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August 25, 2016

7 Reasons Your Heels Don’t Touch the Floor in Downward Dog

lengthen achilles yoga

Have you been practicing yoga for a while, and feel frustrated that you can’t get your heels to the floor in downward facing dog pose?

There are a few reasons why heels-to-floor may not be happening for you.

First let’s remember that Downward Facing Dog demands a ton of joint motion: approximately 45 degrees of ankle dorsiflexion (top of the foot toward the eye). This is way more range of motion than nearly any daily functional activity demands (unless you frequently climb steep hills, spend a lot of time squatting or crawling close to the floor, or don’t own furniture).

Downward facing dog is possibly the most common pose in yoga classes, and it often becomes the default “resting pose”. There’s no rest to be had, however, if your heels are far from the floor.

 

downward facing dog adho mukha svanasana with block

Downward facing dog with the action of hip internal rotation using yoga block

Aside from the rarity of the range, there are a few often-overlooked, deeper reasons why your muscles could be short or your ankle joints stiff.

Muscle Restriction

The main issue for most asana practitioners who cannot get their heels to the floor is muscle or soft tissue restriction. (Soft tissue is a term that includes muscle, tendon, and fascia). Life, athletics, movement, lack of movement — all of these could cause muscle shortening.

To make lasting change in muscle length requires regular mobility practice, and everyone needs this to some extent.

Mobility

Your mobility practice might be your yoga practice. Though I would propose that your yoga practice only serves as a thorough mobility practice if it is highly variable. 

Foam Roller for thoracic extension and self myofascial release

Self myofascial release to the upper thoracic region with a foam roller

And, although the topic is nuanced and deserving of its own blog post, stretching is not the same thing as mobility. Static stretching can, over time, cause more harm than good. Active utilization and muscular effort in a wide range, however, does enhance range of motion. In short, move frequently, but cross-train and switch things up regularly.

Myofascial Release

Arguably, part of your mobility practice should be myofascial release. We at Yoga Anatomy Academy are big fans of self-myofascial release for daily and weekly maintenance (as well as skilled physical therapists and body workers when you need deeper unwinding).

To get heels to the floor, the main muscle group to lengthen is the calf. Rolling on tennis balls, a foam roller, or something like RadRollers releases calf knots from over-exertion or habitual ways of moving.

The Achilles tendon anchors the two main calf muscles to the heel: soleus and gastrocnemious (“gastroc” for short).

Gastroc crosses both the ankle and the knee. This muscle looses elasticity and length with life in general. Athletes and active people will often get restrictions in gastroc if mobility is not a meaningful part of their training.

soleus

soleus

Soleus, which crosses the ankle but not the knee, tends to shorten in particular in those with knee hyperextension (sometimes called double-jointed). If, when you straighten your knees, your leg bows backwards (when seen from the side), this will shorten soleus in a chronic way…anytime you are standing with legs “straight”.

Stop Hyperextending Your Knees

Knee hyperextension

Knee hyperextension

Not everyone in yoga asana practice needs to “microbend” their knees. Many of us would do well to lengthen gastroc by fully contracting the quads.

However “locking out” should be avoided if you have knee hyperextension (both on and off the mat). For one, it will tighten and shorten your soleus! Ask your yoga teacher to catch you if you hyperextend your knees (particularly in downward facing dog).

Examine Your Shoewear

Another common contributor to soleus tightness is wearing high heels. While walking in heels, your knees straighten somewhat, but your ankles are chronically in Barbie-foot position. High heels are not the only culprit: most shoes have somewhat of a heel, including sneakers, oxfords and other dress shoes. All may contribute to a shorter soleus and general restrictions in your Achilles.

Examine your shoewear and spend some time each day walking barefoot or in minimalist shoes. (Caveat: there are some folks with medical or anatomic reasons not to do this).

Toes forward

Gluteus maximus (the cushion on your backside) tends to externally rotate the femurs (thigh bones). Many people walk with their toes turned out thanks to tight glutes or weak internal rotators of the hips. This also chronically shortens part of the calves.

Practice this in down dog: turn your toes ever so slightly in. Make the outer edges of your feet parallel, and lift your tailbone. Although it may feel awkward, and your heels may initially be further from the floor, the opening you’ll experience is profound.

You can also — with caution — experiment with walking with your toes pointed more forward while you walk, if you tend to turn out.  

Engage

anterior tibialis

anterior tibialis

There’s a simple concept with a fancy name that you should know: reciprocal inhibition.

If a muscle on one side of a joint is contracting, your brain is smart enough to know that the muscle on the other side should give it a little slack. For example, if you are standing and try and kick your own bum, your quads — the  front thigh muscles — slacken to allow for that action.

In downward facing dog, you can use reciprocal inhibition to your advantage: firm the quads (avoiding hyperextension of the knees) to loosen hamstrings and gastroc. Lift your toes and the front of your feet (it may be energetic-only!) to lengthen your calves.

If your heels don’t hit the floor in Down Dog, you might be thinking “This is nutty advice. How do you lift the toes if your heels don’t come down?” No worries, just the contraction of the front shin muscles –anterior tibialis and the toe extensors — even if nothing moves, will create a signal to relax the tone of the calves.  

Joint Hypomobility

Muscles are not the only thing stopping you from a heels-down position. It’s possible your boney structure doesn’t allow for this angle at the ankle. Bones are held together with dense ligaments, so it’s theoretically possible to gain range through movement and yoga and the above. 

However, a handful of individuals will have more than normal range into plantarflexion (pointing the toes) and reduced dorsiflexion due to boney structure. These individuals may never get their heels to the floor in downward facing dog, but can work on all the other joints above the ankle, as well as soft tissue, to get as close as possible. 

Hypomobility – not typically the biggest problem for yogis – can be local (as in the example above) or generalized. The prefix “Hypo-” means “less than” (relative to normal).

Another approach to hypomobility in the joint is direct mobilizing of that joint. Chiropractors are known for high grade (quick, forceful) mobilizations called “manipulations” that make cracking sounds. 

You can also have a physical therapist, a chiro, or personal trainer help you by mobilizing your ankles, and there are some ways to do DIY ankle mobs. (another post, another day).

The List

In summary, if your heels don’t touch the floor in down dog, look over this checklist:

  • Do you have a regular, consistent yoga and / or mobility practice?

  • Are you getting regular myofascial or self-myofascial release?

  • Do your knees hyperextend and are you stopping the hyperextension?

  • Have you eliminated wearing high heels? Do you spend time barefoot?

  • Do your toes point forward both when you walk and in downward facing dog?

  • Are you actively engaging the front of the leg — quads and lifting the toes in downward dog?

  • Is it your bony structure?

Other

FYI, For the purposes of this post, we kept the focus on the knee and below. However, none of this will give you the solution if you don’t have good alignment and push through the upper body in downward dog. And, our bodies are governed by our powerful nervous systems. When the nervous system is out of whack, it can cause tension in muscles throughout the system, limiting range of motion. 

As always, so much yoga advice can be summed up with this: Breathe deeply, move often. 

 

Your turn!

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8 Comments on “7 Reasons Your Heels Don’t Touch the Floor in Downward Dog

Jessica
August 25, 2016 at 11:55 pm

Tried the reciprocal inhibition with ties and feet and making sure knees weren’t hyperextended -that really made a difference in my calves and hammies. Have had some Achilles issues recently-I think this will help!

Reply
DrFoster
August 26, 2016 at 9:34 am

Excellent! Thanks for the update @Jessica!

Reply
Chloe Tully
August 30, 2016 at 8:08 am

Great article – thanks! You mention that “When the nervous system is out of whack, it can cause tension in muscles throughout the system, limiting range of motion.” Do you have any blog entries on this issue or can you recommend any good source of info on this? Many thanks! x

Reply
DrFoster
August 30, 2016 at 3:17 pm

Thanks, Chloe. Some of the basic information is covered here: https://www.quora.com/How-do-the-nervous-and-muscular-systems-work-together-to-create-precise-movements — but I think what you are getting at is the more subtle question with a million potential examples and ways of answering. Think of this: When individuals are anesthetized for surgery, their limbs and joints can be moved pretty freely in a much wider range of motion than when awake. The muscle “tone” — the baseline contraction or gentle tension on the muscles no longer exists. That’s because the nervous system input to the muscles (and fascia) has been cut off. The opposite is also true. In many people with major brain damage, the nervous system is highly agitated and causes stiffness throughout the body (or the opposite: limpness). You could also have a simple fall that barely leaves a bruise, but since you guarded so much in the process of falling, it takes your body a few days or a week to relax again to your baseline muscle tone. I hope that helps!

Reply
Chloe Tully
August 31, 2016 at 8:31 am

Thanks very much for the info Ariele. The examples you give are useful illustrations of the relationship between the nervous system and muscle tension. You’re right about what I was getting at: I would like to develop my understanding of how stress (or a disrupted nervous system) – particularly prolonged periods of stress – creates (chronic) tension in the muscles and the impact of this on ROM, as well as subsequent feeback loops from body to brain which act to prolong periods of stress/depression/anxiety etc (i.e. the formation of vicious circles of tension in body and mind). I guess a good place to start would be by researching the sympathetic nervous system? Thanks again x

Reply
DrFoster
September 1, 2016 at 10:07 am

Stress affects all systems of the body (not just the nervous system), but the one I think might be most disrupted with unmanaged stress is the endocrine system. Look into cortisol, the main stress hormone. I am not sure what you’ll find re: chronic stress having a direct impact on muscle tension (other than the musculature of the TMJ, and face and neck), but chronic stress often involves general neglect of self-care, these days it often involves staying hunched over a computer for hours, and those lead to poor mobility…It might be difficult to vet out what causes what. Check pubmed.gov for evidence-based research on the subject. Best wishes, Ariele

Reply
Chloe Tully
September 5, 2016 at 9:53 am

Thanks very much for the suggestions Ariele! Best wishes, Chloe x

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