Submitted by Amisha Upadhyaya
There are plateaus and then jumps as with any physical endeavor, so in yoga today at Laughing Lotus, I had a big AH-HA! moment. (Thank you, Katherine!)
It has taken me forever get to know my body. Another reason for one day building my foundation for girls’ studies — why didn’t they teach us earlier?! About PMS (yes, it’s real!) or PMDD or UTI’s and prevention of yeast infections; about mental health and things like meditation or the importance of friendships and how to reach out to others? Never heard of a disorder, suicide or addiction due to not conquering geometry.
At any rate, I blamed a hamstring injury for no longer being able to touch my toes much less do splits in every direction. I don’t know when or how but I think it was in 2001 or so. This injury is very frustrating, moreso since I’m plagued by memories of what once was — and so does my body. It’s still like “why can’t you do this?” Forget splits, I just want to touch my toes!
Then, in physical therapy a few months ago, I got an inkling from my therapist that perhaps it wasn’t my hamstring, that it was these small muscles of the hips. It was confirmed a few weeks ago while doing my home practice.
I was reading about poses for hamstrings in Yoga Journal online (awesome resource for all things yoga!!), when I read a byline that jumped out at me: “If you’re having difficulty with forward bends, don’t assume it’s your hamstrings.”
The article, “Hips Too Tight?” began with a Sufi story enlightening the human tendency to “to look where we want to instead of digging deeper to reveal the root of a problem.” Everyone blames the hamstrings when forward bends are painful. Though I like to martyr myself, forward bends are the nemesis for many a yogi. The poor hamstrings are blamed and punished too often by getting torn when it isn’t even their fault. Flexible hamstrings are actually not the cause but the result of releasing the hip rotators and hip adductors, two of several muscles that must release in a forward bend.
But inability to bend could be due to the short, broad and strong muscles that comprise the external rotators of the hips: the obturator externus and internus, gemellus superior and inferior, piriformis, and quadratus femoris.
As a group the external rotators function to 1) externally rotate the femur (thigh), 2) stabilize the pelvis during walking, and 3) stabilize the pelvis and the femur together when you are standing on one leg. Even running or walking improperly or too much can lead you to tight rotators since they require standing and balancing on one leg — briefly but constantly — as you propel yourself forward.
My first a-ha moment happened when I read about the piriformis. This muscle attaches to the sacrum and to the femur and is especially important because the sciatic nerve passes directly under it. If too tight, it can lead to the “piriformis syndrome,” which creates a radiating pain in the buttocks, down the back of the thigh, into the leg and foot. DING! That happens to me all the time, which hadn’t made any sense when I blamed my hamstrings.
The article continued to say that this was most experienced by dancers and runners who demand the most of these rotators due to turning out, constant balancing, and standing on one leg. Lo and behold!! It was those little muscles at the source of the problem!!
Oh, how words spoken by someone I forget came back to haunt me telling to not walk with a turn-out. I ignored it as I did everything useful in my youth, thinking I was only strengthening my turn out. I was but at a price. Dancers beware: Don’t Walk with a Turn-Out!
The article continues with 5 stretches that could help these rotator muscles. Needless to say I’ve been practicing them almost daily. In class today, I felt the benefits of this diligence. A very small, almost missed-it-if-you-blinked moment of those muscles releasing.
External rotation is my nemesis in general. I can’t put my arms flat on the ground when I lie down. (I know, odd. I can’t bend just the upper part of my thumb either. Not important unless it could be the deciding factor between a career in Indian classical dance or not. If you can’t do this thumb thing either, let me know. I haven’t met another person with that deficiency to this day.)
Back to the ext rots. I blamed the neck muscles for the frequent neck cricks I used to get, but in fact it was my upper trap muscles and external shoulder cuffs. I now get 14 to press down on my arms when I lie down to stretch them (feels so good!) and incorporate external rotation cable and free weight exercises into my weight lifting. Turns out once again, this is no big deal: it’s the most underdeveloped muscle in weightlifting even amongst pros and leads to the most injuries. I am so common.
But the biggest lesson has been the pose itself. Touching one’s toes does not guarantee peace or enlightenment. To have a flexible body is not to be a yogi. In my path towards deepening forward bends, I got a deeper understanding and respect for my body. I am showing it kindness in its capabilities without judgment or viewing it as a limitation.
I also learned to let go. I let go of my grief for a body that will never be what it once was. I let go of wishing for something different than what is. I let go of a concept of a Holy Grail for poses. What was, was and what will be, will be. There is nowhere to get to esp as I may never get to that image in my head, which is after all, just an image. Images cause too much suffering: image of what is the perfect partner or perfect body or perfect job. it is the stuff of nothing. I learned to be content with where I am even as I continue in my practice. And that is yoga.