LOOKS ARE DECEIVING
by Julie Gudmestad
Published in Yoga Journal, August 2006

Upavistha Konasana is a quieting and deeply introspective pose, for some. For others, it’s pure torture.

PICTURE YOUSELF IN THE perfect Upavistha Konasana (Wide-Angle Seated Forward Bend) – sitting comfortably on the floor with your legs spread wide, torso stretched out long between the legs, forehead supported by the floor, neck and jaw muscles completely soft, abdominal muscles released, breath gentle and steady. Sounds restful, doesn’t it? And so it is for some. But for those who are only dreaming, Upavistha Konasana can be quite a struggle. Instead of relaxing, the pose can be exhausting as you try to tilt the pelvis forward rather than let it roll backward. The head and torso are nowhere near touching the floor, and lower back pain sets in from being slumped over.

The responsibility for these two vastly different scenarios lies with the flexibility—or lack thereof—of certain hip and thigh muscles. The muscles whose flexibility is so important to success in Upavistha Konasana are the hamstrings on the back of the thighs and the hip adductors on the inner thighs. All three hamstrings – biceps femoris, semitendinosis, and semimembranosis – originate on the ischial tuberosities, or sitting bones, on the bottom of the pelvis. The five adductors –adductor longus, adductor brevis, adductor Magnus, pectineus, and gracilis – also originate on the ischial tuberosities and the adjacent public bone. The hamstrings and gracilis run down the thigh and attach below the knee on the tibia and fibula, the lower leg bones. The four other adductors attach along the posterior femur. The pectineus and adductor brevis are quite short and sit deep in the groin; the adductor longus attaches about halfway down the femur; and the large adductor magnus fills most of the inner thigh.

The hamstrings are hip extensors, meaning they help pull the femurs in line with the torso as they pull down on the sitting bones – like when you rise from sitting (hip flexion) to standing (hip extension) – and they are knee flexors. The adductors, obviously, adduct the hips, or pull the thighs together. Attached to the pelvis and running down the femurs, the hamstrings and adductors are integral to moving, positioning, and stabilizing the hips. They are very strong and potentially tight muscles because they are active when you stand, walk, or run. These two muscle groups tend to pull the joints in ways that work against what’s needed in Upavistha Konasana – wide legs, straight knees, and deeply flexed hips.

Blame it on the Hamstrings

MOST OF THE PROBLEMS encountered in Upavistha Konasana can be blamed on tight hamstrings. Because all three muscles cross the knee and act as knee flexors, they must lengthen when you sit on the floor with the legs spread wide and the knees straightened. If they’re tight, they pull the ischial tuberosities toward the heels, causing the pelvis to tilt “posteriorly,” meaning the tailbone is pulled forward and the top of the pelvis rolls backward. If you try to lean the torso forward in this position, you’ll lead with your head, causing your spine to curve into a C shape, and the front of your body will collapse, compressing the lungs. Your abdominal muscles and hip flexors will contract and harden as they attempt to pull the spine forward and the pelvis into an anterior tilt, which makes the pose a lot of work and not at all relaxing. The deeper you try to go into the pose, the more pressure you’ll exert on the diaphragm, lungs, heart, and other internal organs. And by reversing your lumbar curve and compressing your torso, you could end up with lower back pain, strain, and even disk injuries.

Tight hip adductors may also limit your ability to spread your legs wide apart, and a tight gracilis is probably the main culprit in Upavistha Konasana. There’s a general anatomical principle that a tight muscle limits the movement of a joint that you want to move in the opposite direction to the action of the tight muscle. Like the other adductors, the gracilis pulls the thighs together when it contracts, and like the hamstrings, it crosses the knee and is a knee flexor. When you straighten your knees in Upavistha Konasana, you’re taking up the slack in a tight gracilis, so it won’t have much length to give when you spread your legs apart. The other adductors, if they’re tight, will also try to hold the legs together.

Don’t Give Up Hope

WHILE MANY YOGA POSES can help improve hip and thigh muscle flexibility, the regular practice of two variations of Supta Padangusthasana (Reclining Hand-to-Big-Toe Pose) is the surest way to make progress in Upavistha Konasana. The first version focuses on stretching the hamstrings. Lying on your back, bring the right leg up toward the ceiling, leaving the left leg flat on the floor and keeping both knees straight. If you’re flexible, catch the big toe of the right food with the fingers of your right hand. If you can’t catch the toe without pulling your shoulders forward, jutting your chin up, or buckling either or both knees, use a belt to catch your foot. Repeat on the left side.

If you can’t raise your leg to vertical, which is typical of tight hamstrings, try lying with one leg going through a doorway, and the other leg supported by the wall next to the doorjamb. You can control the intensity of the stretch by sliding your hips closer to the wall for more stretch, and farther away for less stretch. By letting the wall support the weight of the raised leg, you can focus on breathing and relaxing the hamstrings into the stretch.

The second version of Supta Padangusthasana emphasizes stretching the adductors. From version 1, lower the right leg to the right and hold the foot parallel to and several inches from the floor. If you have tight adductors, supporting the foot on a wall or chair will allow you to relax the muscles into the stretch. If your legs are very tight, lie at an angle to the wall or chair, with your head farther from the support than your left foot, which makes it easier for your right foot to stay put. For more stretch, slide your whole body a little further from the support, and vice versa for less stretch. With your right leg open to the side, you’ll emphasize the hamstring stretch more if you pull your foot up a bit more toward your head, and the adductor stretch a little more if you bring the foot closer to the floor. If you can get your foot all the way to the floor, start over again, and this time, pull the leg a bit more toward your head as you open the leg out to the side. Repeat on the other side.

Whichever version of Supta Padangusthasana you’re practicing, it’s important that you keep the buttock of the outstretched leg on the floor. It’s the nature of tight adductors to try to pull the raised leg in toward the midline and to pull the opposite side of the pelvis and buttock away from the floor. That means if you’re doing Supta Padangusthasana in the middle of the room, you’ll need strength in the opposite leg and abdominals to help hold the opposite pelvis down. If you’re working at the wall, it’s as simple as putting the foot high enough on the wall. In other words, slide a little closer to the wall.

The Good News

YOU DON’T HAVE TO GIVE up Upavistha Konasana while you work on your hamstring and adductor flexibility, but you do have to surrender the habit of forcing your torso forward, as that will only strain your lower back and compress your heart and lung space. Instead, sit against a wall with a rolled blanket under your sitting bones to reduce the posterior tilt of the pelvis. Leave two to three inches between the blanket and the wall, and slide your buttocks to the wall so you don’t feel as though you’re falling off the blanket. Spread your legs as wide as you can without feeling pain, straighten your knees, and press down through the center of your heels so your legs don’t rotate in or out. Then lean back into the wall, close your eyes, and relax your breathing. As your flexibility improves, place a chair in front of you for support as you move away from the wall and gradually lower your torso. Use your forearms, a small pillow, or a rolled towel to support your forehead on the chair seat. You’ll stretch your legs, protect your lower back, and get the deep relaxation that you long for in Upavistha Konasana.