Early in my practice, I renamed Utthita Hasta Padangusthasana Quaking Vulture. You know the look—bent knees, rounded back, furrowed, sweaty brow, hand desperately grabbing for the foot. It wasn’t pretty. I know, yoga isn’t about looking pretty in the pose, but I was struggling with some serious muscle tightness from my heels to my skull. For my own comfort and health, I needed to stretch out my entire back line and figure out how to keep it that way.
I started from the bottom with the muscles of the calves and shins—the soleus, gastrocnemius and tibialis anterior. The soleus attaches to the heel, via the Achilles tendon, and in addition to plantarflexion (pointing the foot), it holds us up—contracting while we stand to keep us from pitching forward. The soleus lives underneath the gastrocnemius (the prominent, obvious calf muscle that plantarflexes your foot and bends your knee), and while the two are not attached, per se, they share fascial tissue. So if the soleus is tight, it will likely transfer that tightness to the gastrocnemius. Never before had I noticed tightness in my calves because I didn’t need to recruit length in them for many poses—in fact, the turned out rear foot in many standing poses bypasses these muscles.
Working in a modified high lunge, I experimented with keeping my back heel on the ground and bending both my front and back knees. Yow! These babies were tight. But muscles don’t work in isolation, and stretching isn’t always the answer. In my Yoga Tune Up® training we were taught to look at muscles and their opposites—agonists and antagonists—and how to intelligently employ stretch and strength to correct imbalanced use patterns. If one muscle (or more) is tight, the muscle on the opposite side of the joint it acts upon may be weak. I took a look at the tibialis anterior—the muscle that runs along the front of the shin and lifts your toes (aka dorsiflexion). Sitting a chair doing very simple toe lifts, they fatigued in about a minute. Ok, I had some work to do here. But what else was happening upstream?
Just above the knee, the gastrocnemius attaches to two big lumpy bits at the bottom of the back of the thigh bone, called the lateral condyles of the femur. Meanwhile the hamstrings, which flex the knee and extend the hip, attach below the knee on the shin bones. The biceps femoris runs from the hip at the ischial tuberosity (sit bone) to the head of the fibula; the semimembranosus runs from the sit bone to the medial condyle of the tibia; and the semitendinosus attaches the sit bone to the medial shaft of the tibia.
Hmm. Hamstrings split out and around to anchor below the knee, calf threads between and anchors above the knee. To take the nautical analogy one step further, the muscles together work like a square knot. When we straighten out knees, we cinch those muscle attachments tightly and fire the entire fascial line running up the backside of our bodies, when we bend our knees, they get out of each other’s way and loosen (hence why it is so much easier to lengthen the spine in a bent-knee forward fold). So job two was to stretch the hamstrings (pick your favorite flexed hip/extended knee exercise).
That left my back, specifically my erectors, which even if they no longer had to stretch to compensate for lower body restrictions, still had to turn on to hold me upright. To combine stretch and strength in spinal extension I revisited my Quaking Vulture and changed the orientation. Like throwing your pose into a snow globe and seeing where it lands, my vulture rocked forward into a modification of Parsvottanasana that focused on eccentric lengthening (contracting while stretching) of my back and abdominals and gave me a great core workout to boot. Conveniently, this modified pose also addressed my hamstrings and lower leg muscles—a three for one! It took some time, but that Quaking Vulture is now a healthy and comfortable standing toe hold.
I’ve included a short video of my modified Parsvottanasana below.
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Thanks for sharing the modifications, it can be so frustrating to try and hold a pose when we are so tight. It is so amazing that the superficial back line of the anatomy train runs from the back of the ear, down the back, hamstrings , calves to he bottom of the feet. It’s very interesting that releasing the anterior tibalias also helped with calf strenghth and stretch.
This is a great article, for really understanding which muscles need to be strengthened, in order to bring life into one of yoga’s more difficult poses. Thank you.
Well thought out and composite article. Really beautiful how you explained how addressing things in isolation is not the answer, and followed the backline to demonstrate. I think that video clip is one of the best I’ve seen.
I like this!
This video is awesome! I am going to incorporate the rocking when I teach my classes
I had not made the connection between Utthita Hasta Padangusthasana and Parsvottanasana. But with your explanation of the muscle groups involved, it definitely becomes clearer. Looking forward to working on my eccentric lengthening in both of these poses.
ooo I appreciate the square knot visual cue! Thank you. In regards to looking at both agonists and antagonists, I have actually used a very similar set up with the blocks as you have them in the video here, and cued to lift the front foot off of the ground; this wakes up the quads and keeps them firing when you set the foot back to the floor to feel that action translate into the hamstrings releasing even more.
Great video! I love that sequence and how easily you explain the moves! I admire your poise and sense of humor, and breadth of knowledge. (I’m in TT1, as you may have guessed)
This is a new one for me. Tighten in my calves actually affects my back since it affects my stride. THANKS so much for this! Watching the video made me envious of the movement and I realized I have been on the computer for far too long today. Heading to my mat right now to test this out. Keep up the rockin posts!
Love the “quaking vulture” description as well as the video. I am always astounded at how rolling out the soles of my feet affects my forward folds. You are right, we need to think about the entire back line for the body, from soles of feet to crown of head!
I injured my right hamstring about a year ago and have been working to regain flexibility and strength ever since. I have massaged my hamstrings attempting to explore the three muscles and figure out exactly which one was causing me the most difficulty. However that has proven very difficult. The section in your video of your modified Parsvottanasana where you suggest rocking back and forth to feel the three different hamstring muscles is amazing. Thank you for this simple but powerful tip. I can now isolate the specific area that is giving me the most resistance. Love this modified pose. Thank you.
This blog as well as others and the training has really opened my eyes to looking past the trouble area to see where else needs work. As the song says “the shin bone is connected to thigh bone, the thigh bone is connected to the hip bone” etc, therefore each of the muscles in the body have to be connected since the muscles connect to the bones via tendons. As a teacher, I have to think macro, not micro. I appreciate the in depth anatomy lesson presented here and will definitely apply the suggested asanas in a class to unravel the “quaking vulture”.
yes, as a yoga instructor, i know that quaking vulture look all too wel. but what i love about yoga tune up is the integrated approach to every pose. looking at the big picture to change the result, not just where it is most obvious. the yoga tune up level one training has expanded my teaching skills to be a more effective teacher.
Great article and video! As a new student of anatomy it is inspiring to see how aware we can become about the different parts of our bodies and how we can use the anatomical tool to understand the poses and adjust them for our personal health and benefit. My achiles tendon always struggle in long stance trikonasana, and this article is really helpful to me. Thanks a lot!
While be treated for acute achielles tendonitis many years ago, my PT showed me how the tendonitis was almost certainly a result of a very tight and strained lateral gastroc and soleus. I told her I stretched them all the time, she was way off. She began to gently attempt to pinch the skin away from the posterior side of my lower leg. I went through the roof. She explained the fascia and connective tissue was so inflamed, it was actually trying to adhere to my skin. Yikes! If I only had Yoga Tune Up balls back then!
As both a runner and yoga practitioner, I am more often in Quaking Vulture than in a graceful Utthita Hasta Padangusthasana…and I have limitation in my left hamstrings, where I strained the attachments a few years ago (it has never healed properly, and the pain can still be very sharp when I extend in postures like this). What really resonated with me was your insight that stretching isn’t always the answer. Particularly, when a hamstring gets over-stretched, it just seems to pull back harder. Using the agonists and antagonists in a more thoughtful, harmonious way, I think I might be able to shift from my Quaking Vulture toward a more refined Big Toe pose…but I am looking forward to investigating more of the muscles and their counterparts instead of merely trying to stretch myself there. Thank you!
Many thanks for this very helpful article and the video. For me, Utthita Hasta Padangusthasana is very hard to get in, too. What you’ve written here will definitely help me to finally get there in a thoughtful way. It’s great how you explain the whole muscular structure involved, especially the relationship between the agonist and the antagonist.
As a dancer I find that my calves live in a state of constant tightness. I’m always trying to stretch and massage them out but I never thought about additionally strengthening the the muscles at the front of my shin. I’m definitely weak in that area and am interested to see how strengthening those muscles will help with not only loosening the calves but my overall stability. Thanks for the tip!
Thanks for further emphasizing the agonist and antagonist opposition. I need to be more thoughtful about my quest for flexibility but not at the expense of strength. Leveraging the knowledge of these oppositional actions will help me, vulture or no….
This is great! I find that my calves are super tight and I feel as if their tightness get in the way of other asanas, like my being able to stretch my hamstrings in paschimottanasana, for example. Could that be? Anyhow, I’m going to incorporate this pose into my practice more often, not only to lengthen my calf muscles but also to work on extending my posterior achilles region. I look forward to seeing how it improves my forward bends in general. And the added bonus of core work is always welcome! Thanks for the post!
I love the information on the Soleus, I never thought of it as the thing that holds you up… amongst other things! Interesting how a tightness in your calf contributed so much when the calf is generally bypassed.
I see so many students holding Quaking Vulture! Thanks for giving great tips on finding the different muscle groups that need work. You deconstructed the pose beautifully.
You nailed it Christine! So love your newly designed pose and the incredible effects of it (boy,did I felt it myself!)