There are a several poses in the series where straight legs are ‘demanded’ by the script, but actually the outcome of the pose combined with YOUR own flexibility and capabilities means that you must understand the physiological need to make the choice of having EITHER bent OR straight legs. The standing poses of this type, where the choice is crucial, are:
- Hands To Feet Pose, (Padahastasana)
- Standing Separate Leg Stretching Pose (Dandayamana Bibhaktapada Paschimottanasana).
With Hands to Feet you already know to keep your body on your legs. If you have even a little space between body and legs, then you start to use your arms in a different way. Your shoulders erroneously get engaged and the result is LESS STRETCH through the back of the body.
Now, let’s look at Stranding Separate Leg Stretch pose. If you examine what’s happening in this pose you’ll discover it’s almost identical to Hands to Feet pose. The only real difference is that your legs are apart instead of being together. Just like Padahastasana, you must engage your biceps to pull. When you do, the shoulders move away from the head, decompressing the neck, recruiting more power, and at the same time resolving tension.
Now that sounds pretty simple but you need to make sure of a couple of other details. The instructions in most studios are to step out 4 feet. But did you know you can have your feet too far apart for your body?
This photo shows Lauren is stepping out too wide
The photo above is of a friend of mine, Lauren who practises yoga in another city. She wasn’t getting anywhere with this pose so I asked her to do it for me the way she has been taught. This is REALLY how this happened, honest! When you step out too far your grip is compromised. When my husband started Hot Yoga years ago, he was stepping out too far and causing spasms in his abductor muscles. So you can acknowledge that the command to ‘step out further if your forehead doesn’t touch the floor’ doesn’t apply to everyone.
Anyway, I digress. What Lauren was doing was following (recited script) directions. Her step out was as commanded but then she could only reach the sides of her feet. And she was only able to slip her fingers in under her arches at a 90 degree angle. This is the least effective foot grip.
Ideally you want to be grabbing your feet from behind your heels. If you can’t manage that then aim to grip from the sides of your heels, and if that is difficult, grip as far to the back as possible and definitely behind the arch. Try bending your legs quite a bit more than usual to get the grip.
Then bend your elbows near your shins and pull with your biceps, trying to angle your elbows close to your legs. With your legs bent and the pull as described you begin to feel a lengthening stretch not only in your legs but also in your back. In other words, what you do by standing with your legs more closely together and BENDING your legs, creates more EASE in the back of your legs.
Again, what you are doing is finding the hidden length in your hamstrings when you BEND your legs. See below. The photo above is when Lauren is standing with her legs too wide and her grip is wrong, and halfway up the foot at the arch.
As soon as Lauren took a slightly less wide step (below), she could grab her feet more from the back where they should be. Her legs were a bit more bent but immediately she could feel the stretch really WORKING through the back of her body. She was able to find more length in her legs and the pose INSTANTLY became easier.
This photo shows Lauren doing it correctly
This photo shows the shorter (correct) step from the side
Now see what happens (photo below) when Lauren steps out too far – this time from the side.
This photo shows Lauren stepping out too wide
That is for most students a bent leg pose. But you still manage to get your delicious stretch through the legs. This other Stretch pose uses the same concepts. When you come down, arms out, bend your legs and slide your hands down the back of your calf muscles to reach around behind the heels. With every fiber of your being, work on straightening your back. With your pull, work your chest through your shoulders.
Try to feel an arch in your spine rather than a rounded element. ONLY when your back is straight can you even contemplate straightening your legs. Most students should practise this pose with bent legs.
There are other poses which require you to pull on your feet where you need to sacrifice the desire for straight legs and bend up the legs to pull with your biceps muscles. These include Pashimottanasana (near the end) and you can even use this principle in your sit-ups.