On the art of straightening the leg in Iyengar yoga

 

It is said much recently that a hallmark of Iyengar Yoga is its refinement on inversions. After years of practice, I will have to say another hallmark of Iyengar Yoga is the quality of the straight legs in Iyengar practitioners.

Straight legs are not something that happens overnight. Very much like that tear jerking scene in Forrest Gump when the young Forrest is bound by a confining leg brace, and then chased by bad kids, he finds his “real” legs and off he goes into an almost superhuman ability to run fast.

The same struggle, then liberation can be said of the years of practice it takes to truly straighten the legs in Iyengar Yoga. How many of you who have been to a bona fide Iyengar class for the first time heard “straighten your leg!” only to look down to your version of straight legs and wonder if the teacher is talking to someone else? That was my first 10 years of practice (with occasional relapses if I let my strong tamasic nature take over).

Let me show you a comparison of  “straight legs”  vs. “Iyengar straight legs” in a Padangusthasana (big toe pose), a forward bend.

uttanasana bent

This woman is flexible enough to touch her toes. But look at the angle behind the knee joint. It may appear to the untrained eye that her legs are straight, but her legs are not a straight as they can be.

pandangusthasana iyengar

This may not be a fair comparison, but look at Guruji’s pose during his prime. Very little angle behind the knee and the front of his legs are “poker straight” as he often described them.

So how does the aspirant get the legs of Iyengar? In addition to daily uninterrupted practice, there are ways in which you can start to address the tamasic nature of the strong and lazy legs.

For my basic students, I often have them do Pasrvottanasana (intense stretch of the side body pose) with one heel against the wall and with a chair.

parsvottanasna with chair

 

If there is a mantra in Iyengar Yoga, it would be that “contact is intelligence.” The contact with the back heel pressing hard on the wall cultures the leg to work properly as a “straight’ leg. Many are shocked at how difficult it is do this even though they are lithe and flexible.

Another exercise to straighten the leg is Supta Padangusthasana I with belt around the big toe mound.

sp mere mortal

 

Now the leg is in the air and doesn’t have the earth to press down on. The belt acts as a gauge to which degree you can press against. I like to use the metaphor of using a gas pedal where you slowly accelerate like you are trying to maintain a constant but slow speed like you are driving in a school zone. By pressing the big toe mound into the strap, one notices the effect on the knee and how the more your press, the more the kneecap recedes into the socket. Don’t completely plantar flex the foot like a ballerina. You have to temper that by extending up from the back of the ankle toward the ceiling. The proper foot in an inversion is partially dorsi flexed and partially plantar flexed.

Straight legs are a necessary element for inversions. Without the firmness in the legs the weight sinks on the the neck and head in Salamba Sirsasana. Notice the quality of the legs in Guruji’s Salamba Sirsasana and notice the corresponding lift in his shoulders.

sirsasana iyengar

 

The contraindication for this exercise is for those who hyperextend their knees. The instruction would be for those practitioners to learn where they are pushing too hard in the back of their knee and decrease the effort to preserve the joint over years of practice. For more on that, see this blog post.

To come full circle, inversions are an a hallmark of Iyengar Yoga. But you cannot have proper inversions until you have straight legs. Now “straighten your legs!!!”

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24 thoughts on “On the art of straightening the leg in Iyengar yoga

  1. Aparna

    This is definitely a challenge for me (having straight legs). Thanks for the post! I will use these tips for myself as well as my students! Now, I am definitely including Supta Padangusththasana in my classes this weekend with straps 🙂

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    1. yogibattle Post author

      Thanks Aparna! I have to admit that straight legs are still a challege for me too. So many people I see on instagram want to get to “advanced” poses, but have floppy legs. I appreciate that you are giving this detail to your students 😄

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      1. Aparna

        OH EM GEE. I was practicing Sirsasana and WOW – I just did a good one and the key? Straight legs! The whole time I was doing it, I kept thinking – legs straight, legs straight, legs straight and my posture was way better. I have a hyperflexible back so I used to have a curve in my back because I wasn’t fully using my core and legs. But wow – yes, engaging my legs has made a HUGE difference. Thank you SO much for this blog post. It has definitely influenced my practice in such a positive way.

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  2. YogaCat

    Thankyou 🙂 – another interesting post. I had a chuckle to myself as I read your post and remembered a recent instruction from my teacher – whilst I was inverted – to straighten my legs (and I, of course, felt they were straight) followed by a comment about my “puffy” quadricep…

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  3. sydyogz

    Thanks for the tips on parsvottanasana and supta pandangustasana. really enjoyed them. 🙂

    I’m unsure of why the goal the straight legs because I was always taught the opposite. is it just aesthetics? my teachers, who are alignment and therapeutic based, always tell me not to straighten my legs, to always keep them unlocked because it puts less pressure on the knees. They also say that it gives you a deeper stretch your hamstrings if you are hugging to the midline adn actively flaring your sit bones up at the same time.

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  4. yogibattle Post author

    Thanks for your comments Syd! Although aesthetically pleasing, that is not the reason we teach to make legs straighter. One of the exercises we do as teachers is to do a pose the “different” way, then do it the way we are instructed, then use our own discernment to tell the difference. So in the same vein, try the alignment/therapeutic way, the try the way I am instructing and notice the difference. Before I responded to this post, I did Uttanasana with un-engaged legs, then I tried it the way I practice with “straight” legs. I felt my sacrum unhappily talking to me when I was doing the unengaged leg method. That is my body though, you may be at a different stage.

    You mentioned knee pain. The knee encompases the patella, the patellar plate, and the “back of the knee.” The only contraindications to my instructions which I will amend to the post is that knee hyper extenders, or those so flexible that they push the back of the knee further back in forward bends, need to show restraint and actually not “straighten the knee” so much.

    On a more global note, when we jump around from teacher to teacher, style to style, we will receive instructions that are contradictory and confusing. My wish is that we all find a teacher in this lifetime who is consistent, safe, and ethical. Ultimately, we are our own teacher.

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    1. sydyogz

      thanks for responding! It sounds like you misunderstood what I was talking about, though. Un- engaged is not the goal at all and it is not the same thing as unlocked (not straight) legs. In the method I was talking about (with unlocked knees) you have to be engaging your muscles (hugging inner thighs to the midline) and drawing your sit bones upward while in a forward fold. It’s almost over-engaging, not un-engaging.

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  5. Paul Tim Richard

    Interesting. Thanks. I watched a documentary a few months back that you might know about. Breath of the Gods: about yoga and the life of Tirumalai Krishnamacharya, founder of the first yoga school. In a way it is related to you topic.

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    1. yogibattle Post author

      Thanks Paul!
      As you know Krishnamacharya was Iyengar’s guru. During Iyengar’s last trip to China, he spoke to tai chi practitioners about the similarities between the two arts.

      Thank you for your comments

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  6. bethmoulder

    Hey! Did you ever find the time to go into more depth in another post on hyperextending the knees? If so, will you please direct me to it? Thsnks!

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    1. yogibattle Post author

      Thanks for reading Beth! I have not had time to revisit this topic. Yogabound is another Iyengar blog from Canadian teacher Stephanie Tencer. Here is a link to an article she wrote addressing the hyper flexion of the knee joint. I’ll get to this subject one day…just wait 🙂

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  7. mbdyoga

    Excellent article. I await your post on hyperextension, as this is almost as equal an issue (as it appears to be in the photo of Supta Padangusthasana—her tibia head is way behind the lower femur). The most difficult thing for the students I see is not so much not being able to straighten the legs, but knowing the difference between a hyperextended leg, a straight leg, and a bent leg. It’s an important distinction that varies from pose to pose, even in the same student.

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    1. yogibattle Post author

      Great eye on the supta padangusthasana knee!!! Check out the link above in the comments for some tips on hyperextension from Yoga Bound’s Stephanie Tencer until I can address the subject. Thanks for reading.

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  8. Jill Damatac Futter

    Thank you for this post! Knowing how to firm and straighten my legs has definitely helped; though for a while I just hyperextended my legs (much to the pain of my knees). It would be great if you could do a post on how to resolve joint hyperextension! I’d love to see how I can improve that aspect of my practice 🙂

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    1. yogibattle Post author

      Thanks Jill! I’m working on it. Follow this blog and you will receive updates as they happen. You have a very inspiring FB page. My wife is a budding photographer 🙂

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  9. Abbey Hope

    When I first started practicing Iyengar yoga I had many chronic injuries, including two frequently painful and swollen knees. I thought I was working with straight legs, but after about three years I learned how to really lift my knee caps in all poses, and as I continued working like that my knees were healed. My legs had looked straight before, but I had to do a bit more and really lift the inner and outer knees.

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  10. Heather Haxo Phillips

    Thanks for your wonderful post. I always enjoy your blog. Your readers may be interested in Lois Steinberg’s book “Yoga for the Knees”. It is BRILLIANT and comprehensive – it includes important practices for healing the knees and they really work for any kind of knee problem, plus hip, low back and sacrum issues. She addresses hyper extension which is called “back knee” in medical terms. Hyper-extension is some sort of boogy-man that people fixate on and end up missing the real issues. I say this as a person who may would say “hyper-extends” but really I just hang in the back of my leg and don’t get the bottom and top of my legs integrated with each other. Straightening the legs has to include getting the inner/outer knee ligaments to open and get long. We often focus on the knee cap for beginners, cause they can feel it. But if are a seasoned practitioner and you want to truly straighten your legs you have to (1) learn to get the knee ligaments long and open – and not jam the knee cap back. You can also address the fears of hyper-extension by (2) not resting in your calves. The calves have to come forward and the thighs back so that the knee can be balanced between them. Even in the Iyengar community we have to learn to get the whole back of the leg open in the area of the knee ligaments (its in Lois book) and teach how to balance the shin/calf movement with the thigh/hamstring movement. If you do it properly, then the knee is open, straight and to some extent passive – its the quadracep lifting the “knee” not necessarily the knee lifting the knee.

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    1. yogibattle Post author

      Thanks Heather! Very humbled you read my blog. Lois was just in Honolulu, I wasn’t able to attend her workshop this year. Her books are treasures indeed.

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