Each month we dig into a different asana by looking at common valves in major joints (spine, etc) and asking why do these valves or energy leaks occur? To answer that, we go under the hood and explore the asana’s kinesiology—what the muscles and bones are doing! This information lets us build valve “fixes,” practical teaching ideas you can try in your classes and privates. Each week builds on the next, giving you a month-long outline for how to help your students uncover their variation of the asana.
Welcome to a week of Eagle Legs!
We’re checking in with the legs and exploring whether the double bind (wrapping the leg and foot) is a primary goal of the shape. (If you have been following us for any period of time, you can probably guess what we’re going to say!)
We can determine the relative importance of the binds by considering what happens when someone who isn’t ready for the double bind attempts it anyway. Generally, a valve results.
What valve or misalignment is likely to result from choosing a bind that you are not ready for? Most often we see medial collapse in the standing leg knee (below) and an unintended hike and forward twist of the hip on the lifted leg side, both without awareness or counter action to draw yourself back towards neutral (or a no-valve zone).
Common Eagle Legs Valves
- Standing leg: the knee and inner arch collapse inward (medially) (pictured left)
- Lifted leg: the hip hikes and rotates forward (anteriorly) (pictured right)
- Another “valve” is lack of consciousness: activity in the opposing actions would indicate one is working on closing the valves
Let’s look at what’s happening in the lower limbs for clues that will help you choose a suitable version of Garudasana for you and your students.
HIP Joint Actions in Eagle Legs
- both legs: hip flexion (leg lifted towards torso)
- lifted leg only: hip adduction (leg moving in towards midline of body)
- sometimes, lifted leg only: hip internal rotation (leg turns in toward midline of body)
The range of motion required for each of these actions is within normal range.
The lower limbs are, of course, connected to the pelvis, which we looked at last week. We left hip internal rotation out of our discussion last week because this action plays an important role in the wrap of the foot that completes the double bind (but not in the single bind). The awareness of your hips that we discussed will come into play here when choosing which bind option is best for you.
KNEE Joint Actions in Eagle Legs
Both legs: knee flexion (knees bent)
The range of motion required is within normal range and considered safe for those without knee issues.
ANKLE Joint Actions in Eagle Legs
Both legs: dorsiflexion (flexed foot)
The range of motion required is within normal range.
Why is it important to note that the range of motion being asked for in each joint is within normal range? The short answer is that this tells us most people free of injuries can work toward the full shape without risk of straining their joints (as extreme ranges of motion can lead us to do).
Knowing the above, you can plan a class to prepare the muscles needed to create the desired actions by strengthening the do-ers and lengthening the undo-ers. That said, none of the joint actions in Garudasana require even full range of motion from the joints. What does that tell us? It tells us that this shape is not about super human strength or flexibility, and leaves plenty of room to focus on awareness or proprioception.
It is for this reason that I want to talk again about proprioception rather ways to create muscular strength and length. To keep our students in the safest, most challenging version of this pose, it is imperative that we guide them to be aware of where they are in space while they are coming into the shape, as well as once they are there.
The good news is that developing awareness often brings with it plenty of strength building!
Again, the valves we’re looking at this week are medial collapse of the standing leg knee, and hiking and rotation of the lifted leg pelvis.
All three of these valves are caused, more often than not, by going for the double bind. One of my teachers, Alison West, once said “Get into a shape through the shape.” In other words, what if we move into a shape without needing to adjust it once there? What if we came into the shape with enough mindfulness to simply arrive in the shape “aligned,” ready to be still?
Guiding our students into Eagle through the shape is a particularly good way to find the leg variation that’s best for them. That way, there’s space for them to stop with the version of the pose that’s best for them. Let’s look at one way to set that up for our students.
Two Cueing Approaches for Garudasana Legs
As we mentioned last week, often the cue we give students to get into this shape is something like the following:
Lift the right knee over the left leg and hook the right foot behind the left calf.
This cue says nothing about where hips, knees or ankle should be for safe joints. It only addresses the final goal of the full shape and sends every student there, whether they are ready for it or not. What happens with the knees, ankles and hips in the process appears to be irrelevant.
Thus, the above cue leaves your students wide open for choosing a variation that isn’t right for them, pushing themselves into it by letting the inner arch of the standing foot collapse, the standing knee collapse, and the lifted hip hike up and rotate forward out of neutral.
WHAT IF INSTEAD…
Prep your students: In Tadasana, take your hands to the hips and feel both of your hip points facing forward. As we progress, use your hands to remind yourself to keep the pelvis as still as possible, trying to move the thigh bone and not the pelvis.
Guide them into the single bind: Keeping your hips stable, lift your right knee until it’s parallel to the earth, flexing at the hip without disturbing the lumbar curve. Draw the lifted thigh across the midline, hugging the inner thighs to activate the adductor muscles.
Check in with the standing leg: see or feel the knee of the left leg is pointing over the second toe. Maintaining that knee alignment, begin to bend the left knee and cross the right thigh over the left thigh. Work toward hugging the outer shins toward each other.
IF you can hug the outer shins together, we can talk about the next bind. If NOT, stay here and continue to work toward getting the outer shins to hug and keep the standing knee aligned safely over the second toe.
Guide into the double bind: If you can comfortably hug the outer shins together, you can work on the second bind. To come into the double-bind version, we need to start again from tadasana because there is more prep for the hip to do to.
From Tadasana, lift the right thigh parallel to the earth (same as above). Again hug the thigh across the midline. This time also internally rotate the lifted hip and at the same time, bend both knees to cross the thigh, hug the shins, and then hook the right foot behind the left shin. Be VERY mindful of the standing knee; don’t let it collapse in!
As you come into stillness in the shape, check whether the lifted hip has started to pull forward, and if so, traction the hip back in the direction of where it started. It may not come all the way back depending on leg length and adipose tissue.
It is important to note here, as in the arms, that the width of one’s thighs plays a role in how possible it is to find the bind here. Make sure to modify for students as needed by having them stay in the single bind version or work with one of our hip strengtheners from last week to build adductor strength and still get to play with balance. And if your student needs a little balance assist to be able to work on the single leg bind, we’ll add a block in front of or off to the side of the standing leg for the lifted foot to rest on.
The alternative cueing above asks your student to pay greater attention to the individual joint actions. This makes it more likely that they can consciously stop in the leg variation that’s best for them as they reach it.
What ways have you discovered to guide your students to similar mindful engagement? We’d love to hear, so go ahead and share your teaching stories in the comments below!
Taking the bind in Eagle legs, or not, is one of the many places in yoga that we can make a choice. A choice that either takes us in the direction of spirit or furthers our connection to the ego. For many of us, the bind is a lovely way to practice “wrapping” the limbs, something that doesn’t show up all that often in life or yoga! But for many of us, it is an action achieved at the expense of the knee: we end up “sitting” in the joints, letting the bind do the work to keep us in the shape, rather than supporting all the joints with conscious muscular action.
Each time someone asks us to take the leg bind, we can check in with our Inner Teacher and ask: which is right for me? Not: what does my ego want me to do? Not: what is the teacher doing? Not: what is the person next to me doing? But: what is the best choice for me? (Of course, the same is true for every asana!)
When you put the legs and arms together, there is so much going on in this shape! Join us next week as we dive in to see how.
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