November 5, 2011

Intelligent Backbends Actually Require Less Thinking! ~ Jules Mitchell

My yoga teacher often says “When the body finds its own true alignment, it will remember it and try to find it again and again.”  Wise words, aren’t they?

In my years of teaching yoga anatomy, I often see that the intense curiosity about the mechanics of the asana often leads to over thinking.  The result is that the student’s critical mind takes her out of her body and away from the experience of the pose.

How am I able to identify this?  Well, it’s what I do in my own practice, of course.

Backbends, in particular, are the poor victims of the over working mind.  Too much “push” is something like a long day staring at a computer screen – a lot of outward energy without enough inward energy to balance it.

Today’s anatomy discussion will focus on the hip extension during Urdhva Dhanurasana (upward facing bow).  This is only one small component of the pose, but I will adhere to more wise words from my teacher, “we learn in layers.”  There is a great benefit to breaking down any subject into manageable pieces and then repeatedly returning to them for review.

I can always return with a Part 2 and take a look at the shoulder actions.  (Comment below if you want to see that happen!)

Getting into the pose

In Urdhva Dhanurasana the hip joint extends, which means that the thigh bones move posteriorly to the pelvis.  Our primary hip extensors are the powerful gluteus maximus and the hamstrings.  The gluteus maximus originates at the ilium and the sacrum and inserts on the femur and the iliotibial tract (IT band).   Its strength often leads to overuse and gripping, both are qualities we hope to escape in a yoga pose.  Remember the outward and inward energy I wrote about above?

An important thing to note is that the gluteus maximus also externally rotates the thigh.  So, if you powerfully engage your gluteus maximus to pull the hip into extension as you press up into upward facing bow, you might also externally rotate the femurs.

But why does that secondary function matter?

Well, it could lead to some or all of the following:

  • – The feet turn out
  • – The butt squeezes together and gets hard
  • – The groin also gets hard and pushes out
  • – The spinal extension gets stuck somewhere in the lumbar spine and doesn’t sequence through all the segments of the spine.
  • – Over time, this could cause discomfort in the low back and the sacroiliac joints.

This is why you often hear teachers say for example, “feet parallel”.  They are essentially encouraging less external rotation at the hip.  But when you are upside down and backwards “feet parallel” is much easier to translate into an action.

If you only think about the outcome of the pose, the push is what drives you.  Instead, balance the effort. Think less about where you are going and more about what you doing.  You might find backbends invigorating rather than exhausting.

Managing the pose

It’s always the large and superficial muscle groups that get us moving and drive the outward energy in a yoga pose.  Yet it’s the deeper, stabilizing muscles that rein us inward and give us an opportunity to experience and feel.  Isn’t this what we love about yoga?

Warning:  the following tips are not easy!  Accessing what’s within is always a challenge J

– Invite the hamstrings to the party.  The hamstrings are also hip extensors and would be happy to share the work load with the gluteus maximus.

– The quadriceps are also featured guests and help straighten the legs (since the hamstrings are also knee flexors) by signaling to the hamstrings to work the upper fibers more than the lower fibers.

– Encourage the anterior fibers of the gluteus medius and the gluteus minumus to contribute.  These muscle fibers are internal rotators and when turned on will counter the external rotation caused by the gluteus maximus.

– As an added bonus, both the medius and minumus are also abductors will help stabilize the pelvic girdle.

How does your lower back feel now?

Can you feel the intensity of this deep backbend but also the calmness of the mind as it navigates through your body?

You don’t always have to “get there.”  The beauty is in the experience.

Jules Mitchell lives her yoga in Hermosa Beach, CA.  She is a biomechanics graduate student and leads Yoga Anatomy courses nationally for yoga teachers.  Jules is also the director of the South Bay Yoga Conference or you can contact her here

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