I love when challenging questions from a student or client push me to explain better what it is I'm teaching.
Case in point: last weekend, my stepdad, Chuck, was asking me about walking. I've been helping him and my mom with their respective gaits. They both turn out their feet when walking (as do the majority of people you see walking around in the US). My stepdad is trying to rebuild strength in the back of his legs and in his butt muscles. By working on realigning his legs and feet, I can help him fire different muscles when walking than the ones he uses with his turned-out gait.
So here comes the question that I was struggling with at the time (I'm paraphrasing):
"If I work on the new gait and get more strength in the back of my legs, will that improve the strength in my walk when I use my more familiar gait?"
My initial response is that this is the wrong question, but that's not an answer, and I know it. He wants to know and I want to explain.
It is true that sometimes I use one pose or movement to build strength to prepare the body for a different pose or movement. But the question here is specifically about walking, not other poses or movements.
When you rotate the leg bones, it necessitates a change in muscle usage. Rotation of any bone will lengthen some muscles and shorten others. Walking with the feet turned out means the shin bones have rotated externally. In order for the knees to track forward, over time the thigh bones have internally rotated. This "turned out shin/turned in thigh" gait means all your leg muscles are affected by bone rotation. The lengthening/shortening of muscles.produced by the rotations of your leg bones creates a particular pattern of movement. There are lots of variations in this gait, but all these rotations of leg bones push and pull on leg muscles such that the back of the leg is not working.
When you walk with feet in proper alignment, then you have the possibility of waking up those back-of-the-leg muscles. (There are many other factors that may need addressing to achieve this such as ankle flexion, hip extension, etc. Not the topic today.)
Back to my stepdad's question: if he learns this new gait, will he have more power in the back of his legs if he returns to his old gait? No. They have nothing to do with each other. And I finally figured out an analogy to explain it.
Chuck is left-handed. Therefore his left hand is stronger, more coordinated, and more agile than his right. If I get him to start using his right hand in ways similar to the ways he uses his left hand, his right hand will develop more strength, more coordination, and more agility than it already has. His left hand will not be any stronger when he goes back to using it. Working on one hand doesn't increase the strength in the other. They are separate entities.
Translation: working on a new gait does not strengthen the initial gait. Chuck is already really good at walking with his feet turned out. His muscles, the ones called upon when the legs bones rotate, work very efficiently that way as he's been walking that way for decades. The muscles that don't work in that familiar gait will not work in that familiar gait, no matter how much he strengthens them in a new gait. Strengthening his right hand won't affect his left hand.*
*Before anyone calls me out, I know there are times when using one hand CAN teach the other hand, so read this analogy as specific to this question about walking.
~ The Management
Whenever I get the chance, I love to substitute teach a yoga class. Seeing as how no one else is teaching Eischens Yoga in the Twin Cities, I sub for classes that are normally much different from mine. I wouldn't presume to sub for an Ashtanga or Vinyasa class because, having once taught Ashtanga, those students are there for something that is very far from what an Eischens Yoga class is. But a class listed as Open or Hatha or Beginners can hold a variety of teachings and I consider it fair game to bring my practice to the class. This is usually a person's first introduction to Eischens Yoga and I take full advantage.
The first shocker is the use of the block between the feet. In an EY class, that block serves several purposes. One purpose is to bring the feet into parallel position in Tadasana (mountain Pose), lining up the inside edge of the foot against the long edges of the block. Many teachers use the outer edge of the foot to find parallel. Using a block to line up the inner foot can be disconcerting if you're accustomed to slightly turned-in footing. I can't say my way is right or the other way is wrong. It just is the way of Eischens Yoga to use the inner edge. (I do find some people have taken that turned-in footing too far and occasionally a person's knees might be pointing inward from too much inward rotation. A block can be a way to lessen that extreme positioning of "parallel.") Having a block between the feet frees the student from having to look down to check their feet. You can feel the block at your heels and toes. The block is parallel. The feet are therefore parallel.
I prefer the 4" x 6" x 9" wide blocks that are becoming more common these days. Given that the femurs (thigh bones) insert into the pelvis around 4 to 6 inches apart, placing the block on either its 4- or 6-inch side between the feet will give most people a sense of their legs being stable underneath their torso. The leg bones will stack up more parallel than if the feet were brought together. Such a narrow footing, with feet touching, creates a Tadasana (Mountain Pose) with legs that taper to a small point of balance. Not only does that create less ease for a beginner who is just learning yoga, but it is a nearly impossible stance for someone whose knees touch and feet are still apart. (We called that knock-kneed when I was growing up, but that has negative connotations and I prefer to say that the legs bow in.)
So we have a block between the feet in Tadasana. It teaches parallel footing and aligns the legs into two parallel towers of bones. But wait! There's more! What about the student who suddenly discovers their feet can't come in to the block because their ankles are collapsed in? Or one who asks if the ankles are supposed to touch the block but their legs bow out and the ankles aren't anywhere near the block? Congratulations! Those students have just learned about imbalance in their own body. That right there is worth the price of admission. "Why?" you ask. It is possible the students never knew that about their feet and ankles until this moment of interaction with the block. Now they have valuable knowledge about a part of their anatomy. Even if they already knew this imbalance to be true, the block will serve as a tactile reminder as Tadasana is returned to again and again within the class. The student can observe if the relationship between feet, ankles and block changes after any part of the practice. Do certain poses make the ankles collapse more? Do other poses bring lift into the joint, allowing the feet to approach the block? Are the ankles coming closer to the block in the case of the student whose shins bow out? All this learning from one prop in one pose.
As we move through the practice, some students have trouble accepting that we are going to use the block in any pose besides Tadasana. During Uttanasana (Forward Fold), folks leave the block in place, but then we come to Adho Mukha Svanasana (Downward Dog) and suddenly the feet step into a wider stance. Someone somewhere may have told them to do that, but I've never understood that instruction (except in the case of pregnant women who need belly room). In part, DWDog is a variation of that Forward Fold they were just in. They didn't need to widen the feet then, so why now? I ask the class to try bringing their feet back to block-width. Adductors (inner thigh muscles) begin to fire. And then I mention glancing back at their feet for a moment. Are the inner edges of the feet parallel? What if you bring them to parallel? Suddenly, as the class adjusts their heels back in line with their toes, everyone finds they haven't been using the outer hamstrings until just this moment of bringing the feet parallel. And yet, they've been told this pose uses the entire leg. The too-wide stance and the rotation in the legs have unintentionally undermined the use of the muscles that are supposed to be working. The block becomes a feedback loop. Find the block, discover muscles that have been neglected.
When it comes to lying down on the stomach (Prone Mountain) or kneeling (Table, Camel), students are convinced the block is no longer applicable. They promptly remove it en route to the pose. Apparently, it doesn't occur to most folks that the feet need to remain parallel here, too. It's tricky; you can't see your feet behind you in these poses. But most of us sickle the toes in, drop the ankles out (or some variation of that) when the tops of the feet are on the ground. And we don't know we're doing it. Why should that sickling matter? Imagine the feet curving inward at the toes and ankles rolling out to the sides. Now picture it from an aerial view and see what effect that has on just the lower leg. The shin bones are no longer parallel to each other. The outer muscles along the shins are getting pulled longer, the inner muscles are shortening, and the calf muscles are in disuse. Put a block between the feet (we usually turn it to 6" wide for the entire group), and bring the inside edges of the feet to the block. Funny how far your feet moved to come to parallel. That is how out of alignment your lower legs probably were. (I've seen it. I've also done it. I know.) Now keep your feet hugging that block in Bhujangasana (cobra), Salabhasana (locust), Urdhva Mukha Svanasana (upward facing dog). Suddenly your legs are part of the pose. The legs are there to support the spine, but if they are disengaged from the work, the arms will take over; the spine may collapse; the lower back get pinched. Just because you're lying down, don't think the legs aren't supposed to do anything. Finding the block will help you begin to engage your legs.
Supine poses are another place to help keep the feet and legs aligned with the use of a block. While lying on the back, the feet and legs often externally rotate, rolling onto the outer edge of the heel. Placing a block between the feet here is similar to using it in Tadasana. You can feel when the feet are parallel when you can feel the block between your feet. Maintaining that connection of foot to block on the supporting leg when coming into poses that are one-legged (Supta Padagustasana, for example) reduces the possibility of rotation in the supporting leg. As in Adho Muka Svanasana, bringing the feet to parallel will also begin to engage the legs. Just because you are lying down doesn't mean the legs stop working.
Another place to use blocks while supine is in Setu Bandhasana (bridge pose). When setting up, place one block between the feet to keep them parallel, and another between the thighs. (I usually have students place the block 6" wide at the feet and 4" wide at the thighs. Sometimes I will suggest a 3" block if the knees are still wider than the ankles.) Most students lift into this pose using the inner thighs. The knees splay out to the sides, taking the feet out with them. Not only does this deprive the outer thigh muscles of their proper work and continue the strength imbalance between inner and outer thigh, it increases pressure on the lower back at the sacrum. Using blocks as described, rotations in the legs and feet become noticeable. Especially if that thigh block drops. By hugging the thighs to the block between them, you will start to use all the leg muscles in a more balanced manner, and ease tension in the lower back.
There are many more uses for the block in an Eischens Yoga class, most of which are not introductory and require a greater knowledge of the Transformational Work we do. But I hope this primer gives you ideas about how to begin playing with this simple tool. Many teachers and students use blocks underneath the hands in certain poses, or for supporting the pelvis while seated or kneeling. But when you begin to use them as a source of feedback about how your body functions in your yoga, blocks can become another teacher.
Rotation: to turn on an axis
Today I taught a very small class. Just three of my regulars. (It has been below zero here for a couple days and not everyone is silly enough to leave the house for things like yoga class.)
I assumed our transformation work would go quickly, working with partners to remove/reduce rotation in the back leg in Side Warrior (Virabadrasana B for those of you who do Sanskrit). I should know by now that what I think will be simple usually isn't, and what I think will be hard goes easily.
So here we are looking at legs, and I'm aware that one of the women is not getting what we're supposed to be looking at. It isn't important to me that she see it --- it is the first time I've ever pointed this rotation work out --- but she clearly is bothered. When her turn comes, her emotions are at the surface from frustration. And she is already holding tight to every instruction I have ever given in this pose. I try to tell her this isn't intended to change any of that, just to refine it. No good. By the time we have done "helping" her in the pose, she is so disconnected from her body and quite upset.
Once, years ago, I had the same response to too many instructions and tweaking. So many that I ended up cranky and disconnected. I looked at my student and very quickly put her through the same transformation work she had just done, only with minimal instruction and staying in the pose for a very short time. She stood up, calm, content, one with her body.
Life lessons learned today:
For the very cerebral, too much time and too much instruction only puts you further into your head.
As a teacher, know your students. Do not feed their imbalances.
Which leads me to this: All those ways you approach life may have served you well, but when they get in the way, can you change your approach? If you keep pushing through challenges, are there times when maybe you should just ease up? Can you persevere if it is your natural inclination to walk away from difficulty? Do you know yourself well enough to know your patterns of approaching life's challenges?
Watching how you approach a yoga pose can teach you a lot about your habits and patterns of mind. Taking yoga off the mat can happen while you're on the mat.
Deep, and not so deep, thoughts on bodies, movement, yoga, art, shoes, parenting, dogs. You know, life.