower two loops, so it's important to get these established. Ankle Loop starts at the base of the shin and flows back and down the heel, lifts up through the arches and sets the base of the shin back again. The Shin Loop initiates in the same place, lifts up the back of the calves, presses the top of the shins forward, and then flows down the front of the leg to reconnect at the base of the shin. If the knees lock back into hyperextension in any straight-legged pose, it will be impossible to get the thighs to set back. (This is a result of the "see-saw principle": if one end of a bone (or body part) moves in one direction, the opposite end will move in the other. So if the top of the shin presses back, the top of the thigh will press forward.)
- Thigh Loop: With the lower two loops firmly established, go to the tops of the thigh bones, in the root of the pelvis. Press back and draw down through the backs of the legs, pressing the tops of the shins forward. I almost think of the tops of the thighs going back and the tops of the shins going forward as simultaneous actions, and this really helps keep the shin loop established and feel the lower half of thigh loop. As the top of the shin stabilizes, then quadriceps muscles now have a chance to engage and lift up toward the core of the pelvis. Use the quadriceps muscles eccentrically to press the thigh bones back again.
- Organic Energy: Once everything is lined up, you can make a full offering, extending from the core of the pelvis down through the legs and back up through the spine.
- Uttanasana: Begin with your knees bent, to ensure that the legs aren't locked back into hyperextension. Lift and spread the toes to engage the legs. Keeping the knees bent, draw the base of the shins back so the heels press down and the arches lift. Then keeping the shins drawing back, lift the calf muscles and press the tops of the shins forward. Now activate the thigh loop, from the tops of the thighs pressing back, draw energy down the backs of the legs to the tops of the shins, so that the tops of the shins press forward even as the thighs press back. Go all the way to straight legs this way. You'll find that you have access to your quadriceps muscles on the front of the thigh. Use them to lift the front part of the thigh loop and set the femurs back again. Then extend fully down into the earth through straight legs.
- Parsvottanasana, prasarita padottanasana, trikonasana, ardha chandrasana: In all of the straight-legged standing poses, the actions are the same as in uttanasna. Remember to begin with the knees bent and the legs engaged, and then work through the loops from the bottom up. As you press the tops of the thighs back, go to the bottom part of the thigh loop and engage the tops of the shins forward until you feel the quads fire, then bring the legs fully straight from that action.
- Anjaneyasana (thigh stretch): When you do thigh stretches, hold the foot on the metatarsals (below the toes) so that you can flex the toes back. This actually helps you to increase Muscle Energy
- Utthita hasta padangustasana, virabhadrasana 3: In the standing balances, it's common for the knee to lock out. As a result, you'll lose access to the Thigh Loop and the muscles of the quads. Build the loops from the bottom up, and remember to bring Thigh Loop forward through the top of the shin.
- Ardha hanumanasana: I love this pose for the thigh loop, because you can see the effects on your legs when you get it activated. Also, having your heel pressing into the earth will help you to access the lower loops. Keep working the thigh loop until you see your quads tone and lift.
- Anjaneyasana (thigh stretch): Just get one more juicy thigh stretch in before...
- Trianga mukhaikapada pasicmottanasana, krounchasana: The forward bends can be challenging for creating good alignment in the legs and pelvis: because you have such a broad foundation, you will have less mobility. However, you can use the floor as a prop to help reinforce the actions of the loops. Press the base of the shin and heel down as you flex your foot an tone your calves. The floor will keep you from hyperextending, but to feel the top of the shin pressing forward even more, bring one hand under the calf muscle of the extended leg and lift the muscle up (toward the bone) as you root the base of the shin and the top of the thigh, bringing your leg all the way to straight. Notice how your lower back will draw in and up.
- Upavista konasana: In stage one of any forward bend, the pelvis/legs are at 90 degrees, and the lower back (including the top of the sacrum and the lumbar vertebrae) should tip in and up into the body. So start upright, with your hands supporting you on the floor behind your pelvis. Engage the legs, press your ankles toward the earth, tone the calves and press the tops of your thighs down. As the thigh bones set back, re-assert the power of the tops of the shins pressing forward (up) until you can access your quads and draw them up towards your pelvis and root back down. Until your legs are flush to the earth, and until your lower back draws in and up, stay seated upright. Go to stage 2 of the forward bend only once you have a natural curve in your lower back and the thighs flush to the floor. This will ensure that there is length and space in your lower back as you bow forward.
- Dandasana: This is the stage 1 forward bend of pascimottanasana. In my book, it's one of the hardest poses on all of the syllabi (OK, my hamstrings are tight compared to the rest of my body), because you have both little mobility in the pelvis and legs and very little leverage. Lean back into your hands behind your pelvis to access the power of the legs. Keep your heels pressing down and calves toned, and then root those thighs DOWN until you feel your lower back draw in and up. Now you're ready for...