Big Ideas and Small Ideas-Elements of a Handstand

handstandI am in the process of developing a training program for people who want to do handstands. I thought this would be useful both for people who practice yoga by themselves, and also for people who teach yoga who want to understand the elements of a handstand so that they can teach it to various levels of students. In the context of Basic Principles and Understanding, I wanted to write this article as an aid to understanding how to break down a complex idea down into simple to understand or do smaller ideas.

Elements of Doing

We can break down the process of doing a handstand into three main elements or stages:

  • jumping up
  • staying up
  • coming down

These elements can then be broken down into smaller elements. In the Jumping up category I can include ideas like:

  • going up and down using feet on a wall (to get first timers used to being upside down)
  • jumping up and down with feet on a wall (to get beginners used to the idea of jumping)
  • jumping up using the down leg
  • jumping up using the swinging leg
  • jumping up with one leg at a time (down leg and swinging leg working together)
  • jumping up from downward dog with one leg
  • jumping up from downward dog with both legs
  • jumping up from downward using the hips as opposed to the knees
  • jumping/pulling up from a forward bend
  • jumping up using the shoulders and hips in a reciprocating action (????)

These are all different techniques or ways that I’ve taught hand stand at one time or another.

The staying up category would include

  • using our connection with the earth to feel where our center is so that we can sense when it is moving away from the center of our foundation
  • recovery techniques for when you feel yourself tipping forwards or backwards and ways of practicing those techniques
  • staying up for longer and longer
  • variations of handstands.

Coming down from handstand would be the easiest section to teach. I would make a joke about how for most of us this is the easiest part, but I have had students who come out with absolutely no control and so this section would be to teach such people how to apply the same awareness they use going into the pose to coming out. Actually, coming out could be a good way to teach people to go in since coming out with control requires control and that control could then be used to help people jump in.

Elements of the Body

We can also break down the body into a number of elements that are key in any of the above three stages. The purpose of breaking down the body into these elements is so that we can practice feeling, controlling and understanding them. The ideal is to get to the point that we can sense each part and respond to what we sense based on what we are trying to do without having to think. To get to that point we can design and use exercises that help us to sense and control these elements individually as well as together in the context of a handstand (or any other action we are trying to do.)

  • the hands, using them to feel and control center
  • the elbows (it might seem obvious to keep them straight but for those that can’t then it can be useful to practice drills so that students can practice feeling when their elbows are straight
  • the shoulders since they control the relationship between the upper body and the arms.
  • our hips and pelvis, since this is approximately where our center of gravity is
  • the legs, a key element in jumping up, and once up they can be used to express the handstand. Reach them up!

I would include practices, exercises and/or drills for learning to both feel and control these parts in a handstand and out of a handstand.

Getting Comfortable and Failing Safely

For people who have never been upside down, a key element is to get them used to being upside in small, controllable and comfortable stages. Hence using the wall can be a key training tool.

For those who want to venture away from the wall, an important tool is giving them the ability to fail safely, some way of falling that doesn’t cause injury. Generally in handstand the easiest way to do that is to shift the hands in such a way that they can fall with their feet in front of them as opposed to behind them. For people not used to moving their hands while upside down, that is something else that can be practice against a wall.
Another key point in both cases is to get into the habit of making sure that our practice area is safe for us to fail within.

Yet another practice, and this takes some balls, is to tuck and forward roll at of a handstand.


One of the reasons for doing a handstand is that we might want to use it as a transition from one pose to another or as a pose in a string of poses. As an example, we might to bend backwards into a back arch, then come up into a handstand, and then from there back to standing. And so once we’ve learned or at least gotten comfortable being on our hands, we can then practice entering it from a posture like wheel pose. We can start of with our feet elevated on a table or low bench, or we can use a wall to walk down and up.

All of these ideas are tied together by the big idea of learning to stand and balance on our hands. All of these methods require practice, but because they are all simple to understand, the practicing part can be relatively simple and straight forward.

Also important is that each of these elements is meaningful in the context of doing a handstand but also in the context of learning to feel and control our body. They are readily definable which means that they can be sensed, understood and we can learn the necessary control to do each of them.

The net result after practice is the ability to do a handstand or at least to know what we need to do to do it. An added benefit is that we understand our body well enough that we can apply that understanding to other things that we use our body for.

Teaching, Adjusting and Firm Foundations

Since this program would be geared towards teachers as well as self-practitioners, we could look at the big idea of teaching handstands to a class. A key element would be spotting which in itself is a variation of the same techniques that are used in handstand. As an example, doing a handstand, or any posture for that matter, our connection with the earth is our foundation. In the case of handstand our foundation is provided by our hands, arms and shoulders. These need to be sensitive, stable and responsive in order for the handstand to be done. With our foundation taken care of, in order to stay balanced all we then need to do is keep our center over it.

If we are aware of this as a teacher who is adjusting someone else then we can first make sure that we are in a position so that no matter what happens we have a firm foundation and that we can keep our own center over that foundation. If we aren’t then we adjust how we relate to the person we are adjusting so that we can stay balanced. At the same time, we make sure that in whatever way we adjust the person we are working on, they are able to maintain their foundation and keep their center over it.

In this way we apply our own sensitivity to sensing our students and our relationship with them just as we are teaching them to be sensitive to their body and their relationship with the earth. In both cases we then have the ability to balance, to do what we are trying to do whether it is teach a handstand or do it.


Body Basics-Feeling your Spine and Breath

The following set of exercises are designed to help you feel you pelvis, low back, ribcage, neck, head and shoulder blades. These exercises are designed to help you experience your body by moving specific parts slowly, smoothly and repeatedly with rhythm. You can then focus on feeling the parts that you are moving.

Once you’ve learned to feel these parts individually, you could then practice feeling them in the context of some action, whether a yoga pose or a tai ji movement or rowing or weight lifting or any activity that you do. The more you experience your body, the better you can feel it and control it in any situation. The intent is not to program you and say that this is the right way or the wrong way, but to allow you to feel and control your body so that you can use it in a way that is appropriate to what you are doing at the time. Better yet, it is to give you the ability to feel the possibilities for each of these parts so that you can choose from among them.

As an example, in the twisting section there are four different exercises. One involves twisting with the ribs expanded, another while the ribs are pulled inwards. Another involves twisting with  one side expanded while the other is contracted and the other variation is the opposite.

Now even if you can only do the first two options (expanded or contracted) you can try these options and notice which one makes twisting easier, or helps you to twist further or which simply feels the most comfortable given what you are doing at the time.

These exercises are all designed so that they can be done while sitting. You can sit on a chair (while looking at your computer) or you can sit on the floor. If on the floor you may find it to sit on a block or a book so that your can move your pelvis freely relative to your legs. Ideally, you can move roll your pelvis far enough forwards that you lumbar spine can straighten or even assume a “normally curved” position.

In the context of basic principles and foundation, you can consider these exercises foundational building blocks for feeling your body and using it in different contexts.

Ribs and Spine Together-Lengthening and Relaxing

Learn to feel your ribs and spine  by bending your spine forwards and allow your ribs to sink. Hold and concentrate on feeling the “weight” of your ribs and allowing weight to sink down. Notice (and allow) spine to bend forwards. Think “Couch Potato” or simply slouch. Also allow the head to go forwards and down relative to the ribcage.

Next slowly pull ribs and head upwards. Pull up on the back of the head so that the back of the neck feels long.

Work at making the ribcage feel expansive and spacious. You can also focus on creating space between the ribs.

Relax ribs and head down and then and then Lengthen entire spine, ribs and head upwards. Gradually shorten the time in each position and move slowly and smoothly from one to the other. Notice the difference in sensations. You may notice that you naturally inhale while lengthening and that you exhale while relaxing. That is because lengthening the spine and opening the ribcage expands the lungs while doing the opposite compresses the space that they are in.

Ribs Only

For the next exercise, which can continue from the previous, keep the spine upright and long and only move the ribs.

Because you are only moving your ribs, you may notice that each breath is a lot smaller.

To maximize your breath, focus on each part of your ribcage individually. While inhaling and exhaling, focus on moving your front ribs forwards and up, and then back and down. Bottom side ribs move outwards and up and then inwards and down. The back ribs simply lift up and down.

Focus on feeling or sensing each of these actions separately first and then all together. To feel your ribs move put your awareness on them or in them.


For the next exercise, keep the spine long and the ribs lifted and allow your front belly (the front of your belly) to move as you breathe. It’ll move forwards as you inhale and back as you exhale. Once you have the hang of this,  focus on the bottom half of your lower belly (the bottom quarter of your belly)-halfway down from the belly button. Hold this part of your belly inwards while inhaling. There should be a slight feeling of tension running from side to side. You can imagine pulling the front edges of your pelvis inwards slightly.

Allow your upper belly to expand while holding your lower belly in. Slowly and smoothly relax your entire belly completely while exhaling.

Now try the same action while lifting and lowering the ribs. While inhaling gently pull your lower belly back while allowing your upper belly to expand. Allow your ribs to lift and expand at the same time. You may get the sensation that you are using your upper belly to push your ribs upwards.

Smoothly relax everything while exhaling.

The diaphragm pushes downwards on the abdominal organs while inhaling in this exercise. The abdominal organs then push outwards on the abdominal wall. It also can cause the “Pushing Up” sensation on the ribcage.

Roll the Pelvis and Straighten the Lumbar Spine

Changing gears slightly, sit on a chair or on a book or block so that you can roll your pelvis freely back and forwards. Start with it rolled forwards so that you lumbar spine is bent backwards (normal curve.)

Slowly rock your pelvis back just far enough so that your lumbar spine is straight. Then rock forwards. Practice slowly smoothly rocking backwards and forwards while feeling the change in position of your pelvis and lower back.

You may find it helpful to use a mirror. Notice when your lumbar spine looks straight and notice the feeling that accompanies this straightness. You might try fine tuning this position if there is a position near straightness that feels really comfortable or nice-as if the lower back is open or full.

You can add the previous exercise to this one and allow your upper belly to expand while rolling your pelvis backwards. You can pull your lower belly in at the same time. You then straighten you lumbar spine and expand your ribcage each time you inhale. You relax them both while exhaling.

Pulling head Up, Straighten Cervical Spine and Spreading Shoulder Blades

We’ve already practiced pulling the head back and up while straightening the spine, but here we’ll isolate the movement.

Relax the ribs and allow the head to sink forwards. Now focus on pulling the back of the head back and up. The chin can pull inwards at the same time. You may notice that this action naturally causes the front of the ribs to lift. Now slowly relax your head forwards and down. Repeat and make the movements smooth and slow.

Adding the shoulder blades, focus on feeling the inner edges of your shoulder blades, the part closest to the spinal column. This is the attachment point for most of the muscles that stabilize the scapula with respect to your ribcage.

As you pull your head back and up move the inner edges of your shoulder blades away from your spine. You may notice that your back feels wider, broader, more open. Relax while exhaling. While doing this action, try to keep the muscles that sit on your shoulder blades relaxed. Keep your large chest muscle (Pectoralis Major) relaxed also. You may have to focus on slowly moving your shoulder blades in order to feel this action, and in order to feel the position where the inner edges of your shoulder blades are flat on your back.

Twisting and Turning the Ribcage

With hands in prayer in front of your sternum, keep your hands there and turn your ribs to the right. Turn your ribcage relative to your pelvis and lumbar spine. Twist your ribs relative to each other.

Keep your ribs and head lifted and move your upper belly while breathing.

Hold for a few breaths and then pull the ribs in while continuing to twist. Hold for a few breaths noticing whether pulling ribs in makes twisting easier or harder. Did you twist further?

Next contract the left side of your ribcage and open the right side. How does this help (once you get the hang of it.)

Try the opposite.

Rest and then try the same options while twisting to the left.

In any exercise where we are twisting and turning the ribs, we can expand the ribs, contract them or expand one side while contracting the other. As mentioned, one option may be more appropriate given what you are doing at the time.

Bending the Spine Backwards and Forwards

Again while sitting, bend the spine backwards. Tilt the pelvis forwards at the same time. You can tuck the chin in and focus only on bending the lumbar spine and thoracic spine (back of the ribcage) backwards. Notice as you do so how your belly lengthens and the front of your ribcage opens. To assist this action, Focus on the side of your ribcage and push the sides of your ribs forwards.

Just for the experience also try pulling the sides of your ribs back.

Notice how each movement assists or doesn’t assist the backbend. For myself (currently,) pushing side ribs forwards makes bending spine backwards feel better.

Next bend the spine forwards. Pull the side ribs back and then try pushing them forwards. Notice the results. Again, my personal observations (yours may be different) are that pulling the side ribs back make this action easier while sitting.

When holding each position, experiment with different types of breath to see which one is easiest.

I find that when bending backwards, holding my lower belly in and breathing into my upper belly and front ribs feels comfortable. While bending backwards, I can breathe just a little into my upper belly but I then I put most of my effort into breathing into the back of my ribcage.

Stretch and Relax

To stretch and relax the muscles you’ve been using you may find it useful to do an assisted or relaxed twist.

Use a knee or the side of your chair and the back of your chair or the floor for leverage, use your arms to twist your ribs while relaxing your waist and ribcage.

Make both your inhales and your exhales feel relaxed and smooth.

Wrap Up

Most of these exercises involved using the muscles of the abdomen or intercostal spaces (the spaces between the ribs) in one way or another. They also, ideally, will help you to develop your ability to both feel and control your spine, the elements that make it up (the head, cervical spine, ribs, thoracic spine, lumbar spine and pelvis,) and the relationships between these elements.

In Basic Principle terminology we can use the word “idea” instead of the word “element.”

Note on Ideas and Relationships

The ideas we can learn to feel using these exercises are: The head, neck (cervical spine), ribcage, thoracic spine, lumbar spine, pelvis, shoulder blades.

Because the neck, thoracic spine and lumbar spine are actually made up of smaller elements, we can actually learn to feel and control the relationships between these smaller elements. Thus these elements could be considered as ideas or as a system of relationships.

Other relationships that we can learn to feel and control include those between the following pairs of ideas: head and ribcage, ribs and thoracic spine, ribs and pelvis, shoulder blades relative to each other, shoulder blades relative to the spine.

The Basics-How Much Practice is Enough?

A friend came over for a visit last night and showed me some brush painting techniques he’d learned from his teacher. We varied between using brushes and bits of newspaper but most importantly (and perhaps the most fun) is that we freed ourselves from style and convention. He’s had more practice than I have but we both played at expressing ourselves freely.

The day before I’d been running for about the third time in a year. I used to run regularly both while I was in the army and afterwards during university and after. I did have dreams of running a marathon but after a half marathon and another run with a lot of fun hills my knee had packed it in. And so for the next 10 years I focused on learning my body through yoga and later tai ji.

Getting back to running has been a chore in part because I’ve had no where nice to run. And then I did find someplace nice to run and so I started in on what worked before, running at a slow pace so that my heart rate stayed within the aerobic range.

Running like an old man I thought back to times when I’d been cross country skiing with friends. The first few outings would be torture and then all of a sudden, after plenty of rests, I’d find I was flying on my skii’s with hardly any effort. Even going up hills (and their are lots of hills in Gatineu Park outside of Ottawa in Canada, I felt like I was flying, to the point that i was easily catching up to and even in places leading friends who had stacks more experience than I did.

I wondered about all the work I’d been doing learning to feel my body and control it. I really wanted to feel like I was flying. Fuck the heart rate. I focused on feeling my body while I was running. Sure I’d run for a little then slow down but at least I was running the way I wanted to. And then my knee flared up and so running fast I focused on my hip, thigh and shin and on positioning them so that my knee felt alright. It worked. For each stride, I felt and positioned my leg so that I could use my whole leg to drive me forwards simply by aligning the bones with the force of what I was doing. Rather than muscling each stride I tried to feel it.

The next day I did something similar while swimming. Most of my time at the pool of late has been devoted to providing an environment for my daughter to get comfortable in water. It’s been about her instead of me…and so yesterday I got to do something for me. simply breast stroke with my head under water most of the way doing a sort of “hold your breath” pranayama while seeing how relaxed I could stay as I approached my breath holding limit.

Using my legs like a frog I gauged the quality of each “kick” by noticing the pool tiles passing below me. I would only kick when I stopped moving forwards and when I did kick I tried to feel my legs as I did so, again using the least amount of energy possible, keeping my legs soft and flexible, as much like the fins of a fish as possible. I noticed things like the positions of my hands up ahead of me, fingers together to reduce drag and while looking forwards pressing my arms bones up to smooth the profile of my head and arms. I felt myself “immersed” in the moment.

Later on that day, after our calligraphy fun and games my friend and I went out for a beer to discuss things like basics. We both agreed that one of the things that allowed us to express ourselves so freely with brush and ink was the practice we’d put into staying within the limits. For me that meant learning characters to the point I could do them without thinking, continually holding the brush upright while noticing my connection with the brush and trying to see everything-be open while I was painting.
With learning the body, I felt that learning the basics enable me to get back to running and swimming with hardly any problems. I thought and still believe that there are body basics that we can learn and practice that can help us in anything that we do that relates to the body, whether it is painting, running, riding a bike or even drinking beer….

So how much practice is enough?

It depends on what we are trying to do. If we find ourselves practicing and doing nothing else, least of all expressing ourselves in what we are practicing for, then perhaps it is time to take a break from practice.

How much practice is enough, it depends on what you are practicing for.

As for me, I wanted to express myself freely with a brush and with my body. I’m not going to stop practicing the basics but I am going to make more time to do what I really want to do, paint freely and express my self.

How does this relate to foundation? Practice is the foundation based upon which we can express ourselves freely, beautifully and meaningfully.

Foundation-A Starting Point for Change

A foundation is a reference for any change that we wish to create or observe or measure.

In anything that we do, once we know what we are going to be doing, the foundation is the first thing that we create.

Creating Stable Relationships

Erecting a building, builders create a base to support the structure. The base is the point of contact between the building and the earth. The base (and framework) of the building create a stable relationship between the building and the earth. It keeps the building upright. We can do the same when building a pose, we can create stability in our pose via our connection with the earth.

Standing on our feet we can make our feet, ankle and lower legs strong so that they support the rest of our body. Prior to that we can make sure that we are standing on ground that is solid and secure.

Within our body, we can look at the relationships between different parts of our body and make one part the foundation for the part that it connects to. Working from the ground up, our feet and lower legs can be the foundation for our thighs. Our thighs can be the foundation for our pelvis. Our pelvis the foundation for our lumbar spine. Our lumbar spine the foundation for our thoracic spine. Our thoracic spine then supports our cervical spine and in turn the head.

To maintain a relationship, we can make one part stable so that it supports the other part.

Support from Above

While we might normally think of foundations as supporting what is above it, they can also support by acting as something that can be hung from. For example a bridge like the Golden Gate Bridge has towers which support spanning cables which in turn support hanging cables which support the road bed. In the same way, with our spine and head stable, we can use them to support the ribs. The ribs then in turn can be used to support the shoulder girdle which then can act as the foundation for the arms.

Knowing and Understanding, Foundations for Doing

Prior to building a building engineers and architects plan and design it. This way the builders know what they are preparing for when they create the first foundation and all that follows.

If when doing a yoga pose (or anything else for that matter) we know what we are doing we can choose how to create our foundation. The “idea” that we have in our mind then provides the foundation for the reality that we wish to create.

With something like our body that is mobile and changeable, the better we understand how the parts of our body relate, and the clearer we understand what we want to do with it at any moment in time then the easier and simpler and more efficiently we can go about creating what we want to create.

This can apply to anything that we are doing or working with, like tools, machinery, designing cars, building bikes, teaching people yoga, tai ji, doing oriental calligraphy. When we understand what we are working with then that understanding provides a foundation for the expression of what we are trying to do.

Foundation in Terms of Chakra’s and the Five Elements

In terms of the five elements of Daoist theory, foundation can be related to the element of earth. The Earth is the foundation for everything that we do, even in activities like flying a plane. (We always need airports to take off from and land at.)

In any posture we can look at our connection with the earth as our foundation, whether we connect via our feet or our hands or our head.
In terms of the chakras, foundation can be related to the root chakra or the first chakra. The root chakra is often related to basic activities like survival. If we continue to survive then we can continue to experience life and express ourselves. And so in anything that we do, if we wish to express ourselves then the first thing that we can do is create a foundation for that expression.

As an example, in the picture I am doing “Side Plank Pose.” My foundation is the outer edge of my bottom foot and my bottom hand. Because these are strong and engaged with the earth they provide the foundation that supports the rest of my body.

Basic Principles

Creating a Foundation is the first of five Basic Principles. They are designed as tools that can be used to apply “Being More Conscious.” To see a summary of those principles and more click here.

Movement References for the Hips

This article covers basic movements of the thigh relative to the pelvis. It includes

Creating Space and Stabilizing the Hip Joint

Two very basic movements for the hips include creating space and stabilizing.

The first movement feels like pulling the thigh bone away from the hip socket or pushing the pelvis away from the thigh bone.

The second movement feels like you are sucking the thigh bone into the hip socket (or sucking the pelvis towards the thigh bone.)

The first movement, creating space, uses the gemellus superior, gemellus  inferior, obturator internus and externus to create the space. These muscles generally externally rotate the thigh with respect to the pelvis. To balance this action, the tensor fascae latae, gluteus minimus and/or the long head of the adductor magnus may also activate. These muscles can be used to cause internal rotation.

The gemellus and obturator muscles are all close to the hip joint, near the junction of where the thigh joins the pelvis. To try to sense or feel these muscles we can put our awareness in the region of the groins. More specifically we can put our awareness in the regions of our pubic bone and sitting bones and the ischiopuboramus which spans the two.

The obturator internus and the two gemelus leave the pelvis just above the sitting bones and reach “upwards” and “forwards” to connect to the back of the top of the thigh bone.

The obturator externus reaches back from the pubic bone, passes underneath the neck of the thigh bone to attach to the back of the thigh bone.

The tensor fascae latae and gluteus minimus are both at the side of the pelvis between the head of the thigh bone and the top crest of the pelvis while the adductor magnus is the largest of the adductors, located at the inner thigh.

Sucking the hip joint may be caused by contracting the quadratus femoris, pectineus, and piriformis. These muscles also lay within the region of the groins.

Quadratus femoris and piriformis have similiar lines of pull, reaching down from a point just above the sitting bones to the back of the thigh bone.

The piriformis attaches to the front of the sacrum and so with “sucking” you may feel a slight pulling forwards of the sacrum.

The pectineus reaches down and back from the region of the pubic bone to the top of the inner thigh.

These muscles chiefly act in external rotation so that again the internal rotators may activate to counter this tendency.

In prone backbends like locust, or in poses like cat where we reach one leg back, we could try creating space in the hip joint to give the leg room to move relative to the pelvis.

In forward bends, whether standing or sitting, we might find that creating space in the hip joint gives us room to tilt the pelvis forwards relative to the thigh bones.

Standing on one leg and moving the pelvis relative to that leg we might want to try creating space in the standing leg hip joint.

Standing on one leg and keeping the pelvis still we might want to try to stabilize the standing leg hip joint.

There may be situations where we try to do both actions at once, first creating space and then stabilizing the joint or stabilizing the joint and then trying to create space.

Hips, Opening the Back or Front

Opening the back of the hips is the same as tilting the pelvis forwards relative to the thighs or swinging the thighs forwards and up towards the front of the body.

The technical name is flexion.

Extension or opening the front of the hips corresponds to tilting the pelvis backwards relative to the legs or swinging the legs back relative to the pelvis.

Hip flexion, tilting the pelvis forwards or opening the back of the hip can be done by the psoas and illiacus. These both attach to the top of the inner thigh to a point called the lesser trochanter which actually is at the back of the top of the thigh. The illiacus attaches to the inside edge of the blade of the pelvis while the psoas attaches to the front of the lumbar spine.

If we stabilize the lower back using the abdominals and erector spinae then the pelvis and ribcage act as one unit. We can then focus on tilting the pelvis and lumbar spine forwards towards the thigh or thighs using the psoas and illiacus.

The feeling is as if pulling the lumbar spine and pelvis towards the inner thighs but rather than bending the spine we are rotating it along with the pelvis around the axis of the hip joint.

If when laying on our back we move the thighs towards the front of the body then the feeling is of squeezing the top of the inner thighs towards the belly.

The tensor fascae latae can also be used to open the back of the hip joint. The belly of this muscle is near the side of the hip joint towards the front but it acts via the fascea latae on the fibula, the small outer bone of the lower leg as well as the tibia.

If the illiacus pulls inwards on the blades of the pelvis when active, this muscle pulls outwards.

The pectineus, adductor brevis and adductor longus can all be used to open the back of the hip (red, green and yellow respectively).

These muscles all attach to the inner thigh from near the top of the thigh bone to about half way down. They attach to the pelvis near or at the pubic bone.

These muscles also tend to externally rotate the thigh when active and so this has to be countered by an internal rotation. The tensor fascea latae may help in providing that internal rotation.

The rectus femoris can also be used to open the back of the hip. Like the Tensor Fascae Latae is also crosses the hip and the knee.

It attaches via the knee cap to the front of the tibia, the larger of the two lower leg bones. It also attaches to the front of the pelvis near the top at each side.

This muscle has more contractive room when the knee is bent. Trying to use it when the knee is straight may cause cramping. It may be useful in kicking actions to flick the knee straight at the thigh is swung forwards.

When holding a forward bend it may be indesirable to use this muscle.

When lifting a leg (perhaps while sitting or while standing or while balanced on the pelvis) it may be easier to use the psoas and illiacus to open the back of the hip if we start with the leg open out to the side. These muscles then have more room to contract and it may be easier to keep them contracted as we swing the leg so that it is straight ahead.

For hip extension, opening the front of the hip, we can use the adductor magnus. This muscle attaches between the sitting bone and the inner thigh bone just above the and behind the knee joint.

In belly down backbends this muscle can be used to lift the thigh bone. It tends to rotate the thigh internally and in a belly down position the weight of the leg itself when lifted accentuates this tendency.

The gluteus maximus can also be used to open the front of the hip however this muscle can also get in the way because it is so bulky. It is similir to someone moving a couch up a narrow stairwell and becoming jammed between the couch and the wall.

This muscle is probably more appropriate for swinging the leg back from a forwards position.

Piriformis, quadratus femoris, obturator internus, gemellus superior and gemellus inferior can also be used to open the front of the hip. However they all tend to externally rotate the thigh and so possibly this tendency can be countered by using the internal rotatores.

Internally and Externally Rotating the Hip

Internally rotating the hip generally refers to rolling the thigh inwards around it’s long axis. This means the front of the thigh bone moves inwards and the back of the thigh bone moves outwards.

If one thigh is kept still and the pelvis moves relative to that thigh then internal rotation causes the opposite side of the pelvis to move forwards. External rotation does the opposite. If a thigh is kept stable then the opposite side of the hip moves backwards. If the pelvis is the reference then external rotation of the thigh causes the front of the thigh to move outwards.

With both feet on the ground we can turn the pelvis to the right. This causes internal rotation of the left hip and external rotation of the right hip.

Rotation of the hip can occur by virtue of the position the feet are in while in contact with the floor or some solid surface. In such a case the legs are passively rotated. No muscle needs to be active to cause this action.

Internal rotation can be performed by the gluteus minimus and the adductor magnus. It can also be assisted by the tensor fascae latea.

External rotation can be performed by pectineus, adductor brevis, adductor longus. These muscles all lay within the inner thigh compartment. It can also be caused by the obturator internus, gemellus superior and inferior, piriformis, quadratus femoris. These muscles are closer to the pelvis and can be thought of as being in the groins.

Psoas and illiacus can also be used to cause external rotation. When using these muscles to externally rotate a lifted leg the weight of the leg itself can be used to assist in external rotation.

Opening the inside or outside of the Hip

In a standing position we can think of using both legs to push the pelvis to one side. If we push the pelvis to the left then we open the inside of the left hip and the outside of the right hip.

Laying on our left side we could lift the right leg and thus open the inside of the right hip. In general, moving one leg out to the side we open the inside of the hip of that leg. Moving the leg inwards (assuming the other leg is not in the way) then we open the outside of that hip.

In a standing position like warrior 2 where one knee is bent and the other is straight, we can use the outer thigh of the bent knee to turn the pelvis to the side. In this case also we can say that we are opening the inside of the hip.

To open the inside of the hip we can use the glute maximus, the tensor fascae latae, the glute medius and glute minimus.

We can also open the inside of the hip passively in an action or position like side splits where we allow the legs to slide away from each other.

To open the outside of the hip we can use the pectineus, adductor brevis, adductor longus, adductor magnus. We may also be able to use the deeper hip muscles but their contribution may be slight.

Psoas and illiacus can also be used to open the outer hip.

Special Cases for External Rotation

In a posture like pigeon where the thigh is forwards and externally rotated, the outer hip tends to be stretched which means that possible we can use some part of the inner thigh to help open the outer hip. From a standing position, we can use the glute maximus and quadratus femoris to externally rotate the thigh. However in a position like pigeon where the thigh is forwards and externally rotated, it may be that this position can be used to stretch these two muscles.

We may also be stretching the tensor fascae latae which normally does internally rotate the thigh.

In a posture like butterfly with the feet close to the pelvis, the inner thighs tend to be stretched. With the feet positioned further away from the pelvis the outer thighs tend to be stretched.

At some point between these two extremes we move from stretching the outer thigh to stretching the inner and from using the inner thigh to using the outer.

Jamming the Sacro-iliac Joint

In yoga circles a common problem that is mentioned so that it can be avoided is “Jamming the Sacro-Iliac joint.”

In the times I’ve heard that phrase or read it, in either case the person saying it doesn’t describe what that actually means.

In the following I’ll describe what it could mean and ways we can avoid it. If you don’t want to do too much reading then a very simple way to avoid any sort of jamming is to move into a pose or posture slowly and smoothly while feeling your body as you do so. Then you can respond if you sense anything untowards happening.

The S.I. Joint

The sacrum can move relative to the pelvis, hence “sacro-iliac” joint. The potential for movement in this joint isn’t great and for most of us we probably don’t even consider this a joint, not in the normal sense. After all, how many times have you moved your sacrum relative to your pelvis (and noticed it?) It can be done but it requires a little bit of training to feel, control and understand.

(If you know where your sacrum is, focus on “sucking it forwards. There, you are moving your sacrum forwards using your piriformis. If you can isolate that tension-i.e. nothing else tenses at the same time, then you are moving your sacrum relative to the pelvis, you are moving your sacrum within your S.I. joint.)

Jamming the sacrum or jamming the S.I. joint probably means jamming the sacrum so that it can’t move with the pelvis (or jamming the pelvis so that it can’t move with the sacrum.) The result, because the movement between these two parts is so slight, is that we take the sacrum too far in one direction relative to the pelvis or vice versa damaging the connection between these two parts. That’s some pretty serious shit we are talking about.

However, how likely is it to actually happen? I believe it depends on how aware you are of your body and of the movements that you are doing. It also depends on how well you understand your body.


While teaching others, if we understand that the pelvis and sacrum can move independently of each other we can use our language to take account of this fact. We can talk about movements of the sacrum relative to the pelvis. For example, if we want to unify the sacrum and the pelvis we might suggest drawing the tailbone to the pubic bone. (You can try this right now.) In so doing, the intent is to keep your pelvis still and then actively pull your tailbone (the bottom tip of the sacrum) towards the pubic bone. You then engage the pubococycgous muscle which connects the tail bone to the pubic bone.

If you are successfully engaging this muscle you may feel a slight pulling sensation between your tail bone and your pubic bone. That sensation is due to the contraction of your pubococygous.

If you keep this contraction while then moving the pelvis then the pelvis and sacrum can move as one thus negating or reducing the possibility of jamming the sacro-iliac joint.

Prior to using this movement in a pose it may be helpful to practice doing the movement in isolation. Simply focus on pulling the tail bone towards the pubic bone and then releasing it, while doing so noticing any sensations that occur while doing this. To improve control try to do this gradually and smoothly and with the minimum effort possible.

Backbends and Jamming

One context in which “jamming the S.I. joint” can occur is during backbending. This is when we bend the spine backwards opening the chest and lengthening the belly. We may also be opening the front of the hips.

If we use our glute maximus in a backbend, we could cause the S.I. joint to jam. One possible explanation is that the bulk of the glute max when active prevents the pelvis from moving with respect to the thighs and so if the spine continues to arch back that is what can cause a break in the S.I. joint.

Create Space in the Hip

One way we can facilitate backbending at the hip is to create space in the hip joint. To do this we use a set of four muscles that collectively act to pull the thigh bone out of the hip socket. The movement is slight but perceptible. It feels very similar to reaching the shoulder blades away from the spine.

To do this action imagine pushing or reaching your thigh bones away from your pelvis. Focus on your the region of your thighs close to where they connect to the pelvis, (the groins in other words.)

When creating space in our hip joints try to keep the tension local to the muscles directly around your hip joint.

In a back bend like locust, you can use this simple action to reach the legs back. At the same time you can reach the head and ribs forwards. I’d suggest lifting your head and ribcage first to activate your spinal erectors and then lift your legs.

If you want to fine tune the pose, simply point the knees down. Better yet, use your inner thighs to lift the legs. Then the weight of the legs themselves help to rotate the legs inwards slightly so that the knees point down. Plus, by using the inner thighs, (the adductor magnus to be exact) the muscle itself doesn’t get in the way of the action that it is helping, so you have room to continue to lift the left without jamming the S.I.

Moving the Pelvis Away from the Legs

If we are in a pose where our legs are the foundation, then we can make the legs stable and we can create space in the hip joint by moving the pelvis away from the thigh bones. Also, if our legs are our foundation we can use our connection with the floor to keep our legs pointing straight ahead. Using our legs to support our body with our belly up or forwards, we can again use our adductor magnus to push our pelvis up. We may also find that in some positions we can use gravity to help arch our back so that then our glute max can relax naturally, and yet again we don’t have to worry about jamming the S.I.

One final note on this joint, and on using the spinal erectors. These muscles run all the way up and down the back from the pelvis and the sacrum to the ribcage and the head. If we use these muscles to unify the parts of the spine (pelvis, sacrum, ribcage and head) then we may again be less likely to jam the S.I. joint.

In all cases, if we are feeling our body while we are doing a pose, or we take the time to learn to feel our body… and control it, we will be less likely to cause it harm. Add to that moving slowly and smoothly, then again we reduce the possibility of injury while developing sensitivity and control at the same time.

Then we don’t have to worry so much about “alignment” we can simply learn to feel and adjust our body so that the position it is in feels good or at the very least, right or safe.

Creating Space in the Hip Joint

This post is related to AIS but is also very important in “technique free” body context. It relates to the hip socket. In one of the exercises that we were doing at the AIS workshop, a cross body leg stretch that used the adductors (inner thigh) to stretch the abductors (side of the buttocks/hips) one student commented that she felt a binding sensation in her hip.

She was fairly flexible anyway and so she was probably reaching the limit of active mobility-the point at which the muscles that she was using to move the leg got in the way of the leg itself. (Like someone moving a big piece of furniture backed up against the wall so that neither they nor the piece of furniture can move any further.)

One potential solution to this is to learn how to “reach” out of the hip socket.

The feeling is similar to that of spreading the shoulder blades. With your arms out to the sides if you spread your shoulder blades (causing the shoulders to move forwards on the ribcage) the arms reach further out to the sides. Maximum reach is when your collar bones, upper arms bones and forearm bones are all more or less in one line.

Obturators and

With respect to the pelvis and thigh bone, we can actually use muscle to pull our thigh bone out of the hip socket. The amount of movement is small but perceptable. To perceive the action simply put your awareness in the area of your hip socket. When standing you can try pushing you pelvis up off of your thigh bones. When sitting with your legs forwards you can push your thigh bones forwards away from your pelvis (or you can push your pelvis back away from your thigh bones.) When standing you use the obturators and gemellus to lift you pelvis off of the thigh bones.

With your legs forwards it is more likely that it is the psoas and obturator externus that does this action. With the leg forwards and crossing to the opposite side it is possible the pectineus, psoas and/or adductor brevis that does this action.

While this action is useful when you find that your hips are binding you may find that in some situations it isn’t openess that you need rather it is stability.

Stability and

If you want more stability in the hip joint you can the opposite and pull your thigh bones into your hip sockets. This feels like you are “sucking” your thigh bone into the hips socket. This can be a handy action is you are balancing on one leg. You can stabilize the hip of the standing leg. With the free leg you can try both actions to see which one is more suitable.

Being able to do both of these two actions you can choose from among them. You can keep your hip stable when it needs stability and you can create space in your hip joints when they need room to move.

Modified “Active Isolated Stretching”

The Body

In my previous post I talked a little about what I learned in an AIS (Active Isolated Stretching) workshop with Adarsh Williams. I included a video of myself doing the AIS hamstring stretches.
In this post I’d like to talk about modifying the AIS hamstring technique for more typical yoga forward bending posture.

A Different
Point of View

In laying on our back to stretch the hamstrings we kept the pelvis stable and moved the leg relative to the pelvis. We kept the pelvis stable by using the abs. In most seated forward bends we move our pelvis relative to our legs. So that our hamstrings have one stable point of attachment, we can stabilize the bones of the lower leg by making the foot and ankle active. We can do this with either the knee straight or the knee bent. Now if our focus is on stretching the muscles that cross only the back of the hip (the adductor magnus is one such muscle) then the bone that we need to stabilize is the thigh bone. We can do this by making the knee “strong.” However, to stretch the hamstrings we may find it helpful to make the ankle and foot “strong” so that we stabilize the lower leg.

In the video below I demonstrate three seated stretches that are the equivalent of the AIS reclining hamstring stretches. In one I keep both knees bent, in the other I straighten the knees as I bend forwards and in the final one I keep the knees straight. In all three variations I inhale to enter the stretch and exhale to leave it. In AIS stretching the exhales are normally used. This may be because it is easier to engage the abs while exhaling (which can then be used to stabilize the body.) However, if we can learn to activate the abs while inhaling then stability is not a problem. Of course you can do these stretches using the exhale to stretch. I prefer using inhales because it feels nicer and it is easier to keep my spine long and my ribcage open. More to the point I have a tendency to feel anxious when I use my exhales.

The point is, try both options for your self and see which one works best for you.

All the best


p.s. the “previous” exercises that I am talking about can be seen in this video here.

Active Isolated Stretching with Adarsh Williams

I just finished a couple of AIS workshops with Adarsh Williams.
It was my first time to see Adarsh in seven years. We’d first and last met when we where both in Chicago teaching yoga there. Since then he’s gone on to get married, has two children and also has his own yoga space in Palo Alto California. He’s a massage therapist and a certified Ashtangi and a really nice guy. (Not that other Ashtangi’s aren’t nice guys, I just wanted to emphasize that he is and well anyway…)

Active Isolated
Stretching (A.I.S.)

The focus on the two workships I attended was AIS, Active Isolated Stretching.

In a nutshell this technique means knowing which muscle you are stretching, putting your body in the right position (there may be a few options) to stretch that muscle and then using the opposing muscle (called the antagonist) to cause the intended muscle to relax so that it can be stretched. Hold for 2 second then release and repeat. We used exhales to enter and hold each stretch and inhales to relax and recover.

In this article I’ll talk a little about what we learned and did with Adarsh. In my next posting I’ll talk about ways how this technique can be built on or modified. The idea is to present you with a range of options for stretching your body so that you can use the technique that is most helpful or appropriate for you.

Body Basics

First of all some basic points of understanding that can be applied to any sort of muscle stretching or strengthening.

  • A muscle has to be relaxed in order for it to be stretched. Just because a muscle is lengthening doesn’t mean it is being stretched. If a muscle is working against a greater force then it will lengthen even though it is active. To stretch a muscle (or more specifically, to stretch the connective tissue within a muscle) we need to relax it and lengthen it while keeping it relaxed.
  • A muscle has to have one of its ends “fixed” or stable in order for it to relax and lengthen. Think of being on the side of a cliff with little or no support. We would probably freeze in fear. If we know we are safe (on solid ground) then it is easier to relax. We can think of muscle tissue functioning similiarly. When a muscle has a firm foundation (when it “thinks” it is safe) it can relax freely. That means fixing one bone to which a muscle is attached and then moving the other bone relative to the fixed bone.
  • In a lot of cases (but not every case) when we try to stretch a muscle beyond a certain point it contracts to prevent lengthening beyond a point which is safe. (It’s like we might start to “freeze up” the closer we get to the edge of a cliff.) This reaction can be countered by activating the opposing muscle. This is the “Active” part in AIS, using the opposing muscle to prevent the target muscles from contracting.

I should note here that AIS isn’t the be all and the end all of stretching. There are other options and there are other “factors” to be aware of when stretching. You may find that you can keep a target muscle relaxed even without activating its opposite muscle. You might see if you can keep a target muscle relaxed even without activating its opposing muscle(s).

You may find that you can help a muscle to relax first by contracting a muscle and then relaxing it. This is something you can do with your breath.

Finally, just because we are contracting a muscle’s anatogonist doesn’t mean that the agonist will release in all cases. It depends on what we are trying to do. If you’ve ever flexed your biceps (to look cool) with your elbow bent then your biceps and triceps are working at the same time to keep the elbow bent. While you may be focused on tensing your biceps, in this case the opposing muscle, the triceps, also has to activate to keep the elbow in place.

The point is that just because a muscles is active, this doesn’t mean that it’s opposing muscle (or antagonist) will always relax. It depends on what you are trying to do. Luckily, with AIS and someone like Adarsh to teach you most of the homework has already been done for you. The active muscle is used to cause a particular movement and that movement stretches the target muscle. And that by the way is what the “isolated” part in AIS means, isolating a particular muscles to stretch it.


Adarsh presented the AIS material in two sessions. The first session included hips, feet and spine while the second session focused on shoulders, wrist and neck.

Not since I worked with my own teacher, Andrey Lappa, have I encountered such a complete system of both stretching and strengthening the body.

Because we use one group of muscles to stretch another we strengthen and stretch at the same time and the result is balanced flexibility and balanced strength. We even stretched our fingers and toes!

Following is a summary of the exercises that we did. I may have missed some exercises out. I wanted to emphasize here the pairings of muscles and how they where used to stretch each other.

The first set of exercises where for stretching the hamstrings, first with knee bent and afterwards with knee straight. (See video clip below.) We used the psoas and quadriceps as the active muscles in these stretches. (With the knee bent we where more than likely stretching the Adductor magnus which has a similiar action to the hamstrings except that the hamstrings attach to the back of the tibia and fibia while the adductor magnus attaches to the back of the femur. The hamstrings cross the back of the hip and the back of the knee while the adductor magnus only crosses the back of the hip.)

Staying on our backs we then stretched that adductors followed by the abductors. We used these two sets of muscles to stretch each other.

Following that we stretched the psoas by using the abs, glute maximus and hamstrings.

We did twists and side bending for the spine. For twisting we used the obliques and intercostals. Twisting one way we stretch one side (and activate the other) and we balance this by twisting then to the other side. We also used our arms to assist at the end of each twist.

Side bending we used the left side of our abs to stretch the right side and vice versa.

Here is a demo (by me) of the hamstring exercises. The first 40 seconds are me talking about activating the abs. The exercises follow.

In the next post I will talk about and demonstrate how to use the psoas to stretch the hamstrings in more typical yoga posions or asanas.

Here is another demo from off of the web. I’m hoping that Adarsh will publish his own videos on utube.

AIT demo