Yoga, like pretty much every other skill, relies on a combination of factors. Two of the most important are knowledge and practice. Knowledge is our understanding of more theoretical concepts: why we are doing it, what is the underlying belief system, how might I improve, etc. Practice is the actual putting-in-motion of these concepts: the hours, days, months and years of using the body and mind to build experience and generate progress.
These two are powerful when used together. They are much less impactful when apart.
Knowing what you believe, why you believe it, what you're practicing and why is absolutely essential to any sort of progress. If you don't know these things, any effort you exert could easily be put in the wrong direction, taking you further from your goals rather than closer to them.
If you want to go north but don't have a compass, it doesn't matter how fast you run. You are likely to unknowingly head in the wrong direction, getting further from your goal. And the harder you work, the further you get.
Yoga practice is the same way. Whether you're trying to improve your balance, stand on your hands, breathe better, or have deep meditation, it is essential to first know what to do. Each of these goals will require different techniques, and if you use the wrong one you will essentially make progress in the wrong direction. Therefore knowledge is indispensable to progress.
Effort or practice without knowledge can be futile and counterproductive. This can lead to frustration. Often, when you feel stuck in your practice, it is greater knowledge rather than greater effort that will help.
Knowledge helps us refine our understanding of who we are, where we are, where we want to go, and how to get there.
The other half of the conversation is the effort we exert toward our goals — practice. It may be obvious to say, but this is where the actual progress happens.
If you want to go north and you know which direction is north, you still have to put one foot in front of the other and actually go north. No amount of knowing will get you there.
It is easy for intellectual people to overemphasize knowledge. We think that if we know more, then we will make more progress. We continually collect and consume copious amounts of information and knowledge. But we make limited progress this way.
Knowledge must be accompanied by practice, because our bodies and minds grow through use. To improve our balance, we must allow the body to learn how to connect the feet, legs, hips, etc. No amount of study will do this. Only actual practice.
Also, study uses the mind in a specific way, essentially practicing one skill. If we study a lot, we will get good at studying. But we won't improve other skills, like balancing, breathing or meditating. To progress at those, we must practice them.
PUTTING THEM TOGETHER
There is a well-known saying in the yoga world, often attributed to K. Pattabhi Jois, the founder of Ashtanga Vinyasa Yoga: "Yoga is 99% practice, 1% theory."
The quotation is probably hyperbolic, intended to make a point. But the danger in this mentality is that it may encourage thoughtless practice and effort. To return to our analogy, it is like saying "99% walking, 1% checking the compass."
As teachers, we speculate that the lesson Jois was trying to teach is: Don't get stuck in thinking about things. And don't think that knowledge will save you or be enough on its own. You must practice.
We agree with this, but we also think that the opposite is equally likely. Students may think that practice and effort are enough on their own. Then they will cultivate very little knowledge or understanding of what they're doing and why. They will end up making progress in the wrong direction.
We think that the two are equally important: 50% practice, 50% knowledge. The two feed and inform each other. Your actual practice will help you understand why ancient scriptures say what they do. And your knowledge of history, philosophy, and your own goals will help your practice be more effective and productive.
This blog is part of a series about the hips.
The final two movements of the hips to discuss are abduction and adduction. Like internal and external rotation, these are less powerful movements of the hip than flexion and extension.
Abduction and adduction do not need to be developed to any great extent on their own. The muscles that make these movements possible are often accessed through other movements. For example, the muscles of abduction are used for stability and balance. Standing on one leg (or even walking) requires the muscles of abduction.
While we don't need to focus on developing these movements to a significant extent, let's look at them in more detail so we know what the actions are and which muscles make the movement possible.
Adduction refers to movement toward the midline of the body (or toward something). In the case of the hips, adduction is the movement of the leg toward the midline. Not surprisingly, this movement is achieved by engaging the adductors. These can be thought of as the muscles on the inner thigh. They include muscles like the adductor magnus, adductor brevis, adductor longis. All of these muscles connect from the pubis, or bottom and inner part of the pubic bone, to the femur (leg bone).
Throughout this series we've discussed six movements of the hip joint: flexion, extension, internal & external rotation, adduction and abduction. Considering this, anytime we are talking about the hips we have to consider what position the hip joint is in. Remember the hips can be in any one of these six positions or in a combination!
Any time you think "I have tight hips" or "this pose is a hip opener", think about what position the hips are in. Knowing these six options (and that it may be more than one), you can figure out with more specificity what is happening in the hips.
This blog is part of a series about the hips.
So far, we have covered three out of the six movements of the hip joint. We began with flexion and extension. In the last blog we discussed external rotation. There are three more movements of the hips to cover in this series. They are: internal rotation, adduction and abduction.
Let's look at internal rotation. This is a very small movement that occurs when your femur (leg bone) rotates in toward the center of your body. It is far less common than the prior three movements. It is not a movement worth working on to any significant degree. Rather, it's just beneficial to be aware of.
Muscles of Internal Rotation
We do not have a muscle dedicated to internal rotation of the hip. That is why this movement is not particularly powerful or coordinated. Instead, we have a few muscles that aid in internal rotation. These are smaller muscles that do other jobs in the body. These muscles include the tensor fascia latae and two adductors. Depending on what position the body is in, they can work together to internally rotate the hip. Let's take a closer look.
It is not surprising that when we discuss about hip adduction, these will come up again! Their main job is to adduct the thigh, which means to pull the thigh toward the centerline of the body.
However, if the hip is externally rotated to begin with, the adductors can help bring the thigh back to a neutral position. To say this another way, from a neutral position the adductors will not internally rotate the hip to a significant degree. It is when the hip is already externally rotated that the adductors will help to internally rotate.
Remember, internal rotation of the hip occurs within a small range of motion. It isn't a movement that is particularly coordinated. Rather than develop it in your body, be aware of it and use it to inform and bring clarity to your understanding of the other movements of the hip joint.
2020 has been an incredibly yogic year.
By that, we mean that it’s been a time where we’ve been forced to question or change our patterns of behavior and take a deeper look at our desires. To a yogi, these are great blessings.
We may think that our actions are important, but far more interesting are the desires that lead to action.
Desire itself is always something to investigate. For thousands of years, yogis (and Buddhists) have recognized that desire is a cause of suffering. Therefore, they teach the removal of desire as a means to spiritual liberation.
We can only confront our desires when we recognize them. Most of the time they lie low beneath the surface of our awareness. A time that forces us to recognize desire is helpful. It may not be pleasant, but it is beneficial for yogic progress.
Beyond desire, 2020 has been a time to recognize impermanence. Not only did many of our patterns die, many of us have lost someone we are close with, or lost some of our (perceived) comforts. These again are great teachers on the yogic path.
Finally, self inquiry is inherent in philosophical systems. The Upanishads and Bhagavad Gita teach the nature of the self, the Buddhist Nikayas teach the idea of non-self, the Yoga Sutras examine the relationship between consciousness and matter. For centuries, inquiry into the true nature of the self has been a part of human existence. This is because incorrectly identifying the self is also a source of suffering.
In a year like 2020, we’ve been stripped of things we identify as self. Our customs, patterns, habits have been interrupted. The crisis we have felt is our sense of self being pulled out from under us. To a yogi, this is incredibly useful! We never needed those patterns in order to be who we are. We simply are.
This blog is part of a series about the hips.
The next movement of the hips we will explore is external rotation. This movement is subtler than flexion or extension. However, external rotation plays a big role in yoga practice. External rotation of the hip is needed for challenging postures like Leg Behind the Head, but is also needed for all seated postures. For this reason it plays a big role in enabling pranayama and meditation practices. It is a physical skill that is needed for practices that take us beyond the body.
Muscles of External Rotation
External rotation is when the leg bone (femur) rotates away from the body. There are a lot of muscles that facilitate this motion, and any one of them can give us trouble. These muscles include: piriformus, quadratus femoris, two obdurators and the gemelli. (The gluteus maximus also aids in external rotation.)
External rotation is not particularly difficult when standing. Most of us have no problem pointing the toes of one or both feet out to the sides. However, this action is complicated quite dramatically once we had hip flexion.
Seated postures like Lotus can become problematic because the knee joint is much less stable than the hip. If we attempt to sit in Lotus without being able to do so safely, the knee tries to compensate for tightness in the hip.
In cultures that sit on the floor, external rotation is not a challenging movement. For those who sit in chairs, this movement is much more challenging. It can take time to develop this skill.
This blog is part of a series about the hips.
The second movement of the hips we will explore is extension. Extension is when the front of your thigh moves away from your pelvis. The main muscles of hip extension are the gluteus maximus (butt muscle) and the hamstrings.
Unlike quadrupeds, humans walk upright. So, one of the strange things about the hips is that they are already in extension while we are standing. We don't have much range of motion in the hips past 180 degrees. What might feel like hip extension beyond that, often begins to incorporate the spine.
Let's look at the muscles that extend the hips. They are the muscles that work in a posture like Locust, or when we stand up out of Chair. They also work in poses like Balancing Stick or the back leg in a Lunge.
The second main group of muscles that extend the hip are the hamstrings. There are three main hamstrings. They are the semitendinosus, the semimembranosus and the biceps femoris.
In yoga poses, these muscles often work to stabilize the pelvis. For example, in the standing leg of Balancing Stick, both the hamstrings and the gluteus maximus are what hold the pose. It's common to hear that tight hamstrings are the cause of trouble in Balancing Stick. However, it's quite the opposite. Weak hamstrings are the issue.
It is important to recognize the muscles of hip extension and strengthen them. Unlike the hip flexors which do not need to be strengthened, strength in the hip extensors should be cultivated. They are big and powerful muscles. Especially in cultures that tend to be sedentary, they are often underdeveloped. This leads to further imbalances in the body.
This blog is part of the series about the hips.
The first movement of the hip we will examine is flexion. Technically speaking, flexion is movement in which the anterior surfaces of the limb move toward each other. Simply put, it is when the thigh moves closer to the upper body.
The hip flexes often. When we walk, jump or run, our hips flex and extend over and over again. This is a natural movement and one that isn't difficult for our body to comprehend. Let's look at the muscles in the body that make this motion possible.
Finally, the sartorius is a very long and thin muscle that runs from the pelvis to the tibia (shin bone). It is the longest muscle in the human body! It is perhaps the lesser known of the "hip flexors" but can play a moderate role in flexion.
The muscles that flex the hip are not huge, powerful muscles. Aside from addressing any significant imbalance, it is not particularly useful to focus on strengthening this part of the body. Instead it's usually worthwhile to work on developing the muscles that extend the hip. This will help lengthen the hip flexors.
In day to day life, the hip flexors are often in a shortened position. This has to do with how much we sit on a regular basis. When we sit, the hip flexors are short and they tend to stay that way even when we try to lengthen them. Back discomfort often comes from tight hip flexors (the psoas in this case). Tight hip flexors can also keep us from back bending affectively.
The hips are a big focus in asana practice. We may have heard instructions like open the hips, breathe into the hips, compress the hips, decompress the hips, or stabilize the hips. All of this begs the question, what are the hips? And what should we be doing with them?!
Let's start with the basics. The hip is a joint. This is important. It is the point of connection between the head of your femur (leg bone) and your pelvis. The hip joint has a relatively big range of motion, allowing us to walk, jump and move our legs forward, back and to the sides. It can rotate internally and externally, though in a much smaller range of motion than the previous movements. To complicate things further, the hips usually work in a combination of movements.
Because of the various ways in which the hip joint moves, there are many muscles or areas of the body we could be referring to when we talk about the hips. We will examine these in detail in the next few blogs. Before that, let’s consider a few other ideas about joints in general.
Any and all joints in the body are moved by muscles. Muscles move the body. Bones sustain the body's weight. Joints serve as connections between bones which enable us to be something other than a concrete statue.
Since joints need muscles to move, it’s not possible to affect a joint without using muscles. A cue to engage, stretch, or lengthen a joint can therefore be misleading. This may seem like splitting hairs, but our ability to understand the way in which our body moves is what gives us freedom in our practice. If we know exactly what we’re trying to do and how, progress comes easily.
Over the next few blogs we'll look at the different movements of the hips and how they relate to postures.
As students, we do not know what our teachers know. That is why we are a student. In order to learn, a teacher tells us something beyond our understanding. Then over time, we practice, study and integrate the information. As we do this, we have to balance our own consideration of the new information with the fact that we may not yet understand what we are learning.
Eventually, the information should make sense to us. We should know why we are doing what we're doing and how it works in the body or mind. This is where it becomes important that we don't just repeat words or actions without understanding the deeper meaning of them.
A good test is to check whether we can articulate the purpose of a certain posture, for example. Can we explain what the purpose is and how it is accomplished in the body? Can we back up our answer with greater anatomical understanding or textual support? To articulate this on our own, it means we can't just repeat what we've heard without it making sense to us. We have to truly understand.
As students of yoga, we should all seek to understand what we're doing. We should look to multiple sources to see how they correspond to each other, continue to question our understanding, come up with further areas to investigate or practice. Of course this will take time, and that's ok. Yoga is a practice, not a destination.
This is part of a series of blogs called Practice Tips.
As we expand our understanding of yoga, the amount of practices expand with us. We become aware of pranayama, meditation, more postures. We realize we could study texts, philosophy, or anatomy. Quickly, we realize there are so many directions we could go in. How do we choose?
There is no right or wrong answer. The best thing to do is to follow our interests. Choose what we are excited about and what intrigues us.
The best practice is the one that we'll do.
If we choose to focus on something that we are interested in, chances are we will actually come back to it on a regular basis. If we choose something that we should do, but don't care much about, chances are we won't.
This is not to say we should never practice something that we don't like. Of course, we should develop areas of weakness either in our practice or our understanding. But we need to be careful. We shouldn't choose only the things that we struggle with, if it will make us give up the practice entirely.
If there is a posture that excites you, practice that one everyday. If you're taking a class and the teacher doesn't include that posture, practice it after the class. Commit to your own interests and develop them. If you are interested in an old yogic text, start reading. Take it page by page.
One interest leads to another. Over time, we end up with experience in many different areas. But this doesn't happen all at once. Choose the practice that interests you today. The right practice is the one you'll do.
Scott & Ida are Yoga Acharyas (Masters of Yoga). They are scholars as well as expert practitioners of yogic postures, breath control and meditation. They are the head teachers of Ghosh Yoga.
- The 113 Postures of Ghosh Yoga
- Make the Hamstrings Strong, Not Long
- Understanding Chair Posture
- Lock the Knee History
- It Doesn't Matter If Your Head Is On Your Knee
- Bow Pose (Dhanurasana)
- 5 Reasons To Backbend
- Origins of Standing Bow
- The Traditional Yoga In Bikram's Class
- What About the Women?!
- Through Bishnu's Eyes
- Why Teaching Is Not a Personal Practice