by Jenni Rawlings
Once you’ve spent enough time studying the body and movement, you begin to develop refined anatomical eyes that can see patterns in the way people move that they can’t sense in themselves. One of these patterns that I see is that yogis tend to move where it’s already easy for their bodies to move while avoiding the work required where true positive change is needed. This is a complex issue that has partly to do with the alignment we choose for our poses. But another factor is a surprising sensory disconnect between what we feel is happening in our body and what is actually happening (also known as poor proprioception), combined with a widespread notion that going “deeper” into our poses is better or more “advanced.”
In our continuing effort to update our beloved yoga practice with modern-day biomechanics knowledge (the science of how the body moves), let’s examine how we can improve one specific body awareness issue that applies to many different yoga poses.
MOVING FROM THE HIPS VS. THE SPINE
Due to our sitting-based lifestyles, the overwhelming majority of us have tight, locked up hips. As I’ve written about before, when we don’t move well at one area of our body, we will compensate for that lack of mobility by moving more than we should at an adjacent area of the body, thereby creating too much mobility (a.k.a. hypermobility) in that spot. In the example of our tight hips, the neighboring area that we tend to overuse is our lumbar spine (low back). Hypermobile areas are the sites of pain and injury in many people – is it any wonder that so many of us experience low back pain in our lives?
We spend a lot of time in yoga trying to open our hips, but because it’s so much easier to move from our bendy lumbar spines than our stiff, unyielding hips – and also because of the belief that going “deeper” into our poses is better – we all-too-often bypass the very hip opening we seek by moving from our spine instead. Here’s an easy-to-remember rule: if we want to open our hips when we stretch, we need to move from our hips (the stuck place that needs mobility) and not from our spine (the hypermobile place that needs stability.)
This simple rule can be a challenging one to apply to our practice, though. Most yogis (even very experienced ones) haven’t developed the proprioception necessary to feel the difference between moving from their hips vs. moving from their spine, beyond an obvious example like swan diving forward into uttanasana (forward fold) from standing. Even yogis who consider themselves as having “open hips” because they can put their leg behind their head, drop into full hanumanasana (forward splits), or fold forward into pigeon pose are usually unaware that they’re not actually achieving these shapes by moving primarily at their hips. Instead, they’re moving more from (you guessed it) their lumbar spine, and also quite often at their knee joint (hello knee pain in hip openers!)
SUPTA PADANGUSTHASANA AND MOVEMENT INTEGRITY
But before we worry too much about complex shapes like leg behind the head and hanumanasana, let’s take a look at a relatively simpler shape: supta padangusthasana, or reclined big toe pose. The traditional version of this asana has the yogi hook their big toe with their fingers. Although this is how the pose is commonly taught, in reality if we bind this way, we’ll tuck our pelvis under, which flexes our lumbar spine and turns what we think of as a hamstring-opener into a low back-opener instead. It’s fine to do the pose this way (really, it is!) if your goal is to open your low back, but if you’re interested in stretching your hamstrings (and therefore your hips), you’ll need to ditch the big toe bind and opt for a yoga strap or belt instead.
Many informed yogis already practice this pose with a strap (great job, you!), but even with the help of an excellent prop, most of us still fail to find our optimal hamstring stretch. Remember our foundational rule that we must move from our hips in order to stretch our hips. It sounds like such common sense, but when we’re talking about bodies with ingrained non-optimal movement patterns, our brain doesn’t see things so clearly (poor proprioception). In order to move solely from our hip joint in supta padangusthasana, we simply need to pull our stretching leg in without also moving our pelvis. If the pelvis moved, the spine moved, which means you’re stretching your low back. Make sense?
But how do we know if we’re doing it right? There’s a perfect alignment marker designed just for this purpose that is extremely helpful, yet not well-known in the yoga world. You’ll know that you’ve moved your stretching leg solely at your hip joint if the hamstrings of your opposite leg are on the floor. This is because if you pull your lifted leg past the true edge of your hamstrings’ length, those hamstrings will pull the pelvis into a tuck, which will cause the other leg’s thighbone to lift away from the floor. (Can you picture that?) If a little Hot Wheels car can drive itself underneath your bottom leg’s hamstrings, then you know you need to lower your raised leg down – sometimes a LOT – until those hammies are back on the floor. Don’t be surprised if this means that the new alignment for your pose has your lifted leg only about 45 degrees (or less!) from the floor. Although it might be tough to accept this newly-defined edge for a pose you’ve done so many times before (believe me, I know from personal experience!), learning to reign your poses in to the actual, biomechanical stretch edge of the tissues you’re trying to mobilize is a huge first step toward improving your mind-body connection and therefore your proprioception.
Supta padangusthasana is a great pose to examine in learning to refine hip vs. spinal movement. As poses become more complex like the super bendy ones on display in YouTube clips and Instagram photos these days, the emphasis on “deeper” shapes and how a pose looks takes priority over which tissues in the body we’re mobilizing and for what reasons. Although poses like these are fun, creative, and artful, if our goal in practicing yoga is to cultivate long-term balance and health in the body, the science of biomechanics would tell us that the pursuit of deep, bendy shapes is not the correct means to that goal. In my practice and teaching, yoga is about a focused and humble encounter with one’s own limitations. Once we learn to see and accept our body with clarity and accurate perception, we can begin our path toward movement integrity and wellness.
Jenni Rawlings loves to weave her natural interest in anatomy and biomechanics into her yoga and movement teaching. You can find out more about her offerings and teachings at www.jennirawlings.com.
what if it doesn’t feel like your hamstrings on the opposite leg are even touching the floor? 😉 at any angle!?
This is a fabulous article, thanks. I have quite poor proprioception especially around the hip area. I’ve been practicing yoga for about three years after starting in my late fifties so I have had a lot of learning to do. It seems to me that yoga is ALL about this area of the body in many ways. I have excellent teachers who are always reminding us of the importance of alignment but to have it written down in a succinct manner is extremely helpful for some-one like me who loves the written word. Many yoga teachers are movers of course and communicate effectively through movement but for some-one like me who has never really been a mover until now the written word is an exceptionally helpful reinforcement and aid in learning.
These posts about alignment are SO HELPFUL! Absolutely loving the information here, especially since I have mainly a home practice and must be very careful because of lower back injuries. Thank you!
@Maureen & @Sara – I am sooo happy to know that you find this alignment info helpful. Thanks so much for offering your awesome feedback! @Misty – that’s a great question, and this does actually happen sometimes! I can’t see your individual body to be sure, but if the hamstrings don’t lie on the floor at all when you’re lying flat, this can be a sign of psoas tension. Try putting some bolstering under your head and shoulders to prop yourself up a bit (be sure to only prop the shoulders and not also the back). The head should be higher than the shoulders, so maybe think of putting one pillow under your shoulders and two pillows under your head – something like that. This might help get those hammies down so that you can start your hamstring stretch from more of an aligned place. Thanks for asking the great Q!
Thanks for a thoughtful article. It’s really great that you and others are helping the yoga population refine their understanding of how the body moves. My only question is on keeping the hamstrings on the floor. I don’t think this is possible for everyone, no matter how much integrity there is in their alignment. For example, the only way my hamstrings will touch the floor in Supta Padanghustasana is if I hyperextend my knees. I have my students practice Supta Padanghustasana with the foot of their stationary leg grounding against the wall as they press the leg downward. That way, they can move force out through the leg in the way it’s designed to move force. I also have them check to make sure they are maintaining their lumbar curve on both sides. So, even if the hamstrings are not on the floor for everyone depending on the contours of their back bodies, they are still keeping the body in a neutral “Tadasana.” Does this make sense?
I am not quite sure I agree with this article. The biomechanical advantage of a longer torso, or longer limbs could contribute to the bodies ability to not fully engage the muscles of the low back in uttanasana. The unilateral(one sided) asanas are not compensatory to the low back. We lose pelvic neutrality, anterior/ posterior tilt and awareness in unilateral postures where we drop one hip back and move forward to lengthen the fold. When in turn we create the appearance of going “deeper”, this doesn’t really have anything to do with hypermobility of the lumbar. Hypermobility of the lumbar is not necessarily a term used to describe the movement but more a reference point to diagnoses a dysfunction, meaning hypermobility leading to referred or localized pain patterns.
Thanks so much for your comment, @Charlotte! I love your articles and really appreciated the one you wrote a little while ago cautioning yogis against overstretching their ligaments. Thank you so much for offering that insightful piece to us! 🙂
And to address your Q about my post, when you say that your hamstrings can’t touch the ground in supta padangusthasana, have you tried lying flat on the floor with both legs down and seeing if your hamstrings can touch the floor then? Some people’s hamstrings don’t touch the floor when they’re lying flat – before they even start to lift a leg toward supta padangusthasana. This is usually an indication that their psoas muscles are tight. The psoas attaches from the lumbar spine down to the upper femur, and if it’s tight it will shorten the distance between those two points, which will manifest as the femurs lifting away from the floor if we’re lying on our back. In this case, the most optimal modification would be to bolster one’s head and shoulders up away from the floor (head should be a bit higher than shoulders) until the hamstrings lower back to the floor, and then practice supta padangusthasana from there. But depending on the practice setting one might be in, that modification might not be so practical, and in that case you can still lift your leg up for supta padangusthasana, but you’d want to carefully note the position your pelvis was in before lifting the leg, and then only lift the leg to the point that the pelvis doesn’t move from its original position at all. Does that make sense?
In this article, the main reason I’ve highlighted the bottom leg’s hamstrings staying down is to provide an objective alignment marker for most yogis to begin to understand the true length of their hamstrings, and to see that the way they were practicing the pose before was probably taking them past their edge and giving them a false sense (poor proprioception) of how long their hamstrings are. I believe that learning to see and feel how long our muscles truly are is an important step in mindfully connecting to our body and our movement, and refined alignment is such a helpful tool for getting us there. 🙂
Thanks Jenni for talking about alignment! I’m super into anatomy/biomechanics — I LOVE Katy Bowman — and I practice and am training to teach Iyengar yoga. So I’m obsessed with alignment and I love that we’re talking about it. Yay!
But these sort of finger-wagging articles (on Yogadork and elsewhere on the web) saying “You THOUGHT you were stretching but you were WRONG” seem oversimplified. I read the reclined pigeon one and I did the pose for about 15 minutes trying to figure out how I feeling the stretch in my hips I wasn’t supposed to be able to when I did the “bad, wrong” version of the pose, and how I was supposed to be feeling anything at all in the version recommended. Dudes, my body is not lying to me. I can stretch my piriformis with a tucked pelvis. I know, because I did it. It’s possible to stretch more than one group of muscles at a time!
I did get on the floor to try this one out as well. When I lie on the floor — forget supta padangusthasana, just supta tadasana — my hamstrings are not touching/just barely touching the floor unless I greatly exaggerate my own personal pelvic tilt or, as the very tactful Charlotte noted, do something to my knees that doesn’t feel good. The moment I raise a leg even one inch, bam, yes, you could drive any number of Hot Wheels under my other hamstrings — and please, we are all adults here, let’s not call them hammies. I do work on keeping my down thigh down, but it’s to lengthen my frontal hip as much as to deepen the hamstring stretch. To the extent that SP does involve the low back (which is, I think, very mildly), as you noted, there’s nothing wrong with stretching your hamstring and flexing your low back at the same time — that’s why this pose can be useful as a low-back release after backbends, for example. Just because something’s happening in your low back doesn’t mean there isn’t also a hamstring stretch!
It’s true that most people can’t do SP well with a toe-hold and teaching with a strap will improve almost everyone’s pose. If the model in the first picture were in my class, I’d probably hand her a strap, but not on the basis of the right thigh alone — she’s also got her raised knee quite bent, her shoulder high up in the air — both shoulders actually –, and her head on a very high prop (though I guess that’s on purpose?) I guess the bent knee seems like a more obvious problem than the pelvic tilt in this pose to me.
But plenty of people are flexible enough to do the full pose without compromising either the integrity of the pose or their joints. There’s no reason they shouldn’t. Let’s teach them to do the pose with integrity and avoiding hanging in their joints. All bodies are different.
Hi @M. Labelle! Thanks for reading and commenting! I can tell that some of what I’m explaining in my article isn’t coming across clearly to you as a reader. There isn’t anything wrong with mobilizing one’s lumbar spine, but there IS an issue with thinking we’re mobilizing our hamstrings when we’re moving from our spine instead. That’s what this article is addressing. I hear you saying that when you back off and biomechanically align your poses, you don’t “feel” the stretch you’re looking for – this is super common and I felt the same way when I was first learning biomechanical alignment vs. traditional yoga alignment. But when our proprioception is not well-developed, partly because we’re used to overloading our tissues with strong-feeling stretches, we have often lost the ability to feel our stretches in a more subtle, fine-tuned way. That’s why it’s great to let alignment, rather than sensation, be your guide when you practice. I’m a big fan of Katy Bowman too and I’m certified through her program as a Restorative Exercise Specialist™. You might be interested in an awesome piece she wrote about hamstring stretching and this same SP shape I’ve written about in my post: http://www.katysays.com/a-users-guide-to-hamstrings/
And check out my comment above in response to Charlotte which addresses what might be going on if your hamstrings can’t touch the ground in supta tadasana. Thanks again for all of your thoughts here!
Hey Jenni — thanks for taking the time to respond. I really disagree with you. And I hear that you think I’m not picking up what you’re putting down, but I think I am, actually. Katy Bowman is REALLY awesome, but she’s a person, not some kind of alignment god or even a PT, and as much as she says my hamstrings should be on the floor, I am here to tell you they AIN’T. Not even with my upper body propped. Is it a psoas issue? Maybe, or maybe it’s just my anatomy, I don’t know. But here is my main point: I can still get a hamstring stretch even if I am ALSO flexing my lumbar, just like I can get a piriformis stretch when I am also flexing my lumbar.
I am a pretty serious yoga student, and I’ve been that way for some time now, so it doesn’t feel great when you tell me my proprioception sucks. As an Iyengar yoga practitioner I get flak from vinyasa types for spending insane amounts of time aligning my big toe mounds, and here you’re telling me I can’t understand something that’s not a big ol’ stretch. I just can’t win.
As far as this goes: “That’s why it’s great to let alignment, rather than sensation, be your guide when you practice” — no way, man. Not at all. Nope. You know why? Because right now we’re not talking about exercise, we’re talking about yoga. Sensation is…well it’s not exactly the whole point, but it’s definitely a prerequisite. You can’t outsource that shit to some ‘objective’ alignment marker. You have to feel it, you have to feel for it, even if you don’t know what you’re feeling for — that’s why we have teachers to help us. Removing sensation as a guide to practice sounds dangerous as well as not being yoga.
I’m glad some one pointed out the obvious.
The “you think but really” phrases are needless filler that detract from what might otherwise be a useful and interesting article. They serve no purpose other than to appeal to the ignorant with a need to feel superior. Any one with any understanding of basic mechanics will realise that once they’ve raised the leg to their limit with the lower back flat and the opposite leg fully extended any further movement isn’t decreasing the angle between their hip and the lifted leg but it isn’t increasing it either. Bringing the leg closer to the head at that point is a matter of choices, it changes other stuff in the body which can be more or less useful depending on all sorts of criteria. One way it can be useful is in bringing gravity in to increase the hamstring stretch on the raised leg… so, yes, getting more of a stretch… and now the student who’s basic intelligence you insulted has a reason to think you’re factually wrong as well as tactless.
As for letting “alignment rather than sensation be your guide”, well, good luck with that. I’ll leave you to cycle to work, catch a ball, or slice bread using “alignment” rather than sensation and proprioception. Why do you want to do yoga in some different, unnatural, way? More seriously, the problem with this whole approach is it just emphasises making shapes. “Keep the hamstring of your extended leg on the floor”… class tilts their hips towards the extended leg… “Keep the hips even on the floor”… class lifts the hamstring of the extended leg off the floor… “Keep the hips even on the floor and the hamstring of the extended leg off the floor”… class lifts their heads and shoulders. You end up with an endless list of instructions that define the perfect shape and look around happy your students all match some ideal geometry you saw in a picture, failing to notice they’re holding themselves into position by clenching the quads of the extended leg. Better to stick to only the “shape” instructions necessary to keep it safe and get straight to what you want the pose to achieve than try and get there by describing some sort of ideal shape.
For those of us not so flexible, how about bending the knee and putting the sole of the foot on the floor instead of worrying about where the hamstrings are? The pelvis can stay down on the floor w/out tilting and the belted leg can be straightened at whatever height it gets to.
Thanks so much! Jenni- I always enjoy your articles and learn so much from them!
Hi, Jennifer. Reading this helped me tweak several asanas, and relieved the pain I was having in my lower back/sacrum. I was bending at the top of my pelvis instead of at the hip joint. It also helped me clue in to bandhas because I could feel where to “lock” for stability since my alignment was correct. I’m not new to yoga, but I am new to developing a home practice, and I feel so much safer now. Thanks!
Truly well reasoned and well said ! That kind of article is very important, IMHO, because many students and many teachers hurt themselves (specially those poor discs down there) without being aware of it, simply because their attention is elsewhere.
If one part of the chain is too rigid, another part will compensate, doing what it shouldn’t… I believe a key is not to focus too much on the part you want to stretch, but on something wider.
Besides, seems natural to “think wide” when stretching 🙂
Wow, I commend you, Jenni, for continuing to publish your work despite the negative language people are using in their comments. It reads like your words are getting twisted.
I appreciate your work, and am a huge fan on Katy Bowman. Besides the movement aspect, Yoga can be so very helpful for cultivating kindness. For some.