Why is it important to keep the feet parallel in poses like Tadasana, Sirsasana, Pincha mayurasana and vasisthasana? The links of sacro iliac, lumbar vertebrae and ilio psoas in those poses.
30 years ago, when BKS Iyengar first observed my Tadasana (Standing Mountain Pose) in a Teacher Training class in India, he abruptly stopped the entire class and had all other students gather around closely to observe my feet. Embarrassed but willing to learn, I thought I had an innate ‘body intelligence’ having had 15 years of ballet and modern dance training, and so I thought I was probably standing well enough in my feet. “How can you prepare to teach others when you yourself do not even know the parallel lines of the feet?!” he roared at me. He then ordered two students to bring a wooden block each and place each on the outside edges of my feet in exactly parallel lines. I was instructed to shift my weight to the outside edges of my feet to feel the blocks. Another block he placed in between my inner thighs and demanded I press into that block. What I thought was parallel was not parallel at all!
Thus began my awareness of my feet being “turned out”, and my weak inner thighs from too many years of forced external rotation due to ballet training. I had been externally rotating from the hip joints for so long that I had little sense of an inward rotation from the hip joints. New muscles began to ache as I held these parallel lines for minutes that seemed like hours. The problem with forced external rotation (as in ballet training) is that then the pelvis tilts forward so that the lumbar is over-arched causing lordosis, and the lower floating ribs at the front body protrude forward causing the “proud stance” of a dancer. Over time this creates compression of the lumbar spine, compression in the sacro-iliac joint, stresses the knee joint into hyper-extension, and weakens the deep in ilio-psoas muscles. And I thought I had good posture!
The complex knee joint – little did I know how I was weakening my knee joints by standing, walking, squatting, etc. with the feet turned out and the knees taking the stress! Many dancers, over time, begin to suffer knee pain and I now began to understand why. In the Iyengar yoga method of practicing asanas – we start in Tadasana and align the feet and knees and hips parallel. Starting from the feet and working up – the knees are strengthened in parallel lines – this is extremely important for the knee joint. The knee joint supports the weight of the body. The center of gravity in the erect position passes through the femoral condyles at the knee joint. The knee joint acts as a fulcrum for two of the longest bones of the body (femur - thigh bone, and tibia – bone of lower leg). The ligaments attaching the inner and outer knee joint are strengthened equally as we consciously stand in Tadasana lifting the kneecaps as a result of lifting the toes. Try this simple but effective practice to align and strengthen the knees – Stand in Tadasana with both feet exactly parallel. Observe the weight in the feet in a ‘tripod’ triangle base – 3 points: mound of the big toe, mound of the little toe, and the heel. Lift everything else up – lift the toes, left the arches of the feet, and feel how the kneecaps also lift. This simple practice will engage the large muscles of the front of the thighs (quadriceps) and strengthen the lateral (outer) and medial (inner) connective tissue of the knees.
There is a major muscle of the thigh that had been ignored in my dance training and was re-ignited in the above example of squeezing the block between my inner thighs. The sartorius muscle runs diagonally from the outer hip joint to just below the inner knee at the tibia (lower leg bone). This is the strong, long muscle that is strengthened in all standing poses in parallel lines. It is also engaged in asanas such as Setu Bandhasana where the knees are bent and the weight of the pelvis is lifted up from the floor keeping the knees directly over the toes. The action of keeping the knees directly over the toes in standing bent-knee poses will protect the inner and outer knee connective tissue. When the feet are not parallel and the knees are bent slightly pronating, (falling inward) there is tremendous stress on the knee joints and injuries can happen – whether in standing poses, reclining bent knee poses or sports activities. Being conscious of the feet and how the weight is placed in the feet – right through the center of the feet – will automatically transfer up to strengthen the knees, the strong quadriceps and sartorius muscles of the thighs and help to stabilize the pelvis.
As we travel up the body – standing in Tadasana – the next important postural muscle group is the Ilio-psoas. The consciousness of the parallel lines of the feet, the knees, and the hips will then anchor the pelvis so that the front and back waist can be equally stretched. In the case of lordosis (over arching lumbar vertebrae due to external rotation of the hips, pronating the weight in the feet and other misalignments of the feet), the ilio-psoas becomes over-extended and weak. This deep-in muscle group that forms the principal flexors of the thighs and supports the lumbar spine as it attaches along the vertebral column is not easily palpated.
In challenging inverted yoga poses such as Sirsanana (Headstand), and Pincha Mayurasana (Elbow Balance) – bringing awareness to the feet – with the feet connected will bring balance and stillness to the practice as the body seeks the midline. This midline will transfer into the deep-in ilio-psoas allowing the torso to be stretched equally front and back, and the lumbar vertebrae to lengthen.
With years of practicing the parallel lines of the feet in Tadasana, the student can bring that awareness, that familiar weight-bearing centered alignment - in the middle of both feet - to poses which challenge balance on one hand, one foot, the elbows, shoulders, and crown of the head. Vasisthasana, for instance, where the student is balancing only on the outside edge of one foot and one hand – will become steady and strong if the consciousness of the feet parallel in Tadasana is brought to the practice.
In fact, it is no exaggeration to say that if sufficient time and practice of Tadasana – the awareness of the parallel lines of the feet in Tadasana – is brought to each and every asana – that student’s practice will be more confident, steady and strong, and rewarding as a result of paying attention to the small details of the feet.