As the calendar transitions out of August into September, the school year begins, the hot summer turns to a brisk fall, and we notice the days begin to shorten. We’ll be following suit with nature and turning our attention to transitions in asana practice next month. In this, the last week of summer, we thought it’d be fitting to prepare by looking again at range of motion and what a typical step back into low lunge asks of us.
Low lunge in Surya A
Surya Namaskar (sun salutation), when practiced without the hop back to chaturanga (four-limbed staff pose), includes a step back (and then a step forward) into low lunge (ardha alanasana) with hands on the mat.
Lunge might seem like a simple shape. And yet, so often we see and hear our students struggle with it again and again, with tell-tale “shhwuush” and “thunk” sounds when feet drag or crash-land on the mat. More than this, everywhere we see hips sagging and spines hunched forward to help hands reach the mat.
How is it that this simple lunge shape causes so much trouble?
Let’s go back to basics and look at the joint actions in low lunge.
Low lunge joint actions
Back hip: anatomical neutral. Pretty much all of us can manage neutral, so the back hip position shouldn’t be causing too much of an issue in either step back or step forward transition.
Front hip: hip flexion. Normal range of motion for hip flexion with knee flexion (as in low lunge) is about 135°. Is that what we’ve got in low lunge? It depends on how you’re doing that lunge.
When we transition into and out of low lunge with our hands on the floor, bringing the knee all the way up to the chest in order to fit that darn foot up between the hands, now we’re asking for extra range in the flexion of the front hip, up to approximately 160°! And if you attempt to maintain a neutral spine in all of that, then you’re talking about closer to 180°. Yowsers. Either way, this lunging transition requires ~30-55° more range of motion than what is considered normal. Normal, as in what most injury-free bodies should be able to work towards without causing injury. (Beyond normal is not what most injury-free bodies should be asked to work towards, as doing so can lead to strain or injury.)
When we ask for more than normal range of motion in a joint action, we often see our students strain.
Low lunge valves
Since many people don’t even have normal range in their hip flexion, let alone more than normal, we routinely see strain or slack in the hips in a static low lunge (and in the step back/forward transition that manifests as undesired tension throughout the body and awkward pathways for the moving foot).
We also see rounded spines (both in static and transitioning lunges). If that rounding represents struggle, it’s probably not great. If it indicates intentional action, and the yogi is choosing to allow some gentle (static) or active (transitioning) spine flexion, then there’s no harm in it.
Low lunge fixes
- Use blocks. Put hands or fingertips on blocks under the shoulders. This lifts the torso away from the front thigh and thereby decreases the angle of hip flexion.
- Strengthen the hip flexors. The hip flexors (iliopsoas and rectus femoris) may be weak, and thus unable to create the needed range of motion. Poses that strengthen the hip flexors include:
- Knee to nose — on all fours or plank or from down dog
- Utthita hasta padangustasana (extended hand to big toe pose) without a strap or hands!! Yup, just lift your straight leg out in front of you (keep the torso strong and upright!). If you’re used to UHP as a stretching shape, this will be a little different. Don’t expect your leg to lift as high as it can with a strap.
- Lengthen the hip extensors. More so than the hip flexors being weak here is the likelihood that the hip extensors (hamstrings and gluteus maximus) are tight. Poses that lengthen the hip extensors include:
- ardha hanumanasana (half split)
- utthan pristhasana (lizard)
- supta hasta padangusthasana (reclining hand to foot) with a strap!
As you prepare for September, the month of transition, whether you’re going back to school, just watching summer turn to fall, or shifting your attention to moving feet back and forth on the mat, remember not to stress through the transitions: they can be sticky and sometimes ask for excessive abilities.
You can get through the sticky by changing the transition to fit the range you have today.
Enjoy your last week of summer!
PS. Have you looked into our Functional Anatomy for Yoga Teachers program yet? You’ll learn all about why shapes like lunge are tricky for many students and how to make them accessible. Check it out and see whether it’s the right continuing ed for you.
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