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I igure 3.15. Single leglift. This posture is a safe hamstring stretch for the flexed thigh because the pelvis and lower bark are stabilized against the floor.

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What happens in single leglifts is that the psoas and iliacus muscles flex the hip while the quadriceps femoris muscle keeps the knee extended. The rectus femoris (the straight head of the quadriceps femoris) assists in hoth roles: it aids flexion of the hip because of its origin on the anterior inferior iliac spine, and it assists the rest of the quadriceps in keeping the knee extended (fig. 3.9). The posture itself creates the stable conditions that make single leglifts an easy exercise. First, the hamstring muscles of the side being lifted pull interiorly on the ischial tuberosity on that same side, which keeps the pelvis anchored in a slightly tucked position and the lumbar spine flattened against the floor, and second, keeping the opposite thigh and leg flat on the floor improves the stability of the pelvis and lumbar spine even more. The combination permits flexion of one thigh with little or no stress on the lower back.

the bicycle and other variations

To further prepare for more difficult yoga postures, and to get both lower extremities into the picture but still without placing a great deal more stress on the lower back than is occasioned by single leglifts, flex both knees, draw them toward the chest, and bicycle your feet around and around. Next, and a little harder, lower your feet closer to the floor and pump them back and forth horizontally. Intensifying even more, straighten your knees and press your feet toward the ceiling. This is easy if you have enough flexibility to keep your thighs and legs perpendicular to the floor. If you can't do that, bend your knees slightly, and from that position, keep one leg lifted and slowly lower the opposite foot to within an inch of the floor, straightening the knee on the way down; then raise it back up and repeat on the other side. Keeping one foot up while lowering and raising the other is almost as easy as keeping one leg flat on the floor. You can also create a scissoring motion, with the feet meeting midway or near the highest position. And any time you need to create less pull on the underside of the pelvis from the hamstrings, bend the knees.

When you do variations that arc more demanding than the simple bicycling motion, you'll find that your abdominal muscles tighten, increasing intraabdominal pressure and pressing the lower back against the floor in cooperation with the respiratory diaphragm. This assumes, of course, that your airway is open; if you lock it at the glottis, the diaphragm will remain relaxed and you will miss one of the main points of the exercise.

itje f ire exercise

As soon as you are comfortable doing single leglifts and their variations for minutes, you can try the fire exercise, named from its energizing effects on the body as a whole. To get in position for this one, sit on the t62 ANATOMY OF HATHA YOGA

floor, lean back, support yourself on the forearms, and place the hanc under the hips or slightly behind them, palms down, or up, if that feels easK Keeping the feet together, extend the toes, feet, and knees, and draw tl head forward while keeping the back rounded. Exhale, and at the same tin slowly lift the feet as high as possible, drawing the extended knees tow at I the head (fig. 3.16). Slowly come back down, not quite to the floor if yen strength permits. Come up and down as many times as you can witho. strain, inhaling as required and always breathing evenly. If coming all t way up and down is too difficult, simply tighten the muscles, lift the ft t an inch or so, and hold in that position isometrically. After a few days y> i may have enough strength to do the full exercise.

The fire exercise is intended for breath training as well as for buildi g abdominal strength, and if you watch your breathing carefully, you'll not e that the posture feels more powerful when you exhale. As is true for ma y day-to-day activities, inhalation is mostly a preparation for the in ten y associated with exhalation. In the case of the fire exercise, it's a matter if muscle mechanics: to support the posture efficiently with intra-abdomi il pressure, the diaphragm must be continuously active, and to do this it m st operate within a fairly narrow range with its muscle fibers moderat ly stretched and its dome high in the torso. For this reason you will find ye r-self exhaling almost as much as you can and taking small inhalations If you take a deep inhalation as an experiment, you will immediately sen? a loss of abdominal and diaphragmatic strength. As always for exercises si h as these, unless you are faced with an unexpected emergency keep the r-way open, supporting the posture only with hydraulic pressure in le abdominopelvic unit.

Figure 3.16. Fully lifted position for the fire exercise. Its key feature is that the back remains rounded posteriorly. An alternative and slightly easier hand position is to place them under the pelvis, palms up.


Like health club crunches, two features of this practice make the fire exercise sale: the back is rounded posteriorly, and the psoas muscles help lift the thighs from a stabilized origin on the inner curvature of the lumbar spine (fig. 3.16). tf you start with the back straight or less firmly rounded to the rear, the psoas muscles will destabilize the lumbar region by pulling it forward before they begin to flex the hips; this is fine if your back is strong and healthy, but too stressful if it is not.

You will immediately sense the difference between the straight and the curved-to-the-rear positions of the spine if you do the following experiment. First round your back and try the fire exercise in its standard form. Sense your stability. Then (provided your back is sound) try lifting your feet after lowering your head and shoulders to the rear and letting the lumbar region relax and come forward. The instability of the second starting position will shock you. The lesson: if you are unable to maintain a stabilized posterior curvature, don't do the fire exercise. Instead, work with crunches and the single leglift variations until you are strong enough to keep the back rounded to the rear.

THE basic supine double leglift

No matter what kind of leglift you try, if you do not do it whde keeping your lower back flattened against the floor in the supine position or rounded to the rear- when the head and upper back are lifted, it has to be considered an advanced practice. The supine double leglift is a case in point. Lying flat with the legs extended, a small amount of space will usually be found between the lumbar region and the floor, and if this is allowed to remain when the psoas muscles flex the thighs, those muscles will not be pulling from a stabilized lower back that is pressed to the rear, but from a wavering and inconstant lumbar lordosis. It is therefore essential, before starting the supine double leglift, to press this region to the floor with a posterior pelvic tilt and hold it there for the duration of the exercise.

To begin the supine double leglift, lie down with your thighs adducted, knees extended, feet and toes extended, and hands alongside the thighs, Palms down. Next, in order to establish enough intra-abdominal pressure t° dominate the lumbar region decisively, strongly engage the abdominal muscles along with the respiratory and pelvic diaphragms, and holding that position tenaciously, slowly lift the feet (by flexing the hips) as high as Possible (fig. 3.17) and then lower them to within an inch of the floor. Come UP and down for as many repetitions as you want, breathing evenly throughout the exercise.

Since the muscular leverage for pressing the lumbar region to the floor c°mes from the abdominal muscles, especially from the rectus abdominis, 'earning to activate those muscles is the most important part of the exercise.

If you cannot get the feel of tightening them when you are lying flat on t ,e floor, which is the case for most beginning students who have never b( n very athletic, lift your head and shoulders while holding your hai s against your abdomen for feedback—it is impossible to lift your upper b( y without engaging the abdominal muscles. Then try to generate that sa e feeling as a preparation for the leglift, but without lifting the upper boi

Double leglifts are difficult not only because they depend on stn ,g abdominal muscles that are acting in a manner to which they are not ace j-tomed, but also because the knees must be kept fully extended. To flex ie hips with the knees straight, a tremendous force has to be exerted on ie insertions of the iliopsoas muscles at the proximal (near) end of the fen ir, and this is like trying to lift a board by gripping it with your fingers at ie end. The rectus femoris muscles aid leglifts as synergists because they -e pulling from the front of the pelvis to their insertions on the fxitella (kneec p) instead of from the pelvis to the proximal portion of the femur, but e> n with help from these muscles, the exercise is still a test of strength >r many students. The endeavor is further complicated by the fact that ke > ing the knees straight during the leglift stretches the hamstring muse s, which are antagonists to the iliacus, psoas, and rectus femoris muse s. That stops a lot of people in a hurry.

training alternatives

There arc fewer sights more unnerving to a yoga instructor than watel lg a group of beginners struggle with double leglifts, permitting their lum ir regions to lift off the floor as they start to raise their feet, and at the s; ie time holding their breath at the glottis. If you are teaching a class in wl h

Figure 3.17. End position for the supine double leglift. The key requirement of this posture is to actively keep the lower back flattened against the floor using the abdominal muscles.


ggveral people are struggling, you should stop everything and demonstrate the proper technique. Tiy this: Lie down and ask two volunteers, one on either side of you, to press their right hands against your abdominal wall and place their left hands under your lower back. Then tighten your abdominal muscles. This will push their right hands toward the ceiling, and at the same time it will flatten your lumbar region to the floor against their left hands. Then do a double lift showing first how the lower back should be kept down, and second, letting it lift inappropriately away from the floor. Keep up a stream of conversation to prove that you are supporting the effort with your diaphragm and not holding your breath.

If students have the knack but not the strength to keep their backs against the floor during the double leglift (which is very common), another trick is to try this exercise: before beginning the lift tell them to bend the knees enough to raise the thighs to a 30-45° angle, then lift the feet off the floor and straighten the knees. This will make it easier to keep the back against the floor and make it possible to complete the leglift properly from the higher angle. They should come partially down in the same way, being sensitive to when they can no longer keep their back braced against the floor, at which time they should bend their knees and either lift back up or come all the way down.


The respective natures of the chest and the abdominopelvic regions of the torso are very different from one another: the abdominopelvic cavity is like an oblong rubbery egg filled with water, and the egg is topped by a cage of bone filled with air. Everyone doing leglilts should increase pressure only in the egg. You will have to squeeze down from above with the respiratory diaphragm, up from below with the pelvic diaphragm, and in with the abdominal muscles. To maintain this pressure the respiratory diaphragm has to be strong enough during both inhalation and exhalation to counteract the effects of the abdominal muscles, and this effort must be sustained throughout the exercise. So when do we breathe? All the time. And how? It depends. If you have excellent hip flexibility, you will be able to lift the thighs 90°, exhaling as you lift, and when you have reached that position you can relax and breathe any way you want. But if your hip flexibility is '■mited, and if you have to keep working against tight hamstring muscles even 'n the up position, your breathing will be intense and focused on exhalation all the time. You will be taking tiny inhalations whenever you can.

You can take breathing one step further and intensify the energizing effect of leglifting exercises, as well as their difficulty, by keeping as much iUr out of the lungs as possible, exhaling all the way to your residual volume a,u' then taking small inhalations. If your residual volume is 1,200 ml, you

might breathe in and out a tidal volume between 1,200 ml and 1,400 | instead of between 1.400 ml and 1,600 ml, which approximates what woi i be most natural in the active stages of double leglifts (fig. 3.18). Breathi 1 this way is more difficult because the already hard-working abdomii muscles (especially the rectus abdominis) now have to work even harder j keep air out of the lungs.

the superfish leg lift

We have seen that the lumbar region can be stabilized for leglifts either ty rounding it posteriorly as in crunches or the fire exercise, or by keeping I flattened against the floor. But anyone with a sound back can also y leglifting with the lumbar region stabilized in an arched forward positii . This is a variation of the fish posture (figs. 3.19a. 5.28, and 9.19)—a post e I'm calling a superfish leglift (fig 3.19b).

To do this posture place your palms up under the hips, stretch your f> >t out in front, and support all or most of your weight on your forearms. t your head barely touch the floor. Now arch up maximally by lifting e chest and abdomen into the most extreme possible position. This 11 stabilize the lumbar arch (fig. 3.19a). Then keeping the feet together. ; d the toes, feet, and knees extended, slowly raise the heels away from le

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