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Category Archive for ‘Shin 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 is Cooking

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.

PRINCIPLES:

  • 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.

PRACTICE:

  • 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.

Yoga of Impact

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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

The Achilles Heel

This week, we’re focusing on the muscles of the calf, which attach to the heel through the Achilles tendon. I looked up the story of Achilles, to remember how the tendon got its name.

The story goes like this: when Achilles was born, his mother, instead of receiving the birth of her son as a gift, received it as a source of anxiety because she knew that he must someday die. In an attempt to protect him, she tried to make him immortal by either dragging him through sacred waters, holding on to him by his heel, or basically glazing him and roasting him over a fire (again holding him by the heel), so that wherever he had been treated by the waters or the glaze/fire, he would become impenetrable. In sum, her desire to protect her son was so strong that she nearly smothered him with her protective love, creating a shell around him that none could crack (except for at the place, on his heel, where she had held him).

The underlying assumption of the story, and indeed of many yoga systems, is that life is inherently problematic, because we are born mortal, limited, conditioned beings. But the Tantric vision proposes a radically different possibility: that life, as it is, is truly a gift, and our mortal, limited, conditioned circumstance is precisely the gift. It is what allows us to experience love and joy and pain and any experience at all. To paraphrase my teacher, Douglas Brooks: the immortal has chosen the mortal, the unconditioned has chosen the conditioned, the divine has chosen you. Your life is the gift.

So the Achilles heel, the supposedly “fatal flaw”, the place of vulnerability, doesn’t have to be seen as a problem. Rather, it is the gift of our mortality, the gift of life itself. Yoga is to receive that gift, align to the gift we’ve been given, and optimalize everything we’ve been given (weaknesses and perfections) so that they serve us

Interestingly, the Achilles tendon (physically) is both the strongest tendon in the human body, and the one that is most frequently-ruptured (see Blandine Calais-Germain in Anatomy of Movement). It can be a source of stability and great opening, or a place of weakness, depending on how we align.

The Achilles tendon is the common tendon for the two biggest calf muscles, gastrocnemius and soleus, attaching them to the heel. Both are involved in plantar flexion (pointing the foot), so they activate when you press out through the mound of the big toe (the distal end of the 1st metatarsal) and you draw the heel energetically back and up. This initiates shin loop, an energetic flow that begins at the base of the shin (above the ankle bones), goes back, up the back of the calf, and presses forward through the top of the shin, then flows back down the front of the shin.

The activation of the calf muscles through Muscular Energy and Shin Loop is crucial in preventing hyperextension of the knee, and thus to good alignment in the hips and hamstrings. Hence, the Achilles is either our flaw or our asset. When it draws back and up, the calf muscles fire and stabilize the lower leg; when we don’t engage there, the top of the shin (which tends to be the most mobile part of the leg) buckles backward, disrupting the energy flow through the whole leg. In general, the side where the calf muscles are least developed is the side where the hip flexors are tighter and the hamstrings are misaligned. This is because, the see-saw principle demonstrates, when the top of the shin moves back, the top of the thigh will move forward, jamming in the hip socket and pulling the thigh bone away from the hamstring attachments.

To investigate this in your own body, stand in Uttanasana and notice the shape of your calves and relative development of one as compared to the other. Palpate each side to check muscle tone around the whole calf. Note whether the side that is least developed corresponds to the side that has tighter hips, or where the hamstrings are more prone to injury. (An informal survey of the Nerds confirmed that this was the case across the board.)

Now, stay in uttanasana, and massage each calf muscle to get the blood flowing there and the energy to release more through the calf. Do one side at a time, manually activating both Muscular Energy to the bone and Shin Loop. Engage your legs by lifting your toes, and then use both hands to hug the muscle (forward) to the bone and draw the muscles up the back of the leg toward the top of the shin. Spend about 60 seconds per side massaging the calf muscles in this way. Pause between sides to feel the difference in energy flow from side to side. You’ll probably feel that the energy flows more clearly DOWNWARD on the side you’ve massaged, and that the hamstrings are more open.

Sequence to strengthen and open the backs of the calves:
In all poses, lift your toes, dig the heel into the floor and pull energetically back, lifting the calf muscles up the back of the leg and pressing them forward. Pressing down through the big toe mound will help to activate the calves. Then keeping the lower leg strong, press the tops of your thighs back into the hip sockets. Once everything is lined up, extend organically from the focal point (it’s the pelvis for all of these poses) down through the bones of the legs into the earth and then back up through the spine.

  • High lunge
  • Downward-facing dog: Bend your knees in dog pose to activate the calves first, then stretch the thigh bones back to straighten the legs. You can also bring one foot to hold the heel on the opposite foot, with the big toe and second toe on either side of the Achilles tendon, and then go through all of the steps to engage the calves, using your toes pulling down on the heel to get the extension and stretch through the backs of the legs.
  • Parsvottanasana: Doing this pose and other straight-legged standing poses, like uttanasana and trikonanasa, with the mounds of the toes up on a blanket roll will help you to activate Shin Loop. Start with the knee bent so you can access the calf muscles by drawing the heel back and up while pressing the mound of the big toe down. You can also try this pose with the front foot just on the heel; by digging your heel into the floor and drawing it back and up, you’ll find the connection in the back of the leg.
  • Virabhadrasana 1: Focus on the back leg to get strength and stretch in the calves.
  • Prasarita padottanasana
  • Parsvakonasana
  • Trikonasana
  • Ardha chandrasana
  • Standing splits
  • Utthita hasta padangustasana: when the leg is in the air, it is harder to access the strength in the calf muscles, because there is nothing to provide resistance for the heel and big toe mound. So pay close attention to the action of the calves.
  • Anjaneyasana (+thigh stretch)
  • Virasana: Now that the calf muscles are toned and lengthened, virasana will probably feel more spacious than usual. Use your hands to flatten the calf muscles straight back as you move to sit in this pose.
  • Supta virasana
  • Ardha hanumanasana (AKA runner’s stretch)
  • Hanumanasana
  • Triangmukhaipada pascimottanasana/krouncasana/surya yantrasana
  • Visvamittrasana: To protect your hamstrings in this pose, where the foot is off the floor in front, keep the action of your calf muscles strong as you root the thigh back to straighten the leg.
  • Upavista konasana: Flex strongly at the ankles, so the Achilles tendon moves down to the floor, even while you extend through the big toe mound. Bring your hands under your calf muscles, bifurcating them with your fingertips, and then flatten the calves to the floor into the resistance of your hands. Then anchor your thigh bones into the floor.
  • Supta upavista konasana: with your arms in between your legs, hold on to the backs of the calves as resistance to root your thigh bones back (in this case, up) into the hip sockets.
  • savasana
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