When kneeling, the body’s weight is on the knees, shins, and tops of the feet. Kneeling brings the center of gravity closer to the ground than standing, but farther from the ground than sitting. Kneeling, which includes both kneel-sitting and kneel-standing, is an important transitional place for babies learning to move from sitting to standing.
This position is associated with lowering oneself in the sense of meekness or worship. This probably evolved from the fact that when kneeling, a person is more vulnerable than when standing, especially if their head is bowed. Even the proud, upright stance of kings and pharaohs is tempered by their depiction in this humble position when they are at worship.
Kneeling is also a posture of relaxed alertness that is associated with strength and readiness, as seen in vajrasana and virasana (page 164). In martial arts, kneeling is used as a preparatory position that is easier to stand from more quickly than sitting cross-legged, and in the practice of aikido they even train to do throws from kneeling.
In asana, kneeling poses are often used to help mobilize the hip joints. When the mobility of the feet and lower legs is removed from the base of support, attention can be focused on the actions in the hip joints, pelvic halves, and pelvic floor.
Kneeling also provides a stable and symmetrical base from which the center of gravity can be raised up so the spine can fully extend, most beautifully expressed in poses such as ustrasana (page 170) and eka pada rajakapotasana (page 172).
vajra = thunderbolt, diamond
vira = man, hero, chief
As in sitting poses such as sukhasana (page 126), siddhasana (page 126), and padmasana (page 127), the goal is steadiness and ease, or sthira and sukha, the fundamental qualities of all asanas as described by Patañjali in the Yoga Sutras. Virasasana and vajrasana are excellent poses for supporting the spine and skull in a way that allows the senses to turn inward for pranayama and meditation (like the sitting poses beginning on page 126).
For some people, these kneeling positions are easier than sitting cross-legged because the hip joints do not need to externally rotate or adduct as they do in siddhasana or sukhasana.
Kneeling poses are also more symmetrical because both legs can do the same action and neither leg is crossed in front of the other. This crossing of the legs creates an asymmetrical action in the pelvis and hips that can have long-term effects.
bala = young, childish, not fully grown or developed
Symmetrical kneeling forward-bending pose
Gravity draws the yielding body deeper into this position.
One goal of this pose is to bring the sitting bones to the heels and the forehead to the floor. To do so, many muscles have to lengthen: the extensors of the spine, gluteus maximus, piriformis and other rotators, hamstrings, gluteus medius and minimus (because of hip adduction), tibialis anterior, peroneus tertius, extensor digitorum longus and brevis, and extensor hallucis longus and brevis in the feet.
Variations include widening the knees (hip abduction), which can create more neutral extension in the spine and make room for the belly; extending the arms overhead; clasping the heels with the hands; crossing the arms under the forehead; and turning the head to one side.
Sometimes there is congestion in the fronts of the hip joints. It can be caused by using the hip flexors to pull the body down toward the thighs, rather than allowing gravity to create that action. The use of props can assist in this release.
If the extensors of the toes are tight or if there is a lack of mobility in the bones of the feet, restriction can also be felt in the tops of the feet. In addition, weakness in the intrinsic muscles of the feet often results in cramping in this and similar positions (such as virasana and vajrasana, page 164).
With the hips fully flexed and adducted and the front of the torso resting on the anterior surfaces of the thighs, the movement of the breath in the abdomen and anterior rib cage is greatly restricted. This necessitates more movement in the back of the waist and rib cage. That is why if tightness exists in those places, this pose can feel suffocating.
Reclining Hero Pose
supta = reclining, lain down to sleep; vira = a brave or eminent man, hero, chief
Symmetrical kneeling backward-bending pose
Many variations exist for the arm position in this pose—at the sides, reaching overhead, and propped up on the elbows. If the latissimus dorsi are short, reaching the arms overhead can cause hyperextension of the spine because of the attachment of the latissimus dorsi in the lower back.
Because hip extension in internal rotation is generally more challenging than in external rotation, supta virasana reveals how open the “groins” truly are. This pose often begins as spinal extension, especially if there is tightness in the hip flexors, because the internal rotation of the legs is bound into place by the weight of the body.
If the hip extensors are tight and the pose is forced, the force can be transmitted either into the lower back or into the knees. The pose should instead be supported in a way that allows for maximum hip extension; getting down to the floor is less important.
Because the knees are at risk, keeping the feet active and avoiding supination is important for maintaining integrity in the knee joints.
This can be an excellent pose for sciatic and low-back pain if done with attention to the internal rotation and extension in the hips. If poorly executed, the pose can exacerbate low-back pain.
The tautness in the psoas major and abdominal wall creates both posterior and anterior pressure in the abdominal cavity. This effect is magnified when activating the abdominal muscles to flatten the lumbar curve. The resulting breathing patterns would favor movements above and below the abdominal pressure.
Emphasizing thoracic breath movements at the base of the rib cage helps to mobilize the upper spine and shoulder girdle. Focusing on pelvic floor movements assists in releasing tension in the hips, groins, and gluteal region.
ustra = camel
Symmetrical kneeling backward-bending pose
Gravity is pulling the torso into the back bend, which is checked by the arm action and the eccentric action of the spinal flexors.
In the cervical spine, the anterior neck muscles are eccentrically active, but the sternocleidomastoid should not be active to avoid the base of the skull being pulled into the atlas and axis.
Internal rotation of the legs will help stabilize the SI joint by encouraging the front of this joint to align.
It can be very challenging to find a healthy extension of the spine at the base of the neck or the top of the thoracic spine. It helps to focus on releasing the sternocleidomastoid using the eccentric strength of the deeper anterior neck muscles to stabilize the weight of the head. Ustrasana can be an intense mobilization for the digestive system, especially the esophagus.
In ustrasana, the thoracic structures are maintained in an inhalation position, and the abdominal wall is lengthened. This results in a decreased ability of the body to breathe “normally.” The trick is to find support from the deeper musculature so that the more superficial efforts can quiet down. Then it’s possible to notice an interesting relationship between the deepest layer of superficial neck muscles (scalenes) and the breath movement in the apex of the lungs, which are suspended from the inner scalene muscles.
Eka Pada Rajakapotasana
One-Legged Royal Pigeon Pose
eh-KAH pah-DAH rah-JAH-cop-poh-TAHS-anna
eka = one; pada = foot, leg; raja = king, royal; kapota = dove, pigeon
Asymmetrical kneeling backward-bending pose
It is important not to collapse into this pose. The pelvic floor, hamstrings, and gluteals should act eccentrically to distribute the weight created by the force of gravity through the whole base of the pose rather than drop right into the hamstring attachment or knee joint.
As with all poses, and more so with complex ones, a wide variety of experiences are available, depending on each person’s strength, balance, and range of motion.
This pose is categorized as a kneeling pose because that is the starting position, but the base of support is not actually kneeling. This asana has a unique base of support: the back surface of the front leg and the front surface of the back leg. This same base, with the knee joints extended, would almost be hanumanasana (page 156).
Even though the front leg is externally rotated, this pose still requires a great deal of length in muscles of external rotation such as the piriformis, obturator internus, and superior and inferior gemellus. This is because these muscles are also hip extensors and abductors, and the actions in the front leg are hip flexion and adduction—the more adducted the front leg is, the more sensation will probably be felt in those muscles.
When the knee is more extended in the front leg (toward 90 degrees of flexion), the rotation at the hip is greatly intensified. This action puts more pressure into the knee, especially if there is restriction in the hip joint, and the knee is much more vulnerable to twisting forces when at 90 degrees. The action in the feet and ankles can help to stabilize and protect the knee.
Eka Pada Rajakapotasana Variation
This variation intensifies the actions in the hamstrings and other hip extensors (such as the piriformis) of the front leg because of deeper hip flexion and more body weight over the front leg. At the same time, it diminishes the actions in the back hip and in the spine.
This position is frequently used to “stretch” the piriformis muscle and the sciatic nerve. When sciatic pain exists, however, it is not necessarily useful to stretch the sciatic nerve, and the piriformis is not always responsible for sciatic pain. It may indeed be true that doing this asana often helps relieve this pain, but it’s more likely that the mobilization of the hips and pelvis and the effects on all the muscles of the lower body are responsible.
The following illustrations show the relationship of the sciatic nerve to the piriformis muscle in:
1. neutral hip position (figure a);
2. external rotation and abduction, which actually shorten the piriformis (figure b);
3. hip flexion, which begins the lengthening of the piriformis and other external rotators (figure c);
4. and hip flexion combined with adduction, which puts the piriformis into maximal length, along with the sciatic nerve (figure d).
The hip joint, sciatic nerve, and piriformis muscle in four positions as they go into the folded-forward pigeon variation: (a) neutral; (b) externally rotated and abducted; (c) externally rotated, abducted, and flexed; and (d) externally rotated, flexed, and adducted.
parigha = an iron bar used for locking a gate
Asymmetrical kneeling side-bending pose
Rotation is automatic with side bending in the spine because of both the shape of the articular facets in the vertebrae and the spiral pathways of the muscles. To keep the action pure lateral flexion, the upper and lower ribs need to counterrotate in relation to each other. In this case, the upper ribs rotate posteriorly and the lower ribs rotate anteriorly. To achieve this, the internal obliques on the upper side and the external obliques on the lower side are recruited.
Also, if tightness exists in the outside of the standing leg hip joint (in the tensor fasciae latae, gluteus medius, or gluteus minimus), then that hip will try to flex rather than stay purely adducted. The standing leg should maintain hip extension (via the adductor magnus and hamstrings) to prevent this.
When there is tightness in the latissimus dorsi, lifting the arm overhead can push the rib cage forward (compressing the floating ribs and inhibiting breath in general) or pull the scapula downward even as the arm is lifting, potentially creating impingement of the biceps brachii tendon or supraspinatus at the acromion process.
Which side of the diaphragm moves more in this pose—the upper, lengthened side or the lower, compressed side? Is the answer the same for both sides of your body? Explore.
simha = lion
The temporomandibular joint (TMJ) represents the center of gravity of the skull, while the atlanto-occipital joint (AO joint) is its base of support.
Symmetrical kneeling pose
The lengthening activation of the tongue lifts the hyoid bone; activates the digestive system; and activates the hyoid muscles, sternum, rectus abdominis, pubic bone, and pelvic floor.
(a) The tongue at rest, and (b) tongue extension.
A strong exhalation (lion’s roar) activates the three diaphragms: thoracic, pelvic, and vocal. The platysma muscle can also be contracted in simhasana. The superior and medial rectus muscles of the eyes both contract to direct the gaze inward and upward.
Simhasana stimulates and releases a host of often overlooked muscles. The tongue and jaw can be thought of as the front of the neck, and cervical tension can frequently be related to tightness in these structures. Additionally, the platysma (the flat, thin, rectangular muscle that covers the front of the throat) can be tonified during simhasana. Aside from the cosmetic advantages (a weak platysma is associated with wrinkly throat skin), consciously contracting this muscle increases the ability to relax it during inspiratory efforts.
Location of the TMJ.