Many yoga practitioners instinctually know to engage their inner thigh muscles (adductors) in backbends to prevent their knees from falling out to the sides. Let’s examine how we can utilise this action to ignite our core, expand our backward arch and experience simultaneously more stability and spaciousness in backbends.
The adductor muscles of the inner thigh are part of our axial core. Below, they are connected to our feet via the popliteus muscle on the back of the knee and the tibialis posterior muscle deep within the calf, which transverses the instep of our foot to insert onto the sole of our foot. Above, the adductor group of muscles are continuous with the fascia of the pelvic floor and sacrum, which connects to the ligament that runs along the entire length of the front of the spine (the anterior longitudinal ligament or ALL). This myofascial chain continues up the neck including the important postural stabilising muscles of the deep neck flexors, the hyoid bone, the scalenes and the jaw and temporal muscles. This continuum of fascial tissue also has connections to the diaphragm, the pericardium around the heart, the psoas and iliacus muscles on the front of the spine and the quadratus lumborum on the back. This unified network means that when we engage the adductors we are also activating the entire ‘deep front line’ as Thomas Myers calls it in his text ‘Anatomy Trains’.
This is the ‘up’ line in yoga asana that arches the insteps of our feet, ascends along the inseams of our thighs, connects our lower extremities to our trunk igniting mula bandha and continuing the upward flight of uddiyana bandha. It ascends along the entire length of our spine and neck as we draw the chin in and up to ‘grow tall’ through the crown on the head. These actions facilitate full expression of our diaphragm muscle in breathing and elevate the heart suspended within its pericardial sack.
These muscles and connective tissues play an important role in maintaining alignment of our axial core. Our body is hardwired (via our nervous system) in such a way that where there is a lack of stability, there is also a lack of mobility, i.e. the inability to move freely. This is an important protective mechanism! Activating our spinal stabilising core allows our body to feel safe. In this way extra tension is naturally relinquished and the ability to elongate, expand and open up happens spontaneously and effortlessly.
Theoretically and practically, we can easily access, experience and understand the vectors at play here. Try this in any backbend or most easily from lying on your back in a bridged version of Urdhva Dhanurasana. With your feet and knees hip-width apart and close to your buttocks, lift your buttocks off the floor. Now gently draw the knees toward each other, without actually moving the knees from their position above the ankles. Observe how this action physically connects the legs to your trunk via your pelvic floor (see picture attached). Feel the transference of this force as it lengthens your spine and opens and expands your backward arch. You can instantly feel both physiologically and energetically
the spaciousness that this single action inspires. It creates a synergistic lift that connects the insteps of the feet to the entire length of the core of our body. This action, as part of the chain of deep core muscles, initiates intrinsic movement that lengthens the spine without losing stability. In fact, core stability is enhanced!
The opposite action of allowing abduction of the thighs in a back bend means engagement of all the muscles that also perform external rotation of the feet and thereby make it more difficult to keep the feet straight in backbends. Additionally, the core is not activated, the spine shortens and the posture feels compressed and difficult.
In recognition of the importance of hip adduction in backbends some teachers lose sight of the objective whilst focusing on that one specific action. For example, in an attempt to teach students hip adduction in backbends teachers will sometimes resort to having students hold a block between their knees. This is a useful exercise for those who cannot access adduction of the thighs. Beyond that point it becomes a hindrance to the benefits of adduction. In an attempt to hold the block between their knees practitioners will isolate their adductor muscles. As the adductors are also capable of hip flexion a focus on hip adduction interrupts the hip extension needed to enhance backbends. This over-engagement of the adductor muscles blocks (no pun intended!) and interrupts the flow-on upward vector (direction plus magnitude) to the pelvic floor and axial core that this action can activate.
Many people have tight adductor muscles. Sitting for long periods we usually hold our knees from falling apart and often cross our legs into adduction. The emotions linked with the adductor muscles are extreme joy and hurt. Imagine experiencing either of these feeling and notice how you contract your adductors with both the uplifting feeling of intense joy and in the protective shut-down associated with hurt. These are the same emotions that are associated with the pericardium, the connective tissue sack that surrounds our heart. The pericardium is strongly adhered to the respiratory diaphragm muscle, which as I have described, connects to the adductors via one continuous deep line of myofascia.
Understanding the biomechanics of any asana brings a sense of familiarity that enables us to explore the posture with clarity and awareness as well as a sense of adventure. Understanding harmonious movement patterns enables us to work our bodies safely, experience the full benefits of the posture and will enable us to practice with joy for the entire length of our physical life.
Always with you on the mat…
first of all thanks a lot for this enlightening article.
I have few doubts related to above article.
And I have always been a bit doubtful about the question i am about to ask.
What do you mean by hip width apart(And also is it hip width or hips width, bc hips I think means hip joints and hip means pelvis?)?
And also some teachers advise keeping the feet a little wider than hips width apart, so if I did actually take my feet a little wider than hip width, what would be the correct alignment for the KNEES, would it be keeping the knees hips width apart or keeping the knees over the ankles?
P.S.: It’s an honor being able to ask question to a person who has this much experience in the yoga arena.
Some teachers may mean different things when they say hip-width. I mean the width of your hip joint, which would then have your legs fall straight our of your hips and not splayed wide. The knees would then also be in that straight line between the hips and the feet.
Technically a very flexible person could do a backbend with their feet together but this would not only require greater flexibility but would be a relatively unstable stance. Taking the feet wider gives you more stability and ‘space’ that the backbend is less intense on the spine. Some teachers may ask students to take the feet wider if they are stiffer and want to make the backbend more easily accessible. You would however then want to also access what is happening in the rest of the body.
Hope that helps…
Thank you for replying.
You didn’t say anything about the other question though. That is “if I did take my feet wider than hip width, where should I keep my knees, right over the ankles(as ankles would not be hip width if feet were wider than hip width) or hip width?”.
I personally do not get students to have their feet wider than hip width in backbends as it is then not easy to keep the knees tracking over the feet, which is where you want them.
Thank you for sharing. Much of what you have written here corroborates recent self observation with back bending.
I read an article about using adductors in backbending. That article advises against using adductors in backbending. The argument is that when hips are extended the orientation of the fibers of adductor muscles make them become the external rotators of the legs and synergize the gluteus maximus in splaying your knees apart.
What do you think about this?
I’ve not heard of this but in my experience this is not what happens, quite the opposite.
Thanks for your comment,
Thank you for the reply Monica.
Superb article on the anatomy of the anterior chain and it’s activation in balance, ty!!!
Thank you Caron.