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.