Monday, February 16, 2009

My Feet are Slipping...

For the beginning yoga student, a slip-resistant mat is important. Stick with a reliable brand (such as Hugger Mugger or Prana) and your mat will keep your feet and hands from slipping while you learn the basics. When you buy a good quality mat, you’ll find it’s joyfully free of oils and the other contaminants that make them slippery. If you’ve purchased a good quality mat and it’s still too slippery, you get to join ranks with the people who bought the cheaper mats that are covered with an oily film.

To remove this film (called mold release, in reference to the oils that facilitate peeling the mat from the production equipment), wipe the mat down thoroughly with a vinegar/water dilution. Once you’ve thoroughly scrubbed the mat, hang it up to dry. After a thorough cleaning, you’ll find the discount mat may now be usable, and the stickiness of the best quality mats will be help you get the hang of the basic yoga postures.

For the continuing student, however, this answer is incomplete. The rubber yoga mat is a boon to learning the fundamentals, though can actually hinder understanding once a student has a grasp of the basics. For the advancing student of yoga, it’s not simply getting into the posture and parking there for some length of time, but delving into an understanding of how we hold ourselves up.

In one, big, bold brush stroke, we can summarize good posture as largely a product of extensor muscle tone, and the tendency to poor posture as either a deficiency in extensor tone or overactive flexor muscles. Many students come to yoga motivated to improve their posture, which asks that we learn how to hold ourselves up from the extensor muscles and relax the reliance on the flexor muscles.

When the mat is very sticky, it allows the standing postures to be held almost entirely by the quadriceps muscles, While strong quadriceps will make biking season all the more pleasant, holding standing poses from the quadriceps (a flexor muscle) is of little benefit to overall posture. To maximize the benefit of standing poses, it’s important to engage the hamstrings (extensor muscles). It’s difficult to learn this nuance if the feet are stuck to the floor like a fly on flypaper.

I advise continuing students to put the sticky mat aside and periodically practice standing poses on less sticky surfaces. At first the stance will be narrower as the unused muscles have to adapt to their new task. When there’s a feeling the feet may slide (ala-Bambi), feel how the hamstring muscles start to engage – that means you’re on the right track! With regular practice, you’ll find you can practice standing poses on carpet, yoga mat, hardwood or any other floor surface with the same stance and the same aplomb. (It may take awhile to relearn using the extensor muscles, so don’t be in too big a hurry to ditch the yoga mat.)

One of the best surfaces for learning yoga is commonly found in Ashtanga Vinyasa Yoga. Ashtangis will often place a yoga rug atop their rubber mat. This provides a bit less stickiness, though still provides a comfortable amount of padding and protection. The yoga rug atop the rubber mat is also a staple in Alignment Yoga classes.

The key to healthy posture is to support the body from the foundation. The two primary Bandhas, Mula and Uddiyana, are nearly impossible to experience if the poses are supported by the flexors. To connect with the roots of yoga, both literally and figuratively, use technology (rubber mats) as-needed, then gradually diminish your reliance on this external propping.


Anonymous said...

How are the quadriceps "flexor muscles" when they extend the knee?

Scott Anderson said...

You're correct to identify the quadriceps as extensor muscles with respect to the knee joint, in the same way that the hamstrings are flexors of the knee.

In relationship to the pelvis, however, the tables are turned. The quadriceps create pelvic flexion, while the hamstrings create pelvic extension.

In this discussion of optimal posture, the broad brushstroke of good-posture-comes-from-extensor-tone is in relationship to pelvic flexion/extension.

I find the majority of yoga students rely too heavily on the quadriceps, sartorius and tensor fasciae latae muscles (pelvic flexors) in their standing poses, and can benefit from developing more awareness of how the hamstrings (pelvic extensors) provide support. This is facilitated by the gradual transition from a sticky-mat to the more neutral grip of bare floor or a yoga rug.

Prasara Yoga said...

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