embodiment etudes

short somatic studies applied to yoga

Month: November, 2011

the hip

by julee snyder

The hip is the joint of the femur in the acetabulum, or hip socket, of the pelvis.  You can find the hip socket on your own body by placing one hand on the pubic bone and another on the bony point at the top front of one side of your pelvis (ASIS).  If you follow along the hip crease the hip socket will lie approximately half way between these two points.  Flexing and rotating the hip will allow you to refine exactly where your hip sockets are located.

Knowing where your hip sockets are and how to soften the muscles around them is crucial in yoga.  Forward bends come from the hip socket.  Triangle pose comes from the hip socket, and so does downward facing dog.  A great way to determine your range of mobility at the hip sockets is to lie on your back and hug one knee int your chest.  Keep your low back and pelvis in a neutral position, relax all of the muscles around the hip, and use your hands (or a partner) to move your femur in the hip socket.  Find as much softness in the hip crease as you hug your knee to your chest.  This is your flexion.  Now, keep your pelvis flat on the floor and take your knee toward your armpit.  Don’t roll your pelvis.  This is your external rotation.  Apply this information to your poses – standing, sitting, forward bending, balancing – and see how they change.

The acetabulum is formed by the three parts of the pelvis: the ilium, the pubis and the ischium.  We’ll go more into the pelvis later.  The femur is the thigh bone.  The proximal end of the femur is shaped like a ball and fits snugly into the acetabulum which is lined with cartilage to fit the femur like a glove.  Whenever possible imagine the femur softly falling into the hip socket.

The femur then wings out to the side like a flying buttress to create the greater trochanter.  The greater trochanter functions as the hub of a wheel to the many hip muscles that attach to it.  The abductors and deep rotators stem from the greater trochanter out into a fan shape all the way around allowing for a wide range of movement.  On the inside, you’ll notice a smaller notch.  This is the lesser trochanter.  It is most notably known as the distal attachment of the iliopsoas muscles which both flexes the hip and stabilizes the spine on the legs.

You’ll notice that the femur forms a diagonal as it travels from the greater trochanter to the knee.  When standing in tadasana, it is advised to place the tibia and the feet directly under the hip socket.  This optimizes the fall of gravity through the bones.

For more information on the muscles of the hip, see the post on “the four gates.”

the four gates

by julee snyder

The four gates of the thigh, coined by David Beadle, refer to the muscles on all four sides of the hip joint.  For knee and hip health, we want to equally open and stretch all four sides.  These muscle groups include the quadraceps on the front of the thigh, the hamstrings on the back of the thigh, the adductors on the inner thigh, and the abductors, located in the glutes, but feeding into the iliotibial band of the lateral leg.

I encourage you to refer to an anatomy atlas to further study the specific muscles, attachment sites, line of pull and specific joint actions.  But generally, the quadriceps are responsible for knee extension and hip flexion.  The hamstrings are antagonist to the quadriceps; they are responsible for knee flexion and hip extension.  The adductors are aptly name for the adduction or returning the leg toward the midline, while the abductors pull the leg laterally away from the midline.

As you plan your sequence, keep in mind that you want to balance all sides of the hip joint.  Include poses that stretch and open all sides of the thigh, as well as poses or flows that strengthen all sides of the thigh.

I often start my practices with a hip opening sequence that gets the synovial fluid flowing in the hip socket via small range of movement exercises and then moves into deeper stretches of the hip rotators.  Once the hip is warm, I will take out a strap to stretch the hamstrings, the medial leg, and the lateral leg.  While that feels pretty thorough, I still need to stretch the quads.  So I roll to my side or my belly to grab hold of the foot or ankle and stretch the quadriceps.

The same kind of logic can be applied to kneeling poses, standing poses, balance poses, as well as strengthening poses.  Have fun being both creative and strategic!

the knee

by julee snyder

The knee is a meeting of the femur and the tibia covered and protected by the patella.  The tibia is the straightest bone of the body and transfers the body’s weight into the foot.  The top of the tibia is called the tibial plateau and has two shallow cups covered by the menisci.  The menisci are two C-shaped pieces of cartilage that face each other to form a figure-eight shape.  The menisci are only pinned down at their ends and are thus free to move in response to the needs of the knees.

The distal end of the femur has two doming condyles at its end that sit into the cups of the menisci along the tibia.  When the knee bends, the femoral surface rolls changing the articular shape.  The menisci, because they are free to move, shift to accommodate the changing articular surface of the femur.

Between the menisci is the tibial fossa where the two cruciate ligaments attach.  Ligaments are designed to limit range of motion  to protect the joint.  Cruciate means cross as these two ligaments cross over each other.  The anterior cruciate ligament (ACL) attaches to front of the tibial plateau and then to the inside of the lateral condyle of the femur.  It resists the tibia sliding forward out from under the femur.  The posterior cruciate ligament (PCL) attaches to the back side of the tibial plateau and then to the inside of the medial condyle of the femur.  It resists the tibia sliding out from under the femur in the backwards direction.  There are two more important ligaments of the knee: the medial collateral ligament on the inside of the knee and the posterior collateral ligament on the outside of the knee.  These ligaments resist any side-to side deviation.

The primary joint actions of the knee are flexion and extension.  Hyperextension of the knee should be avoided as it negates the flow of gravity and levity through the full line of the leg while hanging in the ligaments of the knee – never a good thing.  Something else to know about the knee is that while in flexion it has the ability to rotate medially and laterally.  This means that the knee is more vulnerable in a bent position.  Dancers are notorious for finding their turnout in a bent knee position, because it gives them more range, and then straightening their legs.  This is also something to be avoided.

What you need to know for practice is that the knee is a transition joint.  It transfers forces from the upper body to the foot and back up again.  I advise my students to become aware of the relationship between the foot and the pelvis.  The foot and pelvis always go together, otherwise you are applying torque to the knee.

In a bent knee position, you will want to track the alignment of the knee so that it is always in line with the second and third toes.  For symmetrical poses like tadasana, forward bend, bridge and chair, you can practice with a block or ball between your thighs.  This will help to balance the strength on the inside and outside of the legs.  In asymmetrical poses like warrior two, the placement of the back foot has an enormous effect on one’s ease in finding a healthy placement of the front foot.  I recommend turning the back foot in about 30-degrees and allowing a slight turn of the pelvis toward the front leg.

Some people have pain in the lateral knee during pigeon or even cross-legged sitting.  This is usually do to a limitation in the hip rotators.  It is helpful to support the knee in these poses.  In sitting, a blanket under the sitting bones and a block under the knee is usually enough.  I recommend doing pigeon over a bolster.  Place the bolster perpendicular to the mat so that it supports the front of the back hip and the bottom of the front one.  Slip the front foot under the bolster to reduce the angle of pull on the knee.  If there is pain in deep flexion, like child’s pose or virasana, try rolling a wash cloth or hand towel behind the knee.  If that is not enough, try a blanket or a bolster.  Make your poses work for you!

Lastly, work to balance strength and flexibility on all sides of the joint.  I’ll go more into that in a post called “the four gates.”

the foreleg

by julee snyder

Moving up the leg from the foot we come to the foreleg.  There are two bones in the lower leg – the tibia and the fibula. The tibia is possibly the straightest bone in the body and serves as the pillar of the lower leg.  Vision an  architectural column distributing the weight from the upper body down to the foot.  It sits above and to the medial side of the talus forming the inner ankle, whereas the fibula serves as the outer ankle and can be palpated along the side of the leg to just below the knee.  The fibula is a thin spiralic bone.  It’s function reflects it’s structure.  It is the steering bone of the lower leg.  Remember that bones are alive, blood-filled and responsive.  The fibula helps to mediate uneven surfaces from the foot up to the knee.

So how does this influence your practice?   Begin to connect the tibia to the ankle-foot and the first three toes.  Connect the fibula to the heel-foot and the outer two toes.  If you’ve begun a practice of brushing your feet, continue up into the lower leg.  As you begin to root into the four points of the foot, feel how the arches support the pillar of the lower leg.  Great poses for this are tadasana (mountain pose) and bridge.  You can also notice it in the front leg of lunges and warriors.

To feel the effects of the fibula, begin to invert and evert the foot.  What does that mean?  Flex your foot and reach with the little toe side and then from the big toe side.  Once you have the movement down, begin to notice the role the fibula plays in facilitating this movement.  As you reach the little toe side of the foot away, you will likely feel the fibula spiral backwards.  This is what is happening to roll the little toe to the floor in triangle and warrior poses.

Another great place to integrate an awareness of the foreleg into practice is when the shins are on the ground.  Table, virasana, and camel are excellent examples.  Actively press the foreleg into the ground.  Let the front of the ankle open to the earth, spreading the top of the foot, and rooting the tops of the toes.  This creates a solid base of support.  If the ankles don’t easily move to the floor, roll a towel or blanket underneath of them and press into the roll.  They will slowly begin to open.

Happy practicing!

the foot

by julee snyder

The foot is an amazing structure of twenty-eight bones comprising thirty-three joints.  It is a structure that allows for extraordinary mobility and stability combined.  The bones of the foreleg meet the talus to create the ankle.  The heel is made of the calcaneous.  The midfoot includes the cuboid, navicular, and three cuneiforms.  The forefoot is comprised of the five metatarsals, the fourteen phalanges, and the two sesamoid bones.

In yoga, we often talk about the box of the foot – the four points of the foot that root down into the earth.  These four points include the big-toe ball, little-toe ball, inner heel, and outer heel.  You can think of these four points as footings to the arches of the foot.  The four arches include the medial longitudinal arch, the lateral longitudinal arch, the distal transverse arch, and the proximal transverse arch.  Pada bandha is created as the four points of the foot root down into the earth so that the arches can lift, carrying the energy (or lines of lift and rebound) from the ground up the center of the foreleg.

In the Body-Mind Centering work, we refer to the ankle-foot as the bones of the first three toes into the navicular and the talus.  The ankle-foot forms the medial longitudinal arch.  The heel-foot consists of the outer two toes into the cuboid and calcaneous to form the lateral longitudinal arch.  You’ll notice that the ankle-foot is more medial and has a higher arch than the heel-foot.  This allows for there to be both dynamic rebound in the lift and arch of the foot combined with weight distribution through the foot into the ground.


If you have the luxury of waking up slowly, begin your morning practice by waking up the feet.  This can be done while sipping your morning tea or lemon water.  A natural facebrush is a great tool for brushing the skin of the feet.  This increases circulation and enlivens the skin and the nervous system.  Begin to caress your feet, feeling the contours.  Massage your feet, distinguishing muscle from bone.  Take hold of adjacent metatarsals and begin to move them in opposite directions to encourage movement between the bones.  Trace the toes from the proximal head of the metatarsal to the tip.  Grab hold of the toe and circle it before moving on to the next.  Clap your feet.  Friction them.  Slip your fingers between the toes and hold them while circling the ankles.  Stand on a ball – an old tennis ball will do though a textured ball is exquisite – massage the plantar fascia moving slowly.  Take out your strap (or a lightweight theraband) and do your toe push-ups – slip the strap around the tip of the toe and keep the toe long while you press into the strap.  Try to isolate each toe so that it initiates the movement.  Any part of this sequence is a treat for your feet.  Once you are complete, your feet are ready for practice.

Whatever pose you choose, begin to notice your feet.  How alive do they feel?  Are some points more awake then others?  Does the weight distribute evenly through your feet?  Begin to notice your habits. Notice if there is a natural lift to all four of your arches or if there is collapse or over-effort.  Begin to see your habits and how those habits travel upstream to cause pain or dysfunction in the knee, hip, low back or breath.  As you shift your habits, you are shifting your samskara.

Seated symmetrical sequence:  seated bound angle pose, inverted table, bound angle forward bend, egg pose, staff pose, inverted plank, staff pose forward bend, egg pose, boat, wide-leg boat, bound angle.

Standing symmetrical series: mountain pose, chair pose, standing forward bend, monkey pose, forward bend, chair , mountain.

Standing asymmetrical series: mountain pose, wide mountain pose, warrior 2, triangle, side angle, lunge, mountain pose.

embodiment lab

by jsbodywork

A few years ago I began to recognize that the term ’embodiment’ was being co-opted by different fields of study in ways that were sometimes aligned, but more often not.  Interested in finding a unified concept of embodiment, I strongly desired for the somatic practices in which I was active and the theoretical disciplines of which I was enamored to talk to each other.  To this end, I created the embodiment lab – a collection of yoga practitioners who were also university professors.  Their fields included cultural studies, communications, women’s studies, political science, biostatistics, medical anthropology, and library and information technology.

My goal was never reached for the group took on a life of its own, first to put together a grant proposal (for which we were runner up) to support an experimental core of embodiment-based university courses, and then simply to gather, eat, practice and otherwise witness each other.  We became an embodied community.

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embodiment: resonance at the cellular level