Balance Part II – The Leg
By Tim Feldmann
To get the full benefits out of the standing/balancing asanas, we must master balancing on one leg to a reasonable degree. Knowing a few technical things about the body and mind will help us balance well on one leg, besides clenching everything we’ve got and pray that we’ll make it through! This article aims at assisting you with your one legged balances/movement.
Trigger points and images
When we want our body to perform a particular action that doesn’t come to us easily, it can be said that the more efficient way of utilizing your body is, generally to define and tune into one key point which will trigger the right action. Sometimes all you need to create a positive chain reaction in your body is to define the correct action of one body part consciously in your mind’s eye and guide yourself with this right ‘command’. It could be, e.g. ‘level your sit-bones’ in Virabhadrasana B or ‘follow your tailbone forward’ in coming up from a back bend. If you find the right command for you, the body often responds to this command by lining the rest of the body up along with your focused and one-pointed direction. In other instances the actual action is more complex and we are better off using a simplified image that combines more complex actions, connecting you into a movement pattern that will assure you success (most often you will need a teacher with a good eye and anatomical know-how to guide you towards how you can work better). In balancing solidly on one leg and therefore finding the full benefits of eg. Utthita Hasta Padangusthasana and Ardha baddha Padmottanasana, I would like to introduce you to one such powerful and simplified image – The sitbone-to-heel connection.
The sitbone-to-heel connection
The concept of the sitbone-to-heel connection is a dynamic energetic-anatomical principle defined by Rudolph Laban and Irmgaard Bartinieff. They were pioneers of movement analysis and documentation (www.limsonline.org). Their work has been widely adopted by gymnastics and health related movement therapies, elite sports, anthroplology, etc. I first heard about it in my dance training where they are celebrated as two of the 20th century’s great masters of contemporary movement technique and their discoveries have influenced and changed the way balance and many other things are taught in contemporary dance. The principle of the sitbone-to-heel connection is as simple as it is powerful. All you got to do is focus on it – really focus on it!
Let’s take a look at its track (please take a look at the illustrations). As the name indicates it runs between the sitbone and the heel on the back of your leg. It initiates at the tip of your sitbone, runs in a straight line down over your hamstrings, passes the back of the knee, continues over the back of the calf muscle, lines up with the Achilles tendon and ends at the tip of the back of your heel bone (where your Achilles tendon attaches). If you are not certain where these body parts are located in your body, take a look at illustration A and then use your hands to find these places in your own body. It runs in both directions and it is a dynamic and energetic connection. You can call it a concept, an image or a connection as it involves several muscle groups, joints and regions in the body. Like a river it is not defined by the borders between countries, rather it runs through them. The sitbone-to-heel connection covers the pelvis, the upper leg, the knee, the lower leg, the ankle and the foot. It covers an area of the body that is complex and vast and, when utilized well, it will connect and control the physical mechanics that you need to balance, while you move in and out of your asanas. The connection is best felt while working on a completely straight knee (if straightening your knees fully makes you concerned about injuring your knees, please read the article on knees). It is possible to define it on a slightly bent knee, but that would be a more advanced approach and not one that I would recommend to start out with.
1: Standing on two straight legs, picture your sitbone and picture the back of your heel.
2: Take a moment and allow yourself to draw a red line from your sitbone down over your hamstrings, over the back of the knee, over the back of the calf muscles and ankle arriving at the heel. Test this line by bending your knees a few times, maintaining the red line intact and unbroken.
3: Now, notice in your minds eye how your two sitbones are lowering towards your two heels as a side effect to bending your knees.
4: Standing with straight knees, picture your sitbones moving up and slightly backwards, allowing your pelvis to tip forward (let your spine/torso follow naturally) and continue this posture/motion till your hamstrings begin to give and your torso hangs fully forward, hands touching the floor (if your hamstrings long enough). During this, notice how the red line elongates.
5: Still standing with straight knees, reverse the action by imagining the red line pulling your sitbones down towards the heels allowing yourself to engage your hamstrings in this action. Allow this image and action to pull your sitbones down towards the heels again (maintaining two straight legs) so that your pelvis gradually tips back towards its upright position. Continue till your pelvis is upright and your spine has been pulled up to upright. NOTE: during this whole action, at no point should you be leading with any other body part nor help the action by raising your head and chest. Instead, let the action happen below your pelvis in your sitbones and hamstrings – mainly in your hamstrings – and let the spine, neck and head be pulled up gradually like a limp tail. If you find yourself engaging in the spine, neck or head, just stop for a few seconds, for a few breaths and reconnect to the action described before continuing.
1: When you, and only when you, master the relatively simple action on two legs, try doing the same with your one leg in half bound lotus. But, be very present to your awareness and make sure to follow these directions stringently. If you engage, help or articulate from other places in your body, you will not succeed to bend and stand up well connected, effortlessly and gracefully when you try on only one leg. Again, the key is a constant focus on just that one thing, eliminating any other thought by reiterating the instruction over and over, engaging in the image and the action. As you get familiar with working this sitbone-to-heal image the asana will become very easy to move in and out of.
2: If this is not working for you, go back to A for a little while longer. when you succeed in performing this more challenging one-legged exercise, go ahead and try in full Ardha Baddha Padmottanasana.
When A and B is getting familiar to you and you perform it with a more frequent success rate, try to apply the same method in Utthita Hasta Padangustansana. In this case, you want to connect to the same red line on the back of the leg as in exercise A and B, but draw a few more lines:
1: Draw a line over the back of both legs (see exercise A) one leg planted firmly and straight into the floor and the other pointing forward, catching your big toe with your fingers.
2: Draw one line from your tailbone up over the back of your spine, over the back of your neck and continue the line up along the back of your skull till it reaches the top of your head, and continue the line into infinite space. In this case we just keep it solidly planted and we don’t budge! You are now standing on one leg, extending the other leg forwards and allowing the, head, neck and spine to continue the straight and vertical line from the heel of the standing leg all the way up to the top of your head.
3: As you continue to thrust your standing leg actively down into the ground below you, and as you continuously send the other leg forward and out through your heel, now allow the red line to bent in the hip by sending your spine, neck and head forwards by actively ‘pointing’ the top of your head towards your toes.
4: As you are feeling reasonably solid and stable here, allow yourself to replace the pointing of the top of the head with your eyes, gazing at your toes or in the forwards direction that your feet/toes point, completing the full Utthita Hasta Padangushtasana pose.
As i am writing these directions I realize it seems quite complex. it actually isn’t! Try it a few times following the directions meticulously and you’ll probably find that it is a fairly simply maneuver – words just seem to get in the way! If you are very confused, feel free to send me an email describing your problem with the directions.
So, the sitbone-to-heel-connection, as it is commonly called, connects you to an energetic/neurological pathway that involves several muscle groups (hamstrings, quadriceps, iliopsoas, etc.). By focusing on the sit bone, the heel and the imagined line, you trigger a response in your body that leads you into good use, proper alignment and efficient movement patterns. You will experience this without having to be concerned with the exact motor coordination of the individual muscle groups involved. It functions as a simplified image that the brain can process, in essence, “tricking” the mind to consider it a simple action. If we were to break it down to its individual components the action of using, standing or moving on our legs would become an intricate matrix of conscious instruction – quite impossible to keep track of and to perform.
While learning a particular, precise and different pattern of motion than we are usually subject to, we need the conscious mind involved and therefore we need these ‘trigger images’ or ‘trigger points’ to dialogue effectively between the body and the mind. In doing so, we build strong and efficient neurological pathways that digest the vast kinesthetic information effectively, simply and fast.
Thinking and meditation
By now you might be thinking: ‘am I supposed to think like this during my whole practice? What happened to the meditative state of yoga practice? This guy is out of his mind!’. Well, first of all, there is a time when the mental activity associated with directing your body becomes second nature. There are moments when the body and the mind have unified around the action that takes place in your body, where the mind and body lock-in easily and share the action with no further activity involved – you might already be experiencing moments like this in your practice. But, while learning and assimilating complex new information there are conscious processes that we need to allow to unfold. This is such a process. And think about it… what is the alternative to not directing the mind? Most of the time the alternative is a free-wheeling, worry-stricken line of random thoughts that deals as much with the fear of falling on you butt and with various unedited thoughts from past, present and future as with defining and connecting to the appropriate present activity. Furthermore, maintaining your thoughts within the parameter of your body is a widely accepted definition of meditation. Whether you keep your mind on your breath, on your nose, on an image of light in your heart, on your left pinky or on a red line traveling up the back of your body is of less importance in the earlier states of training the mind and the body. The key to making your mind an ally is to keep the mind steady and unified with the action you are involved in. The trigger image is such a tool. It will help you steady your mind, hence steady your body efficiently.
Enjoy your practice, Tim