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Category Archive for ‘Ankle Loop’ rss

Synergies

I just came back from 10 days in Vancouver Island, surrounded by primary rain forests shrouded in mists, and getting to know the waters and the whales. While there (in Tofino), I went on several tours with the guides from Remote Passages, all of whom shared a deep commitment to the health of this unique ecosystem and a deep understanding of the synergistic relationships between all the different parts of the ecosystem. One guide explained how the cedars, some of which are upwards of 2000 years old, are able to grow so tall and live so long because of nitrates that they receive from salmon who swim upriver in this season and die on the banks, in the jaws of predators, so that their nitrates filter back into the earth and the trees’ roots.

After a couple of days, I was more attuned to these connections and to how my own presence touched and intersected everything around me. By the end of the trip, even though I had been traveling alone, I felt embraced and held in a web of relationships, and this translated into a sense of groundedness and ease.

Spending time close to nature will do this: if you just pay the slightest attention, you can’t help but be reminded that you are always in relationship with everything around you, and you are always connected to something much greater than your self. True isolation, as the Tantrikas claim, is not really possible, even though we certainly can feel isolated or alienated at times. When that happens, we just need to pause and reaffirm our greater connections.

This got me thinking about the Nerd, and the way in which we practice in the Nerd. The whole point of this class (and blog) is to draw a narrow focus to one particular aspect of our practice – a principle, a muscle, a class of poses – and look at it from every angle possible, bringing it more into the light and infusing it with power. I obviously believe there is extraordinary value to this kind of focus; I love practicing this way. But if the action or muscle we’re focusing on ends up isolated from the greater context of the practice, our practice ends up hardening, becoming rigid.

So we always have to see how the principles we’re focusing on relate to the greater context. Anusara’s principles are designed as a systematic, sequential and progressive unfolding of actions, and all of them work in relationship to all of the rest of them. If we try to do them in isolation, they are not really effective; it would be like removing the salmon from the cedars’ life cycle – the whole process breaks down.

With that in mind, over the next several weeks, I’m going to work through the energy loops of the body, starting with the foundation so that we can build the entire cycle from the ground up and feel the relationships among all of the principles.

It starts, always, with Opening to Grace, opening to the greater context of our lives, and feeling held in that web of relationships that is always embracing us.

PRINCIPLES:

  • Open to Grace: Our first principle invites us to set the foundation of the pose mindfully, with respect for the way we touch the earth because this represents how we place ourselves in the context of something bigger than ourselves. On many signs in nature preserves, there’s the instruction to “leave only footprints”; may we tread with respect and love on the earth. When you set the foundation of the feet, line them up parallel from the middle of the ankles through the second toe mounds. All four corners of the feet (big toe mound, inner heel, baby toe mound and outer heel) evenly release into the earth. This passive release with gravity that’s part of Opening to Grace is the feeling of letting yourself be held by something greater than yourself. This is the context for everything else.
  • Muscle Energy connects all of the parts of our being, so that we feel ourselves as an ecosystem, where every piece has a role to play. It draws the parts of our being into relationship by hugging concentrically from skin to muscle to bone, hugging the limbs to the midline, and engaging from the peripheral parts to the core.
  • Ankle Loop: The energy loops are refinements of the larger context of the dynamic pulse of Muscle and Organic Energy. Ankle Loop is the foundational loop (when the feet are on the floor, at least), providing a kind of root system for the body. If the Ankle Loop isn’t activated, none of the other energy loops will be effective, because they all must work in relationship to each other. This loop begins at the base of the shin bones, just above the ankle bones, and draws back and down, so the back of the heel roots into the earth. Then it travels up through the center of the arches and reconnects at the base of the shin.
  • Shin Loop: This builds on the foundation of the Ankle Loop. Shin loop also starts at the base of the shin, where it has a juncture with the Ankle Loop, and then flows back and up the back of the shin, so the calf muscles hug to the bones and push the top of the shin forward. The front side of Shin Loop flows down and reconnects to the juncture point with Ankle Loop. To activate the Shin Loop, you have to activate the calf muscles, and the easiest access point for this is to press into the mound of the big toe. When we do this, however, the heel will tend to get light (as if you were coming up on high heels) unless we remember the connection to the Ankle Loop (which roots the back of the heel down). We must hold the two in relationship. If the heels get light, it will tend to make the hip flexors bind, as the femur pulls up into the hip socket; also, the healing properties of these loops for hamstring attachment tears is lost if the Ankle Loop is lost.
  • Organic Energy: This last principle takes the sense of wholeness of our own being and connects it back to the world around us, so we don’t end up feeling isolated in our practice. It extends from the focal point (mostly the pelvis here) down through the bones (of the legs) into the earth, and then extends from the focal point back up through the rest of the body (torso, head and arms).

PRACTICE:

  • Tadasana: Line up the feet parallel, and then just feel the weight of the feet into the earth. Notice if one leg feels more plugged in and connected. The leg that’s uprooted will be the side where the hip is tighter. Now bend both knees and release evenly with gravity through all four corners of both feet. Lift your toes and engage the legs fully, hugging all of the muscles evenly to the bones, holding to the midline, and engaging from the feet up into the pelvis. As you draw up from the feet, stretch the legs straight, keeping the muscles toned and the weight balanced on your feet. Keeping the legs strong, now anchor your pelvis down with your hands, so you re-connect to the earth through the legs and feet, and then extend up through your lower belly and spine.
  • Uttanasana: Notice how your weight falls into the feet when you bow forward. Look at the relationship between the top of your thigh (greater trochanter), the middle of the knee, and the ankle bones: when the line connecting these three points is vertical, that’s a straight and aligned leg. Oftentimes, you’ll find that the knee and the hip (or just the knee) sit back behind the ankle. To build healthier relationships in the legs, we start at the beginning. Bend the knees to back out of the pose (Open to Grace) and get all four corners of the feet to evenly root down. Now engage the legs fully (Muscle Energy), lifting and spreading your toes. Keeping the knees bent and the legs active, drag the base of the shin back to initiate the lower loops. As the base of the shins go back, anchor your heels down and simultaneously press through the mounds of the big toes to activate the calf muscles. Then, with both the Ankle and Shin Loop established, straighten your legs fully, from the roots of the thigh bones, and extend Organic Energy from the pelvis down into the earth and long through your spine.
  • Adho mukha svanasana: In downward-facing dog, getting the heels to the floor is often seen as an “ideal” form, but the extension through the heels must be in balanced relationship to the rest of the body. If the heels stretch down without a synergistic tone in the calf muscles, you’ll be pushing the legs into hyperextension, which creates a short-circuit in the ecosystem of your body (the hip flexors respond by tightening, the hamstring attachments can get overstretched, and the lower back will tend to round). Try dog pose just like we did in uttanasana, starting with the knees bent and legs strong; drag the base of the shins back without straightening your knees and then root down through the heels as you press strongly into the mounds of the big toes. The heels should go down only as much as the calf muscles draw up.
  • Adho mukha svanasana variation: Try this one leg at a time, using your other foot hooked around the Achilles tendon (between the big toe and second toe) to help engage the Ankle Loop while you draw the calf muscles up strongly. Then stretch the leg fully straight.
  • Parsvottanasana: Often I’ve practiced this pose for Ankle and Shin Loops with a blanket under the ball of the foot, but in Tofino I didn’t have the right prop for this, so I just did it with the foot flat on the floor. I was amazed to find that I actually got more power through the loops, probably because of the full connection to the floor. Get the foundation set, then engage the legs fully. Keeping all of the muscles hugging to the bones, on the front leg pull the base of the shin back. (Remember the Ankle Loop starts at the base of the shin, so it’s not really the heel that draws back.) As you do, ground down through the back of the heel and press into the mound of the big toe simultaneously to fire up the calves. Then stretch the leg fully straight and extend Organic Energy down and out.
  • Trikonasana, ardha chandrasana: Because the front foot is pointed, trikonasnana, will feel much like parsvottanasana, in terms of the importance of the lower body loops. Work it like we did above. In ardha chandrasana, the key is to use the lower loops to avoid locking the knee (which would again short-circuit the balance of relationships in the legs).
  • Utthita hasta padangustasana: Try the prep pose, where you bring one leg in and hold the front of the shin (knee bent, rather than straight leg) or, even better, holding the outer edge of the foot (knee bent, standing down through the foot into your hand). Activate both feet, tone all of the muscles, and then engage the lower loops. The lower leg will act like ardha chandrasana and needs the lower loops to prevent hyper-extension. The top leg will feel totally different. Try dragging the base of the shin back into the resistance of your hand, and notice how it opens space in your hip.
  • Deep, wide lunge: Step one foot forward and wide, to the outside of your hands (you can turn the foot out at an angle to clear the hip joint a little more). Settle into your foundation, so you feel the support of the earth. Then engage the legs. Feel how on the front leg side, when you activate theĀ  Ankle Loop by drawing the base of the shin back, it connects and opens deep in the pelvis.
  • Surya namaskar: Play with this in plank pose, caturanga, and especially cobra pose.
  • Thigh stretches: In any of the thigh stretches, you’ll get a deeper and more connected stretch if you work the lower loops. (I know, it may seem counter-intuitive, but so does the idea that the salmon make the trees grow bigger and live longer…) Always hold the top of your foot (not the toes) when you do a thigh stretch. Think about it: if you’re pushing on your toes, you’re creating reverse Ankle Loop, which will have repercussions all the way up into the hip. So press down into your foot as you flex your toes back, creating ankle loop in much the same way you did with a pointed foot in trikonasana and notice how that changes the whole ecosystem of the pose.
  • Malasana
  • Pigeon pose, variation with the front shin parallel: Flex the front foot, so you’ll have more access to feel the Ankle Loop.
  • Baby cradle: This is a great pose to feel the relationship between the Ankle Loop and the opening of the hips and lower back. Because the foot’s in the air, you’ll have to provide your own resistance for the Ankle Loop, so that the base of the shin can pull down energetically without moving in space.
  • Agni stambasana
  • Upavista konasana: In all of the seated forward bends, watch the feet and pay close attention to how your foundation (the whole back of the leg) engages the earth. In the full pose here, the Achilles tendons will be on the floor, as will the heels (and the entire inseam of the thighs). Start with a passive release into the foundation, then tone the legs fully, so all sides of the legs hug to the bones and draw up toward the core in the pelvis. Then, flexing the feet, press the base of the shins to the floor as the heels and mounds of the big toes extend long.
  • Baddha konasana
  • Happy baby

Yoga of Impact

Play

Listen to the full class by using the audio player.

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 suggests 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.

PRINCIPLES:

  • 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.

PRACTICE:

  • 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…
  • Hanumanasana
  • 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…
  • Pascimottanasana
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