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Yoga Anatomy: Using Muscle Awareness to Lower Your Heels in Downward-Facing Dog Pose
Say you’ve been working hard on your Adho Mukha Svanasana (Downward-Facing Dog Pose) and still can’t get your heels to the floor. This cue can give you and your students that extra bit of length in the calf muscles and enable you to lower your heels.
How-To Steps to Lower Your Heels in Downward-Facing Dog Pose
First, warm up a bit with five or six Surya Namaskars (Sun Salutations). This has the physiological effect of acclimating the muscle spindle stretch receptors of the muscles to lengthen, including the calves.
Then take Downward-Facing Dog Pose and attempt to draw the top surface of the feet towards the shins. This contracts the tibialis anterior muscle (and its synergists), dorsiflexing the ankles. It also signals the muscles at the backs of the calves, the gastrocnemius/soleus complex, to relax through reciprocal inhibition, enabling the heels to lower to the floor.
At the same time, engage the quadriceps to straighten the knees and the triceps to straighten the elbows. These actions synergize lowering the heels.
(Figure 1-Tibialis anterior dorsiflexing the ankles to lower the heels (gastrocnemius/soleus lengthening). )
The Anatomy of Adho Mukha Svanasana (Downward-Facing Dog Pose)
First let’s look at three muscles that move the ankle: the gastrocnemius, soleus and tibialis anterior.
The gastrocnemius has two heads. One originates from the back of the femur above the medial femoral condyle, the other from above the lateral condyle. The soleus originates from the head and upper part of the fibula and the upper third of the inside of the tibia. The gastrocnemius and soleus combine to form the Achilles tendon, which inserts onto the back of the calcaneus (heel bone).
For the purposes of this post, the main action of the gastrocnemius/soleus complex is to plantar flex the ankle. (The gastrocnemius also flexes the knee.) Plantar flexion increases the angle between the shin and the top of the foot, as when pushing off during walking. Thus, a tight gastrocnemius/soleus complex can keep you from getting the heels to the floor in Downward-Facing Dog Pose.
The tibialis anterior is a muscle on the front of the shin. It originates from the lateral (outside) surface of the tibia and the interosseous membrane (which spans the bones of the lower leg). This muscle inserts onto the inside part of the middle foot (the cuneiform) and the first metatarsal (think of the inner middle part of the foot arch). It acts to dorsiflex the ankle, decreasing the angle between the top of the foot and the shin.
The gastrocnemius/soleus and tibialis anterior muscles form an agonist/antagonist pair; i.e., they have opposite actions. This means that contracting one side helps to relax the other (through reciprocal inhibition). That is why attempting to draw the top of the foot towards the shin helps release the calf and enables you to bring the heel closer to the floor.
Here's more anatomy on this subject from YogaUOnline and Ray Long, MD - The Gastrocnemius/Soleus Complex in Yoga.
Reprinted with permission from Daily Bandha.
Author Ray Long MD FRCSC is a board-certified orthopedic surgeon and the founder of Bandha Yoga. Ray graduated from The University of Michigan Medical School with post-graduate training at Cornell University, McGill University, The University of Montreal and Florida Orthopedic Institute. He has studied hatha yoga for over twenty years, training extensively with B.K.S. Iyengar and other leading yoga masters.
3d Graphic Designer / Illustrator Chris Macivor has been involved in the field of digital content creation for well over ten years. He is a graduate of Etobicoke School of the Arts, Sheridan College and Seneca College. Chris considers himself to be equally artistic and technical in nature. As such his work has spanned many genres from film and television to video games and underwater imagery.