The Instagram is full of fluid movers, yogis who can gracefully place a foot between their hands in slow motion, usually on the way down from a single arm hand balancing feat with a glass of wine between their toes. Not a drop spilled.
What is less common: actual instructions in yoga class on how to step your foot up between your hands.
So we’ve made you a video and written tutorial explaining the #anatomygeek stuff. You’re welcome.
The Steps to Step Your Foot Up
Here’s are the rarely-broken down steps. In order to transition from downward facing dog to one foot between your hands (lunge), you need:
- Spinal flexion – essentially the maximum flexion that you can create — from the low back up through the neck
- Downward, navel-oriented gaze – explained (with a reference!) below
- Scapular protraction – the pushing of the ground away
- Hip External Rotation and Abduction – a little bit at least
- Often: Rise to the fingertips on the same side as the leg stepping forward
The good news: You can learn and practice all of these steps inside of cat pose.
To break it down a bit further:
Without spinal flexion, you over-rely on hip flexion to step the foot forward. This not only puts the hip joint at its end range, compressing your hip labrum and other soft tissue, but it also forces your hip flexors to work when these muscles are already at their most contracted.
Secondly, if you have any ounce of belly, end range hip flexion will mean that your thigh contacts your abdomen fairly quickly. This can be frustrating and will land your foot smack under your navel at best. If you are a teacher cuing students to maintain a neutral or extended spine as you step forward into lunge, the cue can appear insensitive to those whose bodies carry more tissue.
Spinal flexion, which also includes a posterior tilt of the pelvis, resolves the stoppage points of joint and muscle and – to a large extent – belly by recruiting friends: rectus abdominus and the obliques (external and internal). This action allows our main hip flexor, psoas, which is also a spinal flexor, to rock out in its happy middle ground (the analogy is that the rubber band is neither too taut nor too loose).
What’s the deal with the gaze?
If you look up to the front of the mat or beyond, your neck (cervical spine) is in a position of extension. Developmentally speaking, we emerge from the womb in a position of spinal flexion. We only achieve the lordotic (forward) curves in our spine when we begin to lift our heads and develop the muscles of cervical extension, which secondarily develops lumbar extension.
As an adult, you can, of course, differentiate between the coupled movements of lumbar and cervical extension, but deep in our neurology, the two remain #2gether4orever. Here’s proof. (1)
If you choose to look forward to the front edge of your mat or beyond, you will have a much harder time activating the abdominal muscles. Make it easier on yourself by looking within.
There are some who are #blessed (for this particular purpose) with long arms and short legs. But for the rest of us, we need to find arm length another way.
The final step to creating the “Dome through which your knee can pass” to get your foot to the front of your mat is in scapular protraction. Your shoulderblades (scapulae) need to wrap around the sides of your ribs as if you were in the final stages of a punch.
(Yogis often talk about the shoulderblades as if they should only and forever remain back and down. This is nonsense.)
If you have larger breasts, you doubly need this action of pushing the floor away, which strongly activates serratus anterior, and pectoralis major, secondarily pectoralis minor, and latissimus dorsi.
If you don’t know what scapular protraction is, give yourself a hug. Have your hands just below the armpits, and feel the “wrapping” of your shoulderblades around the side of your ribs.
(Check out the video below for a good visual.)
Hip External Rotation and Abduction
Some will call this bullet point “cheating”. We simply call it practical.
The body is not linear, nor does it only move in the cardinal planes. Allowing your knee to creep to the side slightly (rather than stay parallel to the hip socket / in line with your nipple) is sound advice for:
- the health of the hip socket – which faces slightly laterally
- better contraction of iliopsoas (iliacus and psoas are also hip external rotators), and
- is frankly mandatory if breast tissue is in the way (again a sensitivity thing to the variety of bodies in any given class)
And, despite appearances, there are no real yoga police.
Hip external rotation is the action of the front skin of the thigh turning outward / laterally. Hip abduction is the thigh itself drifting off to the side. The result of these two actions is that your shin will be at a bit of a diagonal, making it easier to get your foot between your hands.
Rise to Fingertips
Again, perhaps we will be called out on this one for “cheating”, but after decades of practice, it still makes sense for many yogis to lengthen the arm a wee bit more for the last bit of wiggle room, at least on occasion.
If you apply all of the actions above, rising to the fingertips is not needed until the last stages of setting the foot between the hands, but as soon as your shoulders are close to being over the hands, you can shift your weight laterally to the back leg side and use this technique to create even more space.
That’s it for our list of tips, and now please watch the video below. We would love to know if you have anything to add! Comment below with ideas, questions, or simply give a shout out to your favorite teachers who already taught you these techniques. <3
We talk about all of these moving parts in our comprehensive Online Yoga Anatomy Mentorship, which we highly recommend you check out.
(1) Su, J. G., Won, S. J., & Gak, H. (2016). Effect of craniocervical posture on abdominal muscle activities. Journal of Physical Therapy Science, 28(2), 654–657. http://doi.org/10.1589/jpts.28.654