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.
This week we check our egos at the door.
From a very young age, perhaps first in a P.E. class, we are all taught to bend forward and grab our toes to demonstrate flexibility. We have this idea that “when I can reach my toes, I’ve made it.”
As with almost everything that’s presented that simply, we now need to step back and ask: “When I grab my toes, what am I sacrificing? (Especially when I have relatively tight hamstrings?)”
If you’ve spent anytime at all in a yoga studio, gym, or fitness center of any sort, odds are you’ve seen something like this:
Sure, he is grabbing his toes, but take a look at the middle part of his back (thoracic spine). His thoracic spine is in extreme flexion (deep rounding), which means his scapula are also protracting (sliding forward). This means that he’s accomplishing his reach primarily by letting his spine and shoulders round forward rather than flexing (folding forward) in his hip joints (check out what we had to say on that in last week’s post).
The valve we need to address here is the over-reach through the spine and shoulders, as you see in the picture above.
“But,” — you might be saying — “I thought janu sirsasana was a forward fold, meaning, fold as far forward as you can?”
Yes, and no.
Yes, we love using this pose for a full spinal release over the extended leg. No, we don’t love seeing our students strain their backs to get there. That extreme spinal flexion you see above is making up for a lack of hip flexion, and most times that we replace one desired action with another, it causes trouble.
How can you create enough hip flexion to discover the yummy spinal release that is often associated with janu sirsasana?
There are at least two ways: a) shorten the length required by the hamstrings and b) lengthen the hip extensors until 90+ degrees of hip flexion is possible. Last week, we addressed both of these by targeting the hamstrings directly.
This week, we’re gonna tackle it two different ways: a) forget the toe and b) emphasize hip flexion by maintaining a neutral spine while in janu sirsasana.
Now, maintaining a neutral spine during hip flexion is a tall order for many of us. And with that toe in sight, it’s even tougher to keep our attention on our proprioception rather than what’s in front of us.
So, let’s make it a bit simpler: focus on scapular retraction (which will also help you take your mind off your toes!)
Along with spine flexion comes scapula protraction (or it should if all is moving well). Similarly, along with spine extension often comes scapula retraction (usually but not always).
We’re going to use this fact to our advantage and ask our students to focus on keeping the scapula retracted slightly –just enough to encourage their spines out of flexion and into neutral. Just like this:
This helps our students address:
Muscles Likely Tight: hip extensors (hamstrings and gluteus maximus)
Muscles Likely Weak: spine extensors, scapula retractors (erector spinae; rhomboids, middle trapezius).
How to Strengthen Spine Extensors and Scapula Retractors
We love to use ardha uttanasana (half intense forward fold) to strengthen spine extensors in another instance of hip flexion. You can add scapula retraction to this quite simply: lift your arms by your sides, bend your elbows while keeping the upper arms close to the body, and then draw the arms (and scapula!) back. Imagine someone else is pulling your arms back at the elbow to help you stretch across the chest. If you’re doing the action all on your own, you’ll be strengthening scapula retractors!
With strong scapula retractors and spine extensors, you and your students will have an easier time maintaining a neutral spine in order to emphasize hip flexion. Once you’ve ‘mastered’ that, you can safely move on to releasing the spine forward, which we’ll break down next week.
What other spine extensor and scapula retractor strengthening moves do you have in your toolbox? Share and tag it with #216infrastructure!
Stay strong, yogis!
Not getting asana INfrastructure emailed to you yet? Sign up here and get our bonus series on why you need to know your infrastructure!
Featured photo by © Eric Bandiero