Ju­dith Han­son Lasater, a YJ found­ing ed­i­tor, ex­plains how your re­la­tion­ship to grav­ity can change a pose.

An in­creased aware­ness of the ef­fects of grav­ity can help you fig­ure out which mus­cles to use and which to re­lease in or­der to move more deeply and more safely into a pose.

Yoga Journal - - JANUARY 2018 - By Ju­dith Han­son Lasater

When my chil­dren were very young and seated in a high­chair, they would de­lib­er­ately drop pieces of food—one by one over the edge of the tray, each time de­light­edly watch­ing them fall to the floor. By the time my third child reached this stage, I had changed my per­spec­tive. In­stead of be­ing an­noyed, I told my­self that she was just “ex­per­i­ment­ing with grav­ity.” That al­ways made me smile.

When you prac­tice asana, you are con­stantly ex­per­i­ment­ing or danc­ing with the force of grav­ity and its ef­fects on a pose. If you are to un­der­stand how to prac­tice, and cer­tainly how to teach, you must be aware of how grav­ity “chooses” which mus­cles are work­ing, and which are not, in each asana, and why this is so. This un­der­stand­ing is what I call move­ment lit­er­acy, and it is the guid­ing prin­ci­ple of my on­line and in-per­son course on ex­pe­ri­en­tial anatomy.

Move­ment lit­er­acy is based on the un­der­stand­ing that the body is an orches­tra and move­ments are the mu­sic it cre­ates. When you can see, feel, and un­der­stand the specifics of the body’s move­ments, not only do you be­come a bet­ter prac­ti­tioner, but you now have the tools to help your stu­dents prac­tice more safely and even po­ten­tially to help them elim­i­nate pain when they strug­gle in an asana.

Here is an ex­am­ple: Both Supta Padan­gusthasana (Re­clin­ing Hand-to-Big-Toe Pose) and Ut­tanasana (Stand­ing For­ward Bend) are for­ward bends. Both poses are prac­ticed by flex­ing the hip joints. But there is a big dif­fer­ence in which mus­cles are cre­at­ing each asana. In Supta Padan­gusthasana, you be­gin by ly­ing supine on your mat. To prac­tice the pose, you ex­hale as you flex your hip joint, bring­ing your thigh to­ward your trunk. Your leg comes straight up, mov­ing against the force of grav­ity the whole way. Fi­nally, catch your big toe or hold on to your outer an­kle or lower leg, depend­ing on your flex­i­bil­ity.

The ac­tion of rais­ing your leg up is cre­ated in this po­si­tion by the hip flexor mus­cles that are found on the front of the body. These are prin­ci­pally the il­iop­soas, the rec­tus femoris por­tion of the quadri­ceps, the sar­to­rius, and the pectineus.

When you lift your leg up against the force of grav­ity, these mus­cles un­dergo a short­en­ing con­trac­tion, also called a con­cen­tric con­trac­tion. The hip flexor mus­cles are cre­at­ing the move­ment of bring­ing the thigh to the trunk, that is, hip flex­ion. The en­tire ac­tion is oc­cur­ring against the force of grav­ity.

But just be­cause you are mov­ing into hip flex­ion doesn’t nec­es­sar­ily mean that you are cre­at­ing the move­ment by us­ing your hip flex­ors. When you are stand­ing up, for ex­am­ple, and bend­ing for­ward to prac­tice Ut­tanasana, it is ac­tu­ally the mus­cles in the but­tocks and back thigh that are con­trol­ling the cre­ation of hip flex­ion, not the hip flex­ors. Thus, the mus­cles that are cre­at­ing hip flex­ion in Ut­tanasana are mus­cles on the back of the body: the hip ex­ten­sors.

The hip ex­ten­sors are the glu­teus max­imus and all of the ham­string mus­cles, ex­cept the short head of the bi­ceps femoris. Plus a small per­cent­age of the move­ment is cre­ated by the pos­te­rior fibers of the glu­teus medius.

Hip ex­ten­sion is the move­ment of the fe­mur back­ward when stand­ing, like when you pre­pare to kick a ball. Or, in asana prac­tice, ex­ten­sion of the hip joint oc­curs when you lift one leg up in the Adho Mukha Svanasana (Down­ward-Fac­ing Dog Pose) vari­a­tion often called Three-Legged Dog, or when you move into Urd­hva Dha­nurasana (Up­ward Bow Pose).

All of these move­ments are short­en­ing con­trac­tions of the hip ex­ten­sors. But the hip ex­ten­sors are also ac­tive when mov­ing into Ut­tanasana, which para­dox­i­cally is hip flex­ion. When bend­ing for­ward in the pose, you are now mov­ing with grav­ity. When you be­gin the pose by tip­ping the trunk slightly for­ward, grav­ity im­me­di­ately be­gins to pull more and more of your body down­ward to­ward the earth.

The hip ex­ten­sors are now un­der­go­ing a lengthen-

ing con­trac­tion. They are slowly let­ting you down, like you would let some­one down with a rope over the edge of a cliff. The hip ex­ten­sors are act­ing like a brake on the body to con­trol the grad­ual de­scent into hip flex­ion. This is more metabol­i­cally ef­fi­cient; you need less en­ergy to move with grav­ity than against it. In other words, by us­ing the hip ex­ten­sors, the body uses less en­ergy to cre­ate hip flex­ion. With­out the length­en­ing con­trac­tion of the ex­ten­sors, you would sim­ply crash down onto your legs or onto the floor be­cause the force of grav­ity is pulling you down.

Just the op­po­site oc­curs in the hip ex­ten­sors with Salamba Sir­sasana (Sup­ported Head­stand). Think about com­ing into Sir­sasana with both legs straight. You pre­pare for the pose in hip flex­ion, with your arms and head in Head­stand po­si­tion, and your weight on the balls of your feet. You slowly move into the pose by cre­at­ing hip ex­ten­sion against grav­ity as you lift both legs up, stack­ing your feet over your hips. You are mov­ing into hip ex­ten­sion against grav­ity and there­fore the hip ex­ten­sors are cre­at­ing the move­ment.

When you come out of Sir­sasana, you are mov­ing into hip flex­ion but the hip ex­ten­sors are still con­trol­ling the move­ment. They are un­der­go­ing a length­en­ing con­trac­tion to slow the de­scent against the force of grav­ity and to pro­tect you from in­jury.

Whether you are prac­tic­ing or teach­ing yoga, it can be dif­fi­cult to keep all the ac­tions of mus­cles at the fore­front of your mind. But if we be­gin to think first of the ef­fect that grav­ity might be hav­ing on the body in a pose, it is eas­ier to quickly fig­ure out which mus­cles might need to be stronger, and which might need to be stretched.

In Sir­sasana, for ex­am­ple, it might not cross your mind that the ham­strings need to be both stretched and strong in or­der to come up with two straight legs. In Ut­tanasana it might not seem like the ham­strings are do­ing most of the work of cre­at­ing the pose, both as you de­scend and as­cend. But the hip flex­ors in Ut­tanasana are not cre­at­ing hip flex­ion, even though you end up in hip flex­ion. Be­cause we swim in a sea of grav­ity, it is in­deed the ham­strings that are mostly con­trol­ling both the as­cent and de­scent.

Be­gin to no­tice in your own prac­tice which mus­cles are ac­ti­vated as you prac­tice. Start slowly with the poses of­fered here, and then be­gin to ob­serve your mus­cle ac­tion in other poses. Not only will this be an ef­fec­tive way to study mus­cle ac­tions, but it will help you ap­pre­ci­ate even more how won­drously sub­tle and in­tel­li­gent all of our move­ments re­ally are.

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