What muscle are we stretching?
I spent a summer a few years ago living at Yogi Hari’s ashram in Miramar, Florida. I’m still not exactly sure how or why I decided to spend a summer a stone's throw from Miami studying yoga with a grouchy old man with an unplaceable accent. Prior to going, I was working a dead end job, and my girlfriend at the time was about to move overseas. I needed a change of setting, and a curious string of coincidences all pointed me towards Yogi Hari. Next thing I knew I’d quit my job, broken up with my girlfriend, and cut a check to “Yogi Hari” for the majority of my savings.
Looking back, I have nothing but fond memories of Yogi Hari and my summer at his ashram, but at the time it felt like the summer from hell. I had unknowingly tossed myself into a yoga meat grinder, designed to break down the person you were and spit out pieces that could one day possibly be reassembled into a person fit to be called a yogi. The days were long and hard and, above all else, hot. To top it all off, Yogi Hari was a disciplinarian who believed in tough love and always seemed to be disappointed by our efforts.
I quickly learned it was dangerous to ask Yogi Hari questions. His tongue and wit were razor sharp, and he rarely missed an opportunity to take you down a peg for asking the wrong question. One morning, we were in Janu Sirsasana and a student asked, “Yogi Hari, what muscle are we stretching?” Yogi Hari let out a audible sigh and tersely yelled out, “What muscle do you feel it in?” In that moment I wrote the interaction off as just another casualty to Yogi Hari’s iron fist.
But for one reason or another that exchange has stuck with me, and I’ve continued to reflect on it. I quickly realized that in his forty plus years of teaching Yogi Hari has probably been asked that question no less than ten thousand times. My next realization was that, in true Zen master fashion, he had developed the perfect answer... “what muscle do you feel it in?”
On some level we can anatomically break down yoga postures and say that Janu Sirsasana stretches the adductors, hamstrings and builds external hip rotation. But yoga is a holistic system, and our relationship to postures changes over time. Five years ago, I felt Janu Sirsasana in my hamstrings, a few years later in my groins, then a stretch in my side ribs, and now mostly the sensations caused by pressing my heel into my perineum. Five years from now I’m sure I’ll feel something else entirely.
Yogi Hari’s answer sheds light on two of the fundamental aspects of asana practice, experiential learning and increased sensitivity. As we refine the ability to look inside our bodies and feel what is happening, an internal dialog is created between the body, the breath and the mind. If properly cultivated, this communication between body, breath and mind should lead to increased control of each. With time and practice, this control has the potential to evolve into the higher limbs of yoga such as pranayama and meditation.
Sometimes too much theoretical knowledge can get in the way of our yoga practice. We compile too much and often conflicting information and it blocks our ability to act and experience what is happening in the moment. In a time where we as a society increasingly live in our heads and our disconnect from our bodies and nature is possibly the greatest in human history, asana practice serves the much needed role of awakening the intelligence of the body and reconnecting us with the brain in our gut.
There is an expression in the massage therapy world “If you can visualize it, you can touch it.” I believe this expression also applies to yoga practice. How does the yoga master move each vertebrae individually from sacrum to cervical like the keys of a xylophone? Or slow and soften the heartbeat until it is almost imperceptible? Through years of practice, the master has delved so deeply into their body and mind they’re able to see, feel and experience the mind-body connection at a very, very subtle level. This ability to visualize the inner workings of the self allows the yogi to touch and ultimately control the deepest layers of the self.
All of this is not to say that anatomical knowledge is not beneficial and even needed in yoga practice. I love anatomy more than most, and find it helps me tremendously as both a practitioner and a teacher. But when the brain starts leading the practice and not the breath and body, we need to take a cue from Yogi Hari... Don’t think about what is happening, feel what is happening.
Seriously, what muscle are we stretching?
Muscles are generally referred to in one of three ways, by their Latin name, by their common name or as a group based on their function. Using the muscles at the back of thigh as an example we can refer to them by their function as hip extensors and/or knee flexors, by their Latin names (semitendinosus, semimembranosus and biceps femoris) or by their common name, the hamstrings. Each approach has it’s merits and can be more or less applicable depending on the context in which it is used.
The list below is by no means complete. Many muscles of the hips and pelvis have multiple functions which are sometimes disagreed upon by anatomists. To further complicate this, a muscle’s function will change as the body’s relationship to gravity to changes. In other words, when you’re upside down in headstand or on the lateral plane in side plank the function of your muscles can be different than what their technical anatomical function is said to be. Below is a broad view of the main anatomical actions of the hips and pelvis and the muscles that create those actions from anatomical position (Samasthiti/Tadasana.)
Create hip flexion, the angle between thigh and front hip bone becomes more acute. Navasana is a good example of a pose that strengthens the hip flexors. Virabhadrasana 1 (back leg) is a good example of a pose that stretches the hip flexors.
Rectus Femoris - The only quadricep that crosses and moves the hip joint. All four of the quadriceps cross and straighten (extend) the knee.
Iliopsoas - A very deep muscle often simply referred to as the psoas. Comprised of the upper and lower psoas fibers as well as the iliacus. It is considered the strongest hip flexor and is thought by some to be a place where emotional trauma is stored.
TFL - The tensor fasciae latae is not a beverage you order at Starbucks but is actually the origin of the IT band. A tight and/or weak TFL is a common culprit in low back, hip and knee pain, as a massage therapist I find myself working on the TFL often. Interestingly the TFL is also an internal rotator, hip abductor, hip stabilizer and assists in hip extension... that’s a lot of jobs for one muscle.
Sartorius - The longest muscle in the human body, the sartorius is a weak hip flexor. It is also an external rotator, hip abductor and knee flexor. Taking one leg into half lotus from a standing position will demonstrate all four actions of the sartorius.
Adductors - Many of the adductors also play a role in hip flexion. I will cover the adductor group in more detail below.
Create hip extension, the angle between the thigh and front hip bones becomes more obtuse. Salabhasana is a good example of a pose that strengthens the hip extensors. Paschimottanasana is a good example of a pose that stretches the hip extensors.
The Hamstrings - There are three to five hamstrings depending on who you talk to. The three that are commonly agreed upon are the semitendinosus, the semimembranosus and the biceps femoris. The two that are debated are some of the adductor magnus fibers and the second head of the biceps femoris. The hamstrings also bend the knees and in my opinion play a strong role in creating posterior pelvic tilt.
Gluteus Maximus - The largest most superficial muscle of the glutes, the glute max is also an external rotator and plays a role in hip stabilization.
Create external or lateral rotation of the hip, where the femur turns away from the midline of the body. Baddha Konasana is a good example of a pose that builds external rotation. Firming where the leg meets the buttocks to draw the femur deeper into it’s socket is an action that will strengthen the external rotators in most standing poses. Back bending postures with your legs in lotus is an advanced way to strengthen this muscles group.
PGOGOQ - OMGWTFBBQ!? Referred to as the deep six, PGOGOQ is an abbreviation for piriformis, gemellus superior, obturator externus , gemellus inferior, obturator internus and quadratus femoris. These muscles are deep to the glutes and play a strong role in hip stabilization.
Other muscles that create external rotation that I’ve already covered are the glute max, iliopsoas and sartorius.
Create internal or medial rotation, where the femur turns towards the midline of the body. Supta Virasana is a good example of a pose that builds internal hip rotation. Rolling the thighs in, in almost any posture is an action that will strengthen the internal rotators. This rolling in action of the thighs is especially strengthening in inverted and back bending postures.
Gluteus Medius and Gluteus Minimus - These muscles are also abductors and play an important role in hip stabilization. One leg standing balances are a great way to recruit and strengthen these muscles. A general weakness in these muscles in yoga practitioners has been observed by many manual and physical therapists.
Other muscles that create internal rotation are the TFL and the adductor group.
Create hip adduction, or draw the thighs towards the midline, as though squeezing the legs together to make one big leg. The hip adductors are the muscles of the inner thigh and are commonly referred to as the groin muscles. Garudasana is a good example of a pose that strengthens the adductors. Samakonasana (lateral splits) is a pinnacle posture of adductor flexibility. The adductors are also internal rotators!
The five adductors - Adductor longus, adductor brevis, adductor magnus, pectineus and the gracilis. Due to the fact that the adductors sit between the hips flexors and the medial hamstrings (hip extensors) the adductors share many fascial connections with both muscle groups. This sharing of fascia places a strong emphasis on adductor strength, flexibility and function to safely perform intermediate and advanced asana.
Create hip abduction, or draw the legs away from the midline as though attempting to take a lateral split. Ardha Chandrasana (back leg) is a good example of a pose that strengthens the adductors. Ardha Matsyendrasana is a good example of a pose that stretches the abductors.
Because the muscles of the hips and pelvis often have multiple functions I have already mentioned all of the abductors! The muscles of the hip joint complex having multiple functions makes for some very interesting agonist/antagonist relationships and in turn interesting bandhas. I wrote about bandhas a few weeks ago
Here are the abductors for reference--
Gluteus medius, gluteus minimus, TFL, sartorius, piriformis and obturator externus.