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How Gravity Affects Your Yoga Practice More Than You Realize

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An increased awareness of the effects of gravity can help you figure out which muscles to use and which to release in order to move more deeply and more safely into a pose.

Learn how to work with gravity to move safely into yoga poses.

When my children were very young and seated in a highchair, they would deliberately drop pieces of food—one by one over the edge of the tray, each time delightedly watching them fall to the floor. By the time my third child reached this stage, I had changed my perspective. Instead of being annoyed, I told myself that she was just “experimenting with gravity.” That always made me smile.

When you practice asana, you are constantly experimenting or dancing with the force of gravity and its effects on a pose. If you are to understand how to practice, and certainly how to teach, you must be aware of how gravity “chooses” which muscles are working, and which are not, in each asana, and why this is so. This understanding is what I call movement literacy, and it is the guiding principle of my online and in-person course on experiential anatomy.

Movement literacy is based on the understanding that the body is an orchestra and movements are the music it creates. When you can see, feel, and understand the specifics of the body’s movements, not only do you become a better practitioner, but you now have the tools to help your students practice more safely and even potentially to help them eliminate pain when they struggle in an asana.

Here is an example: Both Supta Padangusthasana (Reclining Hand-to-Big-Toe Pose) and Uttanasana (Standing Forward Bend) are forward bends. Both poses are practiced by flexing the hip joints. But there is a big difference in which muscles are creating each asana. In Supta Padangusthasana, you begin by lying supine on your mat. To practice the pose, you exhale as you flex your hip joint, bringing your thigh toward your trunk. Your leg comes straight up, moving against the force of gravity the whole way. Finally, catch your big toe or hold on to your outer ankle or lower leg, depending on your flexibility.

The action of raising your leg up is created in this position by the hip flexor muscles that are found on the front of the body. These are principally the iliopsoas, the rectus femoris portion of the quadriceps, the sartorius, and the pectineus.

When you lift your leg up against the force of gravity, these muscles undergo a shortening contraction, also called a concentric contraction. The hip flexor muscles are creating the movement of bringing the thigh to the trunk, that is, hip flexion. The entire action is occurring against the force of gravity.

See also The Anatomy of Fascia—& What It Can Tell Us About How to Practice

Against Gravity

Hip flexion against gravity, created by a shortening contraction of the hip flexors in Supra Padangusthasana (Reclining Hand-to-Big-Toe Pose)

Supra Padangusthasana (Reclining Hand-to-Big-Toe Pose) 

Begin by lying supine on your mat. Exhale as you lift one straight leg up, moving into hip flexion. Catch the big toe with your fingers, or hold your outer ankle or lower leg if your hamstrings are tight. This action, moving against the force of gravity, is created by the hip fl exors undergoing a shortening contraction against gravity.

But just because you are moving into hip flexion doesn’t necessarily mean that you are creating the movement by using your hip flexors. When you are standing up, for example, and bending forward to practice Uttanasana, it is actually the muscles in the buttocks and back thigh that are controlling the creation of hip flexion, not the hip flexors. Thus, the muscles that are creating hip flexion in Uttanasana are muscles on the back of the body: the hip extensors.

With Gravity

Hip fl exion with gravity, created by a lengthening contraction of the hip extensors in Uttanasana (Standing Forward Bend)

Uttanasana (Standing Forward Bend) 

From standing, with your feet hip-distance apart, hinge forward from your hip joints, keeping a long spine. Notice how muscles on the back body, especially the hamstrings in the back of your thighs, are controlling the creation of hip fl exion, not the hip flexors. The hamstrings are working with the force of gravity to let you down gradually.

See also Anatomy 101: Balance Mobility + Stability in Your Hip Joints

The hip extensors are the gluteus maximus and all of the hamstring muscles, except the short head of the biceps femoris. Plus a small percentage of the movement is created by the posterior fibers of the gluteus medius.

Hip extension is the movement of the femur backward when standing, like when you prepare to kick a ball. Or, in asana practice, extension of the hip joint occurs when you lift one leg up in the Adho Mukha Svanasana (Downward-Facing Dog Pose) variation often called Three-Legged Dog, or when you move into Urdhva Dhanurasana (Upward Bow Pose).

All of these movements are shortening contractions of the hip extensors. But the hip extensors are also active when moving into Uttanasana, which paradoxically is hip flexion. When bending forward in the pose, you are now moving with gravity. When you begin the pose by tipping the trunk slightly forward, gravity immediately begins to pull more and more of your body downward toward the earth.

The hip extensors are now undergoing a lengthening contraction. They are slowly letting you down, like you would let someone down with a rope over the edge of a cliff. The hip extensors are acting like a brake on the body to control the gradual descent into hip flexion. This is more metabolically efficient; you need less energy to move with gravity than against it. In other words, by using the hip extensors, the body uses less energy to create hip flexion. Without the lengthening contraction of the extensors, you would simply crash down onto your legs or onto the floor because the force of gravity is pulling you down.

Just the opposite occurs in the hip extensors with Salamba Sirsasana (Supported Headstand). Think about coming into Sirsasana with both legs straight. You prepare for the pose in hip flexion, with your arms and head in Headstand position, and your weight on the balls of your feet. You slowly move into the pose by creating hip extension against gravity as you lift both legs up, stacking your feet over your hips. You are moving into hip extension against gravity and therefore the hip extensors are creating the movement.

When you come out of Sirsasana, you are moving into hip flexion but the hip extensors are still controlling the movement. They are undergoing a lengthening contraction to slow the descent against the force of gravity and to protect you from injury.

Whether you are practicing or teaching yoga, it can be difficult to keep all the actions of muscles at the forefront of your mind. But if we begin to think first of the effect that gravity might be having on the body in a pose, it is easier to quickly figure out which muscles might need to be stronger, and which might need to be stretched.

In Sirsasana, for example, it might not cross your mind that the hamstrings need to be both stretched and strong in order to come up with two straight legs. In Uttanasana it might not seem like the hamstrings are doing most of the work of creating the pose, both as you descend and ascend. But the hip flexors in Uttanasana are not creating hip flexion, even though you end up in hip flexion. Because we swim in a sea of gravity, it is indeed the hamstrings that are mostly controlling both the ascent and descent.

Begin to notice in your own practice which muscles are activated as you practice. Start slowly with the poses offered here, and then begin to observe your muscle action in other poses. Not only will this be an effective way to study muscle actions, but it will help you appreciate even more how wondrously subtle and intelligent all of our movements really are. 

About the Author

Judith Hanson Lasater, PhD, PT, has taught yoga since 1971. She is the author of nine books on yoga, including Restore and Rebalance and Yogabody: Anatomy, Kinesiology, and Asana. For more information, visit judithhansonlasater.com.

LEARN MORE 
Take Judith Hanson Lasater’s Experiential Anatomy course, and put these principles into practice. Sign up for the online course today at judithhansonlasater.com/yj.



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Here's How to Make Sure Yoga Journal's Newsletters Land in Your Gmail Primary Inbox

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Wondering why you aren’t getting Yoga Journal emails anymore? Follow this guide below to get our newsletter out of your promotions folder and into your primary inbox in Gmail.

Your Yoga Journal newsletters might be hiding out in the promotions tab in Gmail. But don’t fret! It’s a quick fix and we’re here to help. 

Gmail Desktop Users

Here’s how to update your preferences on your desktop:

  1. Click on your “promotions” tab
  2. Find an email from Yoga Journal
  3. Click and grab the email
  4. While still holding down the mouse, drop the email into your “primary” tab
Drag our newsletter from the “promotions” tab to the “primary” tab, and you’re done!

Gmail Mobile App Users

If you read us on your phone, you can add us to your primary inbox in four easy steps.

Here’s how to update your preference on your mobile Gmail app. 

1. Open our newsletter in the “Promotions” tab

2. Click the three dots in the upper righthand corner

3. Click “Move to” 

4. Select “Primary” 

Still having trouble? Email us at yogajournal@yogajournal.com for help. 



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Tempted to Skip Savasana? 10 Top Yoga Teachers Explain Why It’s the Most Important Pose

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When you’re time-crunched, it can be tempting to sneak out of yoga class before this final resting pose. Here’s why you should reconsider.

Thinking about not staying for Savasana (Corpse Pose) at the end of yoga class? Top yoga teachers explain the benefits of Savasana, and why it’s important for your yoga practice.

After teaching yoga in New York City for more than three years, I’ve realized that it doesn’t matter how early the class starts or whether or not the class ends exactly on time, there will always be one or two people who leave before Savasana. I get it: Skipping the final 10 minutes of class to get in the shower early or head out of the studio before the rush may seem like a smart idea. However, most teachers —including myself—say that Savasana is an essential pose, and one you should never skip.

See also Watch + Learn: Corpse Pose

Here, nine top yoga teachers talk about the incredible benefits of Savasana. Will they tempt you to stay?



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Fashion & Beauty

The 6 Best Undies to Wear Under Your Yoga Pants

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The right underwear can make or break how comfortable (and fidget-free!) you stay during your practice.

Don’t want to go commando during yoga, but not sure which underwear will work best under your favorite yoga pants? Here are Yoga Journal’s top 6 picks for the best underwear for yoga.

While many yogis go commando in yoga pants, there are plenty of practitioners who are pro panties. But if you fall in that camp, you know how crucial it is to choose the best underwear for yoga. Choose a pair that doesn’t wick sweat and you could feel like you’re wearing a diaper during hot yoga; opt for a lacy thong and you’ll likely be fidgeting your way through every vinyasa.

See also Do You Go Commando in Yoga Pants?

Looking for the ultimate list of the best underwear for yoga? Here are our 6 top picks that don’t ride up, wick sweat like champs, and are so comfy you won’t even notice they’re there. 



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