Let’s Talk About Flex, Baby

Let’s talk about flex, baby. You know, Flexibility. All the good things. All the bad things.

If you’ve ever written a flyer about yoga or pitched a workshop or corporate classes, or tried convincing Aunt Sally or Uncle Phil to take up yoga, I bet you’ve touted ‘flexibility’ as one of the benefits of yoga. I know I have.

So let’s play the part of Uncle Phil for a second:

“Okay but so what if I can’t touch my toes. What’s the big deal anyways?”

Do you want to jump in – or do you want me to? I bet we both have our rap down pretty good correlating tight hamstrings and back aches and lost productivity. It’s then a quick hop, skip and a jump to slipping in Uncle Phil’s favorite activity and assuring him that yoga’d be great for that:

“You know Uncle Phil, a little more flexibility could mean the difference between you qualifying for sectionals in lawn bowling this year or not….”

Of course, we’re just backdooring Uncle Phil into the full experience of yoga via asana. We’ll get him chanting and doing meditation soon enough. He’ll learn flexibility of the mind and heart, too, and compassion and being present and all that. But first, we gotta get him limbered up.  Right?  Or… no?

Well. Maybe before we move past benefit number one (“flexibility”) we should clarify what it is. Maybe it’s not exactly what we’ve been saying it was.  Maybe it’s not some generic thing you either have or don’t have. Maybe Phil’s right: touching your toes proves nothing more than you can touch your toes.

Do you have 15 minutes? It’s a little bit of time, I know, but it’ll be totally worth your while, I promise.

In fact, come back later if you want, grab a friend or two, some chai lattes and make a mini-date of it.

The guy in the video – Gary Gray – is not a “yogi’ and he’s definitely not a guru. But movement professionals from around the world fly to his podunk town in Michigan to study with him because- well, I’ll let you figure out why. I dropped everything when I had the chance to do a year-long fellowship with him

What he has to say has HUGE implications for the Yoga community. At least, that’s what I think. How about you?

All the good things. All the bad things. You and me: let’s talk about flex.

Bibles and Bodies

Some people know the body chapter and verse. They’ll quote it for you any chance they get.

“My neck’s sore.”

“That right? You mean the SCM – your sternoclediomastoid? Or you talkin’ your traps or scalenes? Scalene posterior, I bet. Origin’s C4-C6, inserts down there on your second rib.”

I recognize that patter.

Once, I went to meet up with a piano player who gigged in a local church band. By accident, I stumbled into a Baptist congregation when I was meant to meet him at a non-denominational one.  Before leaving, I got to experience the preacher in action, calling out passages from the Gospels and from the Hebrew scriptures like an auctioneer collects bids. It was entertaining on some level. I wasn’t buying his theology but I was impressed by his dexterity.

I remembered what a friend once observed: “naming something’s not the same as knowing it.”

Rattling off chapter and verse – whether the text is one’s body, the Yoga Sutras or the Gospel of Matthew – is a skill. Whether it’s a laudable skill or not is in the eye of the beholder/memorizer.  I’m not saying you can’t learn from people who have this skill – I certainly have – but for me, I hope I don’t become a body-parts patterer.

The people I like working with are ‘open book’ teachers/learners. They don’t have all the answers memorized in their head but they have processes they rely on to search them out.  If they had it their way, all tests/quizes would be open book ones.

T.K.V. Desikachar seemed to be a teacher like that.

At a conference in Rhinebeck years ago, he asked a participant to explore something “simple” – like whether it felt easier to exhale on a forward bend or inhale during it.

Duh.  Those of us watching knew what the answer was going to be (exhale). How could Mr. Desikachar, heir to the great viniyoga tradition, not know this?

And yet, when the practitioner reported, “Exhale,” he seemed genuinely surprised.  He commented that others had reported similarly in the past and thanked her for her observations and for investigating that for herself.

Since meeting Mr. Desikachar, I’ve met other “world-renowned” researchers and educators. In the days leading up to my visits with some of them, I had anxiety-plagued nightmares, afraid of being called out for what I didn’t know.

When I actually met them, it was incredibly disarming and actually endearing to hear them admit, time and time again, “I don’t know.”

Of course, I’ve also experienced times when an “I don’t know,” offered up by an “expert” is completely unsatisfactory.

“You don’t know? How could you not know? It says so right here in the book that…”

“The” book on knee rehabilitation. “The” Bible. “The” Body. “The” protocol. As if there’s “one.” As if they’re not all texts, all with authors, all with points of view that are open to interpretation and debate. (Which, by the way, is not the same thing as saying “it’s all good” because multiple perspectives does not always mean there are multiple truths. There are many ways to represent 2 + 2 = 4 but that’s not going to make 2 + 2 = 5 any day soon.)

As much as I appreciate the open book learners/teachers I’ve met in my life, I know I still rely too much on my ‘get the right answer’ muscles (perhaps I’m not the only one who does that).  I always appreciate it when someone gives me permission to rest them.

A few weeks ago, I was co-teaching a workshop on pelvic floor biomechanics with a physical therapist friend. We included a slide that quoted a leading medical textbook which admitted that much was not known about what the pelvic floor muscles did, despite all the time and energy spent studying them. Everyone laughed. And then picked up their pencils to take notes on what little we had to offer them.

Finally, my colleague, a therapist for almost thirty years and one of the most skilled I have come across, observed:

“Don’t worry about memorizing this stuff.  I don’t remember it half the time myself.”

“For real?”

“Yeah, just know where to look for it and you’ll be fine.”

Amen, brother.

Stop Engaging Muscles (Without Dating Them First)

When well-meaning instructors prod you to “Engage Your Abs (Your Core, Your Pelvic Floor, Your Quads, Your Calves…) does it seem like you’re being thrown into an arranged marriage with muscles or body parts you don’t know well?  Is consciously grabbing hold of those muscles til death do you part the pathway to bliss or to a short-lived honeymoon?

What Turns You On?

Let’s ask our muscles. If we sat down with them and asked, “What really turns you on?”, they’d answer: “Actions.”

More than words?


Our muscles want movement. Not any ol’ come-what-may, generic movements, but the specific kinds of movement that turns THEM on.

Are Your Needs Being Met?

So if a muscle isn’t turning on, instead of yelling at it to “Engage!” (or calling it lazy), maybe we ought to ask it what it needs and investigate whether it’s being proprioceptively fed that motion.

Take the pelvic floor muscles (the levator ani and the coccygeus muscles that provide support for the pelvic viscera and help control incontinence), for instance.

If you’re experiencing leaking or if someone is tracing your low back pain, knee pain, ankle instability or neck tension to pelvic floor weakness, you might be told “Engage Your Pelvic Floor!”

But if you sat down with the Pelvic Floor Muscles over a quiet dinner and asked, “What turns you on?” one of the things you might hear about is the Pelvic Floor’s good friend, Obturator Internus. The obturator internus (OI) decelerates internal rotation of the femur, hip adduction and hip flexion AND its fascia provides an origination for the some of the pelvic floor musculature. You could say it’s connected at the hip with the pelvic floor, in a manner of speaking.

“So, wait a minute: you’ve stopped hearing from the Obturator Internus?”


“But you’ve always counted on Obturator to help lift you up.”

“Yeah, I know.”

“Geez, no wonder you’re down.”

“Yeah.” (Sniffle.)

“We gotta do something about that.”

Putting in the Work

Granted, for teachers of movement, it requires more work to trace the movement patterns of a body in motion than it does to verbally cue muscles we suspect aren’t working.  Calling on muscles to engage may sometimes produce a desired effect in that moment, but ultimately, muscle function is meant to be subconscious.

We can’t monitor our clients’ movements 24-7 and we don’t want them doing that either. Everyone’s to-do list is long enough without having to drop your shoulders, stabilize your shoulder blades, tuck your tummy in, cinch the transverse abdominal belt, lift the pelvic floor and soften your knees. We need a better solution – one with a subconscious carryover.

This is where knowledge of the body’s chain reaction biomechanics (an awareness of how forces move domino-like through the body) can come in handy.  It allows you to select movements or sequences that will subconsciously engage (eccentrically lengthen and concentrically contract) muscles that weren’t previously responding.

Applying that strategy to awaken the pelvic floor, one scenario would involve creating internal and external rotation and side to side frontal plane movement in both hips. This might be done in positions that had the practitioner’s hips flexed (as they are in a lunge) or in extension (as occurs in bridge pose). The pelvic floor’s friend, the obturator internus, would be turned on in all of these movements and its activation would in kind help turn on the pelvic floor without any need for the practitioner to engage, fire, trigger, lift, squeeze or draw up on anything.

A Lifetime of Listening

Creating optimal relationships among the muscles and other connective tissues in order to facilitate optimal movement is always ‘best efforts’ work.  This alternative approach to verbally cuing muscles, borne from the evolving understandings of functional anatomy, certainly has its strengths (and is not without its limitations).  By continually listening to what the body has to say about what it needs and how it gets turned on, we’ll be well-positioned to help practitioners and teacher we work with achieve their goals.

What Happens in the Pelvis, Doesn’t Stay in the Pelvis

Recently I had the opportunity to lead a workshop on pelvic floor biomechanics with my good friend and physical therapist, Greg Hullstrung.

In my 17 years of teaching, I’ve had the good fortune to collaborate with physical therapists who specialize in pelvic floor dysfunction and study with some of the top movement educators in the country and I’ve learned that there’s a lot about the pelvic floor muscles that’s up for discussion.

Knowing What We Don’t Know

“Ideally speaking, one should describe the function of each component of the pelvic floor muscle individually; however no such information is available. Broadly, the pelvic floor muscles can be considered to have 2 important functions. They provide 1) support or “floor” to the pelvic viscera and 2) constrictor functions to the urethra, vagina and anal canal.” (V. Raizada MD, R. Mittal MD. Pelvic Floor Anatomy and Applied Physiology. Gastroenterol Clin North Am. 2008: September, 37(3); 493-vii.)

Naming the pelvic floor muscles has even proven to be tricky. While it’s agreed that the levator ani and the coccygeus muscles are the main muscles of the pelvic floor, naming the component parts of the levator ani is where the agreement breaks down (pubovisceral?, pubococcygeus?, puborectalis?, etc.)

Part of the challenge lies in the fact that the pelvic floor muscles are subtle and hard to study in living people. In cadaver studies, some of these muscles have been damaged due to pelvic floor traumas (this is especially true of some of the cadaver studies of women who gave birth).

But for movement professionals, and Yoga teachers in particular, there are 6 Key Concepts worth keeping in mind in both our own practice and as we work with our students/clients.

1. What Happens in the Pelvis, Doesn’t Stay in the Pelvis.  For starters, resist the temptation to isolate the pelvic floor from the rest of the body. The support that the pelvic floor provides (or does not) affects how the foot hits the ground, the stability of the knee, the condition of the hip, whether the low back gets chewed up, and it even impacts tension in the neck and shoulders.  Think locally but act globally.

2. It’s Not What You Know, It’s Who You Know. In life and in the body, connections matter. Look no further than the obturator internus (a decelerator of hip internal rotation, hip adduction and hip flexion and whose fascia provides an origination for the levator ani) for proof of the pelvic floor’s connection to the lower body. Who else would seem to be an influencer/influenc-ee of the pelvic floor musculature?

3. What’s In a Name? Everything. Pelvic floor or pelvic core? Christina Christie and Rich Colosi are physical therapists based out of Chicago who suggest a great way to get your head out of the pelvis: assess and train the pelvic core. The abdominal muscles are the front of the pelvic core, the paraspinals provides the back, the respiratory diaphragm provides the top and the pelvic floor is the bottom. Does that shed more light on some of the bottom-up and top-down influencers?

4. Don’t Engage Your Pelvic Floor Unless You’ve Had a Really Long Courtship. In some cultures, it’s cool for one person to tell another, “Engage So-and-So” even though no relationship has been cultivated. And hey, sometimes that works out. Just like artificially engaging your pelvic floor muscles works out sometimes. Perhaps a better strategy is to ask those muscles: what turns you on? You know what we’ll hear: actions.  So if you suspect someone’s pelvic floor isn’t turning on, don’t yell at it (engage! activate! lift!), instead, learn what movement patterns turn those muscles on and then trace their movement patterns to see whether they’re getting those motions (or not).

5. Nobody Drives in Neutral. A lot of well-intentioned energy is spent helping people ‘find neutral’ as if positioning the spine in a neutral position is the end all, be all. While it’s nice to find neutral, remember that just as nobody drives their car in neutral (they pass through it to get to other gears), nobody functions in life with a neutral spine. Over-training a ‘neutral spine’ can remove the there-by-design, anterior (forward) tilt of the pelvis. Taking away the anterior tilt of the pelvis removes the bony support that the pubic bone provides the bladder, asking the pelvic floor muscles to pick up the slack. Literally.

6. The Final Word on The Pelvic Floor/Core… There is no final word on the pelvic floor/pelvic core. For that matter, this observation would hold for much of what is ‘known’ about the human body.  So as we apply this information – and gather more – in our best efforts to be of help to the clients/students we see, it’s always helpful to keep an asterisk handy and to get comfortable saying “I don’t know” and “it depends.”

Want to go deeper? Email Al Bingham (transform@transformationzoneyoga.com) for details on the Yoga Training for Teachers with Private Clients, a series of workshops to be held in Manhattan.

What Makes a Movement an Asana?

  • Are ‘asana‘ movements we do with our body? Or, are they ways of being in our body?
  • Take sirsasana: is it ‘a headstand’? Or, is it a way of being in a headstand: ‘a headstand as an asana.

I believe asana are ways of being in the body and I view sirsasana as a way of being in a headstand.

The differences between ‘something’ as a movement and ‘something as an asana’ are subtle but significant. A deep knowledge of the principles of movement proves extraordinarily helpful when helping practitioners construct personalized practices.

It’s All About Intention
Intention differentiates a movement from an asana. To practice ‘something’ as an asana requires a heightened attention to the interior qualities of stability and ease (“sthira sukham asanam“).

Patanjali offers a two-fold strategy for realizing those qualities: economize your efforts (“prayatna shaithilya“) and bring an expansive orientation to what you’re doing (“ananta samapattibhyam“).

How Do You Cultivate Movement Quality?
It’s worth considering how and when a movement’s inner qualities should be cultivated.

  • From the beginning, regardless of the practitioner’s current mastery of a movement?
  • Later, once the practitioner has sketched out the rough edges of a particular posture?
  • Or, from the get-go but in a progressive way: breaking down the components of ‘something’ to gradually develop the practitioner’s mastery of them and their inner qualities.

Each approach has its merits, but I’m partial to the latter strategy. It’s never black and white, however.  One of the challenges about practicing ‘something’ as an asana, is needing first and foremost, to know how to do that ‘something.’

What am I Doing Here?
In order to do “headstand as an asana‘ or “standing as an asana” (tadasana) or “balancing on my hands and kicking my criss-crossed legs out to the side in order to create eight angles as an asana” (astavakrasana), I have to first learn to get on my head, or stand upright or balance in an eight-angled way.

Realistic Expectations
I think it’s unrealistic to expect practitioners to infuse stability and ease into something that extends them beyond their threshold of success; they’re in survival mode at that point. For that reason, I think it’s important, as teachers, to assess practitioners’ movement thresholds, and as practitioners, to include strategies of progressive complexity in our practices.

Anticipating Compensations
I think the ‘wait til later’ approach recognizes that certain movements are complex and require time to master but delaying the introduction of the sthirasukham concept has its own drawbacks. To say, “Okay, now that you’re upside down [e.g.], relax your efforts and rest your attention in your breathing and we’ll start turning this into an asana,” disregards the compensatory patterns that may have brought the practitioner into that position. Those likely will resist her attempts to relax, especially if she is at the end range of her abilities.

Thoughtful Preparation
Instead, I’ve come to appreciate the strategy of breaking down movements into their component parts. I have re-doubled my efforts to dive deeply into the art/science of progressive sequencing.

In seeking ways to help fellow practitioners  more effectively transform their movements into asana, I realized that required a lifetime of learning as much as I could about the principles of movement.

The Similarities Between A Movement & An Asana
For too many years, and perhaps distracted by talk of chakras, nadis and koshas, I lost sight of the reality that when I’m practicing Yoga it’s not like I’m stepping into another realm where a different set of rules apply.  In asana, pranayama and dhyanam something profoundly brilliant is occurring: movement.

Regardless of intention, the principles of movement reign:

  • movement is dynamic;
  • movement is individualistic;
  • movement is 3-dimensional;
  • movement is directed;
  • movement is driven (internally or externally or through a combination of both);
  • movement occurs within the context of gravity;
  • movement is impacted by mass, momentum and inertia;
  • movement actively triggers a subconscious chain reaction;
  • movement is complex; and
  • movement is variable, et al.

If I take the principles of movement seriously, then I’m contemplating…

  • dynamically moving
  • this uniquely individual
  • three-dimensional mass of mine
  • from a particular starting place (standing, sitting, kneeling, lying on my belly, lying on my back, side-lying or being inverted in a different way),
  • along a particular path,
  • using one or more body parts to drive my movements (hands, a leg/legs, head, my pelvis, my eyes or some combination thereof),
  • to generate neither too much, nor too little, but instead just the right amount of momentum to get me from ‘here’ to ‘there’ and to position me to go ‘somewhere else’ afterwards
  • in a way that gives my body the information it needs
  • to subconsciously respond
  • to the complexity in and around me that is beyond my conscious comprehension and
  • which is continually changing.

I know: it’d have been so much simpler if the principles of movement dictated that using 26 postures, two times apiece, was the answer for each and every one of us.  I wish it was that simple. (No, really, I do.)  And for some people it is. For a time. Sometimes for a long time.

Instead, reflecting on these movement principles has me continually reconsidering some of the strategies I’ve acquired over the years.

  • Can I really cue someone into proper form and alignment?
  • Is there even such a thing as ‘proper form and alignment?’
  • Can asana be achieved through self-practice alone – without cueing, hands-on assistance or anything else?
  • Are techniques I’ve picked up across the years universally applicable?
  • Can really I tell if someone is doing ‘something as an asana’ instead of just doing ‘something’?  Unless it’s me – does that matter?
But in addition to churning up doubts and pointing to areas I might make changes, reflecting on these movement principles has also been liberating.

They have pointed me towards developing three-dimensional asana matrices; they’ve taught me to pay attention to the vinyasa within the vinyasa (the chain of movements within each movement); and they’ve helped me experientially understand the flow of movement from its grosser extremes in asana to its more subtle aspects in pranayama and dhyanam. 

Most importantly, reflecting on these movement principles has helped me better serve to my existing client-practitioners and created opportunities for me to work with a more diverse group of new ones.

Even more encouraging is the network of colleagues (physical therapists, athletic trainers, personal trainers, osteopaths, massage therapists and chiropractors) I’ve discovered who are as passionate about applying these principles of movement to their fields as I am passionate about sharing them with you, and our Yoga community.

Much like the principles of Yoga, the principles of movement come from an ancient lineage.  They are what they are and they wait patiently as each succeeding generation takes up the question of how to understand, engage, apply and be transformed by the wisdom they offer.

There are millions of people practicing asana as part of their Yoga practice.  Each individuated, complex, three-dimensional, movement-loving meditator is going to arrive at a moment when a generic solution no longer creates the stability and ease she was seeking.

In that moment, I hope you will be there waiting for that person – with your full heart, a generous spirit, an expansive mind – to walk her through the valley of complexity to get to the mountaintop of simplicity.

Wait: Muscles Don’t Activate Bones?

What I Meant to Say…

If you studied Yoga with me even as recently as 3 years ago you would have heard me give instructions predicated on the belief that muscles activated bone movement.

At various times, I may have asked you to draw in your belly button, contract your glutes, lift your pelvic floor, turn on your calves and quads and position your scapula “just so.” I thought I was helping you by asking you to consciously shorten certain muscles to achieve a particular effect or to create an isometric reaction in a static posture.


I was well-intentioned.  My heart was is in the right place.  But like many other movement professionals (personal trainers, physical therapists, osteopaths, Pilates teachers, and well, you name it), I was unknowingly passing along some outdated information.  Focusing on muscles activating bones was a mistake.

And the double whammy of my error was that it clouded your mind with a laundry list of bodily things to do. (In retrospect, that seems like an odd way to lead you towards an open field of attention.)

Of course, many times your muscles were compliant (so thanks for that) because muscles can be consciously activated. But I know now they didn’t necessarily like it. So I apologize for putting them through that.

And the reason they probably didn’t like it is because they’re not used to functioning that way.

I’ve had many “Oh crap” moments over the course of my studies in Yoga. I’ll be teaching something with vim and vigor for years and then all of a sudden I’ll bump into some new information that completely contradicts what I thought I knew. “Oh crap.”

Thankful for Understanding Students/Clients

Encountering and then integrating new information into my personal practice and my teaching is humbling. And confusing. And disorienting. And not without resistance, blaming, and panic. And despite the pounding my pride takes, what always makes the shift easier for me is seeing that this new, more discriminating awareness of breathing or moving is a gift for my body and for my clients’ bodies.

Applied Functional Science (AFS)

When I began studying Applied Functional Science (AFS), the huge paradigm shift for me was discovering that in function it wasn’t muscles that activated bones but rather it was bone movements that activated muscles:

  • Movement turns muscles on.
  • Gravity turns muscles on.
  • The resistance provided by ground reaction force turns muscles on.
  • Momentum turns muscles on.

Throughout my body and yours there are sensors which are constantly measuring the conditions in our fascia, muscles, tendons, ligaments, joint capsules and throughout the skin. Our body is continually integrating the data they collect to help determine the motion or positioning of our body in space and what, if anything, might need to be done about that.

If I feed my proprioceptors with movements that awaken them (each proprioceptor varies in how it gets stimulated) then I’m in business. If I don’t, I’m probably left with a laundry list of “contract this, squeeze that, and suck in thats.'”

Proprioceptors Don’t Care About Brand Affinity

What’s a big relief is that my body doesn’t search for what Mr. Iyengar thinks is the best response. Or what Mr. Desikachar would prefer. Or what Bikram or John Friend or Shiva Rea or anyone else thinks is best. My body could care less what side of the asana debate it comes down on so long as it’s coming down on the side of what my proprioceptors need.

So if I want to train my body (or help another practitioner) to experience a left-sided Utthita Trikonasana, I don’t need to memorize movement cues or consciously activate muscles, I just need to feed my proprioceptors the kinds of movement they crave.

Train the Component Parts of An Asana

Absent cues and contractions, I need to undertake movements (whether they have Sanskrit names attached to them or not) that will facilitate a left-hand, left lateral reach (as an asana) that I will initiate while standing in an abducted position with my right leg externally rotated 90 degrees.

I know that every fibre of my being will respond as best it can to decelerate that reach. But I don’t know that it will do so in a way that apes pictures I have seen of Utthita Trikonasana.

How “Basic” is Triangle?

Many people list Utthita Trikonasana as a basic posture. Perhaps it’s one that seems relatively easy to talk/will/assist people into but from a proprioceptive standpoint, it involves a lot of complexity and thoughtful preparation.

In fact before diving into ‘it,’ it’s probably wiser for me to know more about my body’s condition:

  • Do I have the mobility to laterally flex to the left on such a wide base? Exploring lateral flexion to the left and to the right on a smaller base may be a way to find my threshold.
  • Do I have the mobility to laterally flex to the left with my left leg externally rotated as much as 90 degrees? Whether and to what extent the left leg is externally rotated changes the dynamics of the movements into that position significantly.  “The posture” says 90 degrees of turnout. But what does my body say?  I’m listening to it.
  • Do I have the mobility to reach as low as my ankle? Leg length, arm length, and torso length are all factors in how low a person can reach. But so too is the body’s ability to set up this end-range left lateral reach by taking advantage of its ability to laterally flex right, to flex and extend and/or to rotate right and left out of this abducted stance.
  • If I have the mobility, do I have the stability to control that motion, either on the way in to the pose or on the way out of it?
  • If I have both the mobility and the stability, do I have the strength to maintain that directional movement for long?
  • And if I have the endurance to maintain that left lateral reach, am I resilient enough to do it several times (or several hundred or several thousand times in the course of my life)  or whether I will need to move in other ways to hedge against future complications?
  • And no matter the range of my reach or how long the duration of my stay in that position, what is the condition of my breathing? Is it revealing that my body is not at ease and/or that my mind is distracted?

The Person Reflected in the Pose

So encountering how my body dances with Utthita Trikonasana can be revelatory.  Especially if I don’t enter into that dance with my thumbs on the scale – determined to will my way into the position, activating muscles and commandeering bones as I go! And at first blush, it’s a lot more complex than the quickie introduction to teaching triangle than I was originally given. Except that the process for approaching one posture or sequence of movements is the same for approaching them all: identify the three-dimensional changes of direction required to arrive in a particular position and train your proprioceptors to move through them.

Of course, even with the benefit of studying the physical, biological and behavioral sciences that comprise Applied Functional Science, and even though I now bring a proprioceptor-centric approach to my practice, I’m not in the clear. I’m sure I can expect many more ‘Oh crap!” moments in the future.

I hope I remain inspired by what I don’t know and not beholden by what I think I might…

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: Continue reading