As fall set in in NYC, my beloved and I did our annual ritual this weekend of bringing home some 20 pounds of tomatoes from the farmers market to roast, simmer and store the flavors of the end of summer for chilly and bleak days later this year. While our sauces simmered on the stove, we sat back with The Financial Times and found a book review for "Catching Fire", by Richard Wrangham, who makes the case that the practice of cooking is what makes us human. It's by bringing food to fire that humans have evolved way beyond what would have been possible at the slow pace of natural selection.
As it happens, the yogis of the Vedas had a similar idea. As Douglas Brooks likes to remark, the word "yoga" is first used in the Rg Veda in the compound "yogakshema", which is to say that yoga is cooking. Yoga is the process by which we take the raw ingredients of ourselves and, by bringing the fire of our passions into the fire of our practice, we can transform and transmute our being. We can evolve ourselves by means of yoga, and we can evolve ourselves at a rate that is more efficacious and efficient (the markers of Shri) than the eons it seems to take in the old Darwinian fashion. You can transform yourself in one lifetime, in one day, in one practice...
You already have all of the raw ingredients you need, so just light the fire to begin cooking!
The fire of yoga is ignited by our desire to transform and it burns as tapas, a frictive action that generates heat.
This week, we're focusing on aligning the knees, and for that we need to light the fire of the lower legs, which tend to have less power. When the outer shins and calves are not working strongly enough, it can destabilize the knees and the hamstrings (and the hips, and the lower back...). When the shins do their tapas with a steady flame, it will help protect and align the knees as well as allow a transformative opening through the hamstrings.
- Open to Grace: In this tradition, we begin with the assumption that each of us has everything we need for our own fulfillment. All of the raw materials are there for you to make something exquisite and uniquely your own.
- Muscle Energy: The second component of Muscle Energy draws the limbs toward the vertical midline of the body. In terms of aligning and protecting the knees and hamstrings, we'll need to activate the outer shins (using the peroneal muscles) to the midline. This begins by spreading the pinky toes laterally and pulling back through the outer heel. Interestingly, because of the way the peroneals are oriented, they also cause a spinning of the outer shins toward the back plane of the body. This is a fiery act of tapasya, and must remain steadfast to keep the knees and hamstrings aligned.
- Shin Loop: This loop reinforces the Muscle Energy of the calf muscles on the back of the shin, drawing the calves up and pressing the top of the shin forward. It protects the knee from hyperextending, and hence helps protect the cartilage and avoid those broken veins and cysts that can develop in the backs of the knees.
- Inner Spiral: Once the lower legs have engaged fully, then you can activate the transformative power of Inner Spiral, which turns the legs in, back and wide apart. The lower legs have to remain strong in their tapas as you do Inner Spiral; that means that the heels still have to squeeze the midline (it's common for them to widen, which indicates that the shins lost their engagement). You can manually widen the backs of the legs by grabbing hold of the fibers of all 3 hamstring muscles from behind and broadening them into the resistance of the shins. Try this in just one forward bend (uttanasana, parsvottanasana, you name it) and you will feel like you've made an evolutionary leap in a matter of 30 seconds.
- Organic Energy: As always, we end with expansion.
- Tadasana: First, bend your knees enough so that you can feel the 4 corners of your feet (big toe mound, inner heel, baby toe mound and outer heel) rooting evenly into the earth. Then keeping them rooted, lifted and spread your toes to activate the muscles of the legs. Pay special attention to lighting the fire in your lower legs, then stretch your legs fully straight.
- Uttanasana: Just this one pose will make a powerful transformation in your legs. Touch the floor with fingertips and then bend your knees just as you did in tadasana, to feel the weight into your feet evenly and to track your kneecaps straight ahead with the 2nd toe mounds. Then lift and spread your toes. As your pinky toes spread to the sides draw back through the outer foot toward your outer heel; this fires the peroneal muscles, which stabilize the outer shins to the midline. Keeping your lower legs strongly hugging the midline, reach you hands behind your legs to grab hold of the hamstring muscles and draw them wide apart into the resistance of your shins. You heels and kneecaps should remain stable as you widen. This will keep the knees tracked and line up the hamstrings so that they can have a clear opening.
- Lunges: On your back leg, notice which part of the leg tends to straighten fastest. The top of the shin is the most mobile part of the leg, and so will push back (locking the knee) if there's not a strong muscular action through the calf muscle. Bend the knee to engage the calf, by pressing down into the big toe mound, then stretch the leg straight from the root of the thigh bone.
- Prasarita padottanasana: I've been working with starting out this pose with the knees slightly bent, just to get more action in the lower legs. Press into all 4 corners of the feet, and then spread your pinky toes to the sides and back toward the outer heels. This provides a strong resistance for the opening of the hamstrings as you send the inner thighs back and wide. Use your hands to open the hamstrings if you need. For you adventurous yogis, use this action to attempt a press handstand from prasarita padottanasana, standing on blocks if you need extra height. (It works!) When you lift up onto the balls of your feet, notice how the outer feet tend to drop; use your pinky toes spreading and pulling up to give you the fire you need to press up.
- Parsvakonasna: Try this pose with your hand on the inside of the foot, to give the shin something to press up against. Then push hard with your arm back against the shin to widen the thigh. You can do the inverse with the hand outside the foot, turning your elbow (the knobby epicondyle) up against the outer shin to increase the fire there, then use your inner thigh to widen and open the back of the leg. Make sure that the kneecap stays pointing straight ahead throughout.
- Trikonasana: In this pose, I like walking my hand on fingertips under the front shin, and that way I get a lot more leverage using the arm to squeeze the leg to the midline. Notice if just from that you get a deeper opening in the front leg.
- Virabhadrasana 2 (tracking the knee): Start in prasarita padottanasana and turn your right leg out in preparation for Vira 2. Before you bend the knee, lift and spread your toes and ignite the outer shins to the midline. Then as you bend your knee, track the kneecap in line over the 2nd toe mound (notice if it tends to knock in or stray to the side). Go all the way to 90 degrees, and then come back up again. Do several sets. This is one of the most effective ways to track the ligaments of the knees, and since it's weight-bearing, if done in good alignment it is a powerful pose for healing the knees. (You can also do a variation of this non-weight-bearing. Sit on the floor and use your hands to hold the outer shin to the midline while simultaneously pressing the inner thigh, right above the knee, wide into the shin's resistance. Bend and straighten the leg with this manual tracking.)
- Uttanasana (on blanket roll): Doing uttanasana with the ball of your feet up on a blanket roll will help you activate the shin loop/calf muscles. Start with your knees bent, and press into the big toe mounds as if you could lift up onto the balls of your feet; you'll feel the calves tone and lift up. Now keep them steady as you anchor the tops of your thighs back. This will prevent hyperextension in all of the straight legged poses (try parsvottanasana and trikonasana the same way).
- Adho mukha svanasana (downward-facing dog): In dog pose, bend your knees and notice what happens if you bend and straighten the legs without mindfully trying to create alignment. In particular, notice if the kneecaps knock in when the knees bend, and also what part of the leg moves back fastest when you straighten the legs (if it's the top of the shin, you'll know that it's pushing into hyperextension). Then bend the knees again and track the kneecaps over the 2nd toes. Create a steady fire through the outer shins by spreading the pinky toes, and then through the back of the calf by pressing into the mounds of the big toes. Keeping that, turn the inner knees in, back and wide as you stretch the legs straight.
- In preparation for virasana, add in a thigh stretch (i.e., in pigeon pose) and a calf stretch (i.e., holding the backs of your calves and drawing them up as you extend in uttanasana).
- Virasana and supta virasana: This is one of the trickiest poses for the knees, but as is often the case, the most perilous poses also have the greatest potential for healing. If you know you have cartilage damage in the knee, it's nice to put a spacer behind the knee so there's more room. If you have any ligament damage, the spacer is not recommended (because you want stability, not space); instead, focus on spreading the pinky toes and firing the outer shins to the midline. When the feet are aligned in virasana, it will go a long way toward protecting the knees. First line up the thigh bones so they are parallel, and the kneecaps point straight ahead. Make sure that you have a straight line going down the middle of the shin through the middle of the heel and the 2nd toe mound, with the inner ankle pressing up against your hips; this is straight alignment for the knees, but you'll notice that the feet will be slightly angled away from the hips. If this alignment is hard to create, sit up on some padding and then use your hands to mold the feet toward alignment. Squeeze the outer ankle toward the midline as you widen the ball of your foot and spread the pinky toes to the side. Then use your hands to turn up the flame on the outer shins, squeezing them toward the midline.
- Upavista konasana: It's common to feel a little tweakiness in the inner knee in this pose. That usually happens when the outer shins lose their engagement to the midline. When you set up the pose, point the kneecaps and 2nd toe mounds straight up toward the sky. Then activate the shins to the midline without the knees rolling in. Press the inner knees toward the earth and then widen the thighs into the resistance of your shins.
- Janu sirsasana: This is one of the more challenging poses to do if you have a knee injury. Often, the pain occurs when we get pulled up out of the back hip, which puts stress on the knee. So when you bend the knee in for the pose, lean to the bent leg side to get the hip to release down. Fire the pinky toes by spreading them into the earth until you get the outer ankle to lift away from the floor. That's good action in the shin and will protect the knee as you open the hip with Inner Spiral. When you turn over the front leg, keep weight to your inner back thigh so that the hip stays released.
- Baddha konasana (on a block): Bring your baddha konasana feet up onto a block, so the outer edges of your feet are supported along the length of the block (medium setting). Use your hands behind you to lift up into baddha konasana, with your hips off the floor. Spread your toes, especially your pinky toes, so they press into the block and get your outer heels and outer ankles to tone. You may be feeling a fire in your outer shins already. Now walk your hands in front of you, keeping the feet that active. Slowly turn the inner thighs in and back behind you, so the pelvis moves closer toward the earth.
- Mulabandhasana: You can go straight into mulabandhasana from this form of baddha koansana. Believe it or not, this pose is great on the knees, because the shins have no choice but to powerful squeeze the midline. Pressing your pinky toes into the block, tip the block forward so that the balls of your feet touch the earth and the block stands vertically between your feet and your pelvis. As you press the block forward into the outer edges of your feet, it will be hugging the shins to their midline (that's forward), which then stabilizes the knees and allows the inner thighs to move back and descend.