Stepping Out: The Vinyasa within the Vinyasa

You know what happens when a practitioner takes a big step forward with her right foot?

In the old days, I’d assume she was preparing for Warrior I (Virabhadrasana I), Revolved Triangle (Parivrtta Trikonasana) or some other standing posture. So, I’d hang back and wait for the pose to develop.

But since I started studying and collaborating with movement specialists from the Gray Institute, I’ve learned that the key to developing and enhancing Yoga practices, to preventing injuries, and to helping rehab aches and pains is bringing awareness to how eeach aspects of the practitioner’s body flows from one movement to the next.

I have been amazed to observe that in every movement, no matter how gross or how subtle, there’s a vinyasa within the vinyasa (a sequence within the sequence) that unfolds moment to moment.

Most often when a practitioner steps forward, three subtle but incredibly significant things happen:

  • First, the outer border of her heel hits the mat and the force of that impact (the ground reaction force) everts her heel (her calcaneous pronates), tipping it sideways towards the big toe side of her foot.
  • At the same time, rotational movement (abduction) is created where the calcaneus and the bone sitting on top of it, the talus, meet (this juncture is called the subtalar joint).
  • Meanwhile, just above the talus, gravity and the practitioner’s mass and momentum bring her two lower leg bones (the tibia and the fibula) forward, creating ankle dorsiflexion (a bending that brings the toes and top of the foot closer to the ankle joint).

At first glance, these responses may not seem significant. I didn’t pay close attention to them for years.

“So the heel strikes the mat. It creates subtalar eversion, subtalar abduction and ankle dorsiflexion. Big whoop.”

Except that each of those movements was just given “for free.” An instructor didn’t cue them nor did our fellow practitioner have to “think” to make them happen.  The dorsiflexion, eversion and abduction were all gifts, complements of gravity working with the practitioner’s mass and momentum against the resistance that the ground provided.  To anyone interested in deepening her practice, preventing injuries, or rehabbing aches and pains that is actually a very big whoop.

Watch what the body does with those gifts:

  • Because of the subtalar eversion and abduction, the arch of the foot (the bones of which form the midtarsal joint) suddenly becomes mobile.

The arch that was rigid moments ago just became loose and now can flatten towards the ground like a pancake!

  • The muscles which attach to the bones in the foot sense the bones’ motion, then lengthen in response to that movement in an attempt to A) control that motion, B) absorb the shock of impact and C) store energy for future movements.

If you’re familiar with Patanjali’s definition of asana (II.46 sthira sukha asanam) and its suggestion that holding the body with stability (sthira) and ease (sukha) prepares the body to experience yoga, you might understand why I find the next bit particularly interesting.

  • If the arch, for whatever reason, doesn’t collapse and the muscles don’t lengthen, the practitioner will be exposed to excessive shock, forcing her to absorb that shock of impact or make up for the missing stability somewhere else in her body.
  • And if the arch collapses abruptly, her muscles will inefficiently absorb the shock of impact, and the energy that would have been created by the slow lowering of the arch would be lost.

The net result in both situations is the same: our fellow practitioner would show up in the next moment lacking stability and ease. So what the practitioner is hoping for as she steps forward on her mat is that her body will unconsciously respond with a “just right” balance of stability and mobility.

Her body wants stepping out to be asana-like: it’s looking for sthira (stability) and sukha (openness).  Whoa.

And that’s not the only place where this sthirasukham-like dance is underway.  Remember how momentum was bringing the tibia and the fibula forward?

  • Not only does the heel strike (coupled with momentum and gravity) initiate dorsiflexion at the ankle, but because the talus follows the calcaneus when it everts, and because the tibia and fibula sit on top of that bone, those two lower leg bones get spun into internal rotation.
  • The calf muscles start to lengthen and exert force to help decelerate and control that movement, just like their foot muscle counterparts did.

The heel striking the mat – as Gary Gray and David Tiberio, the principals of the Gray Institute, initially observed – has triggered a chain reaction that reverberates throughout the entire body.

The calf muscles’ involvement ensures that the chain reaction extends higher up into the body.

  • The soleus, a calf muscle with origins on the fibula and the inside of the tibia, and the gastrocnemius, which originates on the thighbone (femur), share an insertion into the Achilles tendon at the back of the calcaneus and thus pay close attention to what is happening down in the foot.
  • If the timing is right, these two muscles help ensure that where the tibia and fibula go, so goes the femur, and so goes the kneecap (the patella) too.

And, with the thigh on the move, you can imagine (correctly) that pelvis will be impacted, as will the lumbar spine, and so on, throughout the whole of the practitioner’s body.  All as a response to the heel striking the ground.

I find this vinyasa within the vinyasa to be breathtakingly elegant.

It makes me wonder if, when Patanjali suggests that the path to asana is contemplating the infinite (ananta samapattibhyam) and relaxing our efforts (prayatna shaitilya), perhaps one of the things he is pointing to is the infinitely brilliant design of the body, and the way it interacts in this receive-to-proceed fashion with its environment.

Of course, as I mentioned at the outset, what I just described isn’t always what’s taking place.  Our bodies are too unique, too complex and too individual for one generic vinyasa to govern all of us.

Sometimes the heel doesn’t strike first.  Or, if it does, and the practitioner has a flat arch, the chain reaction that flows from that pre-existing condition is different.  And likewise, the vinyasa is different if her midfoot is incredibly rigid or if one of her calf muscles is tight and blocks the internal rotation of the tibia.

And everything changes if she varies her stride length. The farther she steps out, the more momentum she creates. With a longer stride, it remains to be seen whether her muscles can decelerate those momentum-driven forces and control the bone movements effectively.

Beyond stepping out, it also matters if one or two arms are sweeping and whether she’s breathing in or breathing out at the same time and whether, instead of standing, she’s kneeling, prone, supine or inverted.  Whatever the movement pattern, there’s a vinyasa within the vinyasa taking place and it behooves the practitioner (and perhaps her teacher, too) to consider what that flow might be and whether it’s leading her towards stability and ease.

Amid this complexity, it’s no wonder that things can and do go awry. Even under the best of circumstances – with a thoughtful practitioner and a big-hearted, well-trained instructor cuing the flow of postures one into the next into the next – there are multiple places where the vinyasa within the vinyasa train can jump the tracks.

Practitioners and teachers who desire to prevent injuries, who want to holistically rehab aches and pains, who wish to deepen a pre-existing practice or who cherish the opportunity to encourage those who are new to yoga, will find that studying the principles of human movement can yield profound insights.

To the extent that our strategies of prevention, rehabilitation, deepening and encouragement flow from overarching principles, then whether our techniques come from this school or that style will be less important in the long run.

Perhaps with our attention on the evolving moment-to-moment flow of gross or subtle movement, what will shine through is the infinite beauty and diversity of what a yoga practice can be.

10 responses

  1. interesting… I have slightly pronated arches and find that stepping forward makes me uncomfortable and unsure of how to distribute my weight rapidly. I find it much better and safer to step backwards, therefore hitting the ground with my backward-moving foot..

    • Without watching you step forward and simply ‘playing with’ the information you are sharing about your pronated arches, it doesn’t surprise me that stepping forward is more difficult than stepping back. Setting aside traditional guidelines for how long a stride length should be for a lunge, warrior posture, etc., I’d wonder what forward stride length was possible for you (without discomfort). And then I’d watch to see what the calves were doing, what the hip was doing to help you control that stepping out. There are certainly ways to train that longer stride (if needed) but it’s fascinating isn’t it how much that component of building an asana can be overlooked. Thanks for sharing your experiences!

      • Ok, I’ve been doing it a few times now. Stepping forward with one foot or the other is slightly different, I guess I have a small asymmetry in my hips which is another story. But basically, although I cannot notice much going on with the calves if my normal stride is ca 60 cm (I am 165 cm tall) my forward foot tends to evert (that is, I tend to press with the outer edge of the foot first rather than with the big toe base). The best way for me to balance the grounding force if I want to step forward to enter these poses is to bend the back leg slightly to create more suppleness and elasticity. Does this make sense?

      • oh yeah… and the hip. The hips stay fairly squared, only occasionally turning towards the back leg but not too much. I do lunges to improve that aspects, to work on the hip extensors in general

      • I’m travelling today so won’t be able to respond as thoroughly until later – perhaps with a video clip as well. I know there’s a convention around ‘squaring the hips’ but from a functional (eg how the body works in life) perspective, squaring is not helpful because that back leg needs to go into external rotation to decelerate that step forward. But again, more in a bit!

      • Chiara, sorry for the delay on the video response. I’ve had some technical glitches on that but hope to correct it as soon as I can. And I wrote a text based follow-up that I accidently navigated away from and thus lost it…

        Quickly recapping that…

        ‘Stability’ is often thought to be an expression of the ‘lack of movement’ but this is not a helpful definition (eg, I am stable when I lift a foot off the floor because I don’t wobble side to side.) Instead, think of stability as the ability to control movement – which assumes you have the ability to move but are choosing not to act on that capacity.

        The concept of ‘squaring off the hips’ imposes a lack of movement on the hips which is artificial and doesn’t reflect the reality that when stepping forward the pelvis and the femur move.

        When the right foot steps forward, the right hip flexes, adducts and internally rotates.

        Just like the right side, the left hip is driven into its movements because of the stepping out foot. The left hip extends, abducts, and here’s the tricky part, internally rotates also (it’s true that the femur is externally rotating and also true that the pelvis is rotating left BUT the pelvis is moving faster than the left hip so the relative motion at the left hip is internal rotation).

        It’s quite possible that you may be experiencing a lack of hip motion in one of the three planes which makes it hard for you to control a stepping out that exceeds 60cm. It sounds like you suspect as much…!

  2. Pingback: What Makes a Movement an Asana? | Transformation Zone Yoga

  3. Thank u so much for this post. My dorsiflexion is only about a quarter of ‘normal’ or ‘standard’ general range of movement in the human. As I age it is only getting worse which impacts on all my many of my asanas, vinyasas, my running and other training modalities. It is effecting my whole kinetic chain. I appreciate the vinyasa within the vinyasa to which you make mention. I will create/reveal some vinyasa sequences to work specifically on dorsiflexion. You gave me the information I needed.
    Avadhuta Necr0prancer

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