Anatomy of the Squat
by Debbie Daly
If your heels don't touch the floor in your Yoga Squat, you've likely been approached by more than one well-meaning yoga teacher who is eager to roll a blanket and stick it under your heels. Maybe you've been told your ankles or hips will open up over time.
But what if you've been doing yoga for years, and nothing has changed? Here's the big news: the inability of the heels to stay on the ground often has nothing to do with tightness in your muscles or tendons, and instead might be a problem of physics and leverage, due to the architecture of the bones of your ankles.
The Yoga Squat, also called Malasana, can be a wonderful pose for anybody, but the misunderstanding about foot and heel positioning is widespread. In a Yoga Journal article about squatting, Marla Apt tells readers to squat with their feet together and heels on the floor. “If you are tight in your hips, groins, calves, and Achilles tendons, your heels may not reach the floor,” she says. While her advice might be true for beginners, if you've done yoga for more than a year or two without improvement, you are most likely dealing with a different problem.
Leslie Kaminoff explains the real issue at hand, as he investigates squat pose in his nicely illustrated book, Yoga Anatomy:
"The inability to dorsiflex the ankle deeply enough to keep the heels on the floor can be due to shortness in the Achilles tendon; however, restriction can also be in the front of the ankle. A quick fix is available by using support under the heels, but it's important not to become too reliant on it, because it will prevent activation of the intrinsic muscles of the feet, which stabilizes the arches, allows deeper flexion in the ankle, and aligns the bones of the foot and knee joint."
I found the holy grail on this issue when Paul Grilley came to my studio for a yoga anatomy workshop. Paul has become well-known for bringing light to the variations in human anatomy and how they affect our yoga practice. Years of frustration melted away as I listened to Paul describe what he calls the Principle of Counterbalance, which states that the real problem is one of balance and leverage.
Debbie's descent from Utkatasana to Squat. The green plumb lines show my center of gravity.
LEFT: Leaning my torso forward and turning my toes out slightly, I can bend just this much; however, I'm seriously stuck here.
MIDDLE: Lifting my heels up partially, I can begin to descend.
RIGHT: Lifting my heels farther, I can approach a squat. Notice my ankles are compressed at the same 90 degree angle through every phase of this. My restriction happens to be right at 90 degrees - but it's different for everyone. Note: I've been doing yoga for 19 years, and my ankles have never made it past the 90 degrees shown. Despite this restriction, I LOVE to squat - it feels great in my spine and hips, and there's absolutely nothing wrong with lifting my heels to make the pose possible.
In squat, here’s what happens in most ankles with limited range of motion: First, the shin bone (the tibia) collides with the topmost foot bone (the talus) when the ankle is bent. This happens at a different angle for different students. If the angle at which this collision happens is not very generous, the knees will not be able to bend forward much unless the heels are allowed to lift from the ground. If the heels are forced to stay down, the knees can't bend and the butt can't go back. The person will intuitively want to lean their upper body forward to counteract the danger of falling backward. At this point, if she hasn't been kicked out of class yet, our fine subject is probably doing some pitiful-looking version of utkatasana - not quite far enough to even be called a squat yet. But if her heels are allowed to lift, the magic happens - her knees will bend farther, her hips will be able to flex, and suddenly she can squat.
But her heels are hovering, which is a no-no.
I'd estimate that about half of us have ankle limitations that compromise our squats and other postures, just based on observing students in my classes. The student will not feel a strong stretch in the Achilles tendon, but will feel certain that their ankles have gone as far as they’re willing to go. The term for this bone-on-bone limitation is called compression. Compression occurs in all joints - it’s the reason our knees only bend front-to-back and not side-to-side. Compression determines the range-of-motion in most joints and varies from one person to the next.
I’ve done yoga with limited ankles for years. In my Pre-Grilley years, the standard Malasana squat was on my list of Most Hated Poses. But these days, I absolutely love to squat. If you and your limited ankles are ready for love too, here are some suggestions.
Other postures affected by ankle limitations
In the pose shown, this is as far as I can squat without lifting my heels from the ground. Seriously, I'm not exaggerating. My toes are even trying to creep outward and I'm straining to stop them. The dumb expression on my face reveals how pointless this pose feels to me. And where do I feel it? Is there a stretch in my hamstrings? Hips? Knees? Am I just stupid? Perhaps, but I know one thing - I feel this pose entirely in my feet and in my ankles, which stay at 90 degrees because of bone-on-bone compression. This prevents my knees from going any farther forward, which in turn makes it impossible to bend at the hips more without the weight of my torso causing me to fall backward (the Principle of Counterbalance).
You've heard it before: "With enough practice, your heels will touch the ground." Nineteen years of yoga, and I'm still counting. It has nothing to do with tight hamstrings or calves. Let thy heels hover.
Revolved triangle and revolved side-angle
If you force the heel of your back foot to stay on the ground in the standard alignment, there are two things that restricted ankles might cause:
1) The toes of your back foot will go more sideways than forward, and all of your teachers will try to correct this. After 6-12 months of this, your teachers may gently begin to wonder if you have hearing loss or learning problems.
2) The twist in the upper body will also be harder for you, because your back leg is forced into external rotation, which locks the hips, pelvis and lower spine away from the direction of the twist. There will be more demand on the middle and upper back to twist enough to achieve popular arm positions. Good luck with that! Or, if you just allow your back heel to lift... the kingdom of parivrtti is yours. Put it down when the teacher walks by.
Why this is important
Beating yourself up about your inability to do a certain posture is not what yoga is about. The art of Yoga involves getting to know your body, learning to appreciate its abilities *and* honoring its limitations. Most experienced yogis reach a point at which they’ve been doing yoga for a few years, and the same problem persists in a certain posture with no improvement. At this point, it often means tightness in your muscles is not causing the problem - instead, you're fighting with your own skeletal structure.
As someone with many such bodily quirks, about five years into my yoga practice, I began to learn that my yoga teachers often didn’t know nearly as much as I did about my own body. I was ready to quit yoga numerous times, tired of the infuriating, misinformed "universal" alignment instructions that pervade yoga culture. But in many ways, this was where my yoga - and my best teaching - began. My own practice has evolved that is unlike anybody else's - a practice that is uniquely suited to my own body. My teaching has matured as I've learned to accept the fact that I can't really know what a student is feeling, and that their wild and weird variations could very well be an expression of a highly evolved, or deeply intuitive, sense of their own body.
So how to squat? How to teach it? I don't know. Can I tell by looking at a squat-challenged student if the problem is their ankles, knees or hips? No, I can't. What's important to know is that yoga teachers can do a great service to their ankle-challenged students if we cultivate alignment language that is less concerned with how the feet look, and more concerned with what we want students to feel, whether it's to stretch the low back and hips, to fire-up the quads, or something else.
Novice squatters are encouraged to find their own functional variations of foot positioning so they can enjoy this wonderful position without feelings of frustration and incompetence. If you come up with anything I haven't mentioned, drop me a note or send me a picture!
If you want to learn more, I highly recommend the DVD Anatomy for Yoga with Paul Grilley.
For more information on the Principle of Counterbalance, read the following article:
Assessing Range of Motion in Squatting Poses by Paul Grilley
Hold on to something
Take that pesky gravity thing out of the equation. Get better acquainted with the furniture, doorknobs, pillars and people around you. Feels great!
Prop something under your heels
It's not a carnal sin to squat with your heels hovering above the ground. However you might enjoy using a prop under your heels, which can enable you to rest back into your booty a little more. A rolled or folded blanket works. I prefer the mat because it's firmer, which makes me feel more confident as I lean back toward the unknown. In a flow sequence it can be awkward to halt the flow to arrange a prop, so in classes I only suggest propping the heels if we're planning to be in the pose for more than 60 seconds.
LEAN AGAINST A WALL
Defy the laws of physics by doing it with your hips and back against a wall. The wall keeps you from falling backward and enables the heels to reach the ground. I've also turned my toes out here, which is optional.
Let thy heels hover
For practical purposes, this is the squat that I do most often. My squats usually happen as part of a flowing sequence, so I rarely feel like disrupting the flow by moving to the wall or folding a blanket. Just press down through your heels as far as they'll go before losing your balance. This variation still gives all the benefits of the pose - elongation of the spine, stretching of the sacroiliac region, and stretching of the knees, hips, Achilles tendons, and the soles of the feet.
Widen your knees and feet
Another alternative, which also helps the heels stay down, is to take a wider stance and turn the toes out to the side. The posture is Goddess-like, and it’s a common variation that’s often used by pregnant women. In the picture, notice how the 90-degree ankle angle persists. Why does this work? When my knees go out to the sides rather than forward, my butt can go straight down rather than back, so I can maintain my center of gravity. This variation doesn't stretch my lower back, but still feels really good. Note: not everyone has the bones to externally rotate their legs like this.
Squat outdoors on a hill
My absolute favorite variation. Find just the right little hillside, stand with downward-facing toes, and drop your booty down. Heavenly!
Share your Squat!
Send your squat photos to firstname.lastname@example.org