Paul Grilley - Yoga Anatomy. Four Myths & One Truth.

While assisting Paul & Suzee Grilley in their Yin Yoga teacher training in Mexico 2015, Markus spoke with his mentor Paul about myths in yoga anatomy.

Paul & Suzee Grilley with Markus Henning Giess

TRUTH #1 – The front leg in pigeon pose should be at a 90° angle with the front foot flexed.

M: Why are we told that the safest position for the knee in pigeon pose is to have a 90° angle of the front leg combined with a flexed foot?

P: Because the angle of the torque on the foot is just going straight up and is only trying to twist the femur.  At a different angle of the foot, the lateral toe or the heel of the foot strikes the ground and is twisted.  So 90° has minimal torque to the tibia and has maximum torque on the hip socket.

M: So would you say that flexing the foot stabilises the knee?

P: Yes, exactly.  By flexing the foot, we are attempting to minimise the torque on the tibia in a certain direction, which can cause the knee to twist causing discomfort for some people.   

Note #1 from M: Despite stabilising the knee through flexion of the foot, we need to be careful how much pressure we place on our knee, particularly when we are aware that we do not have enough external rotation of the femur/hip socket, to sit comfortably in swan, pigeon, square pose, lotus or cross legged.  When there is not “enough” external rotation due to our individual bone structure, it is recommended to start in deer position before attempting swan or pigeon pose.  We position the front leg and knee on the ground and flex the front foot.  Only then, would we “internally” rotate the hip  (external rotation of the femur) until we feel a comfortable glut stretch.  Then the stimulation that we achieve in this pose through functional yoga is perfect, despite how the pose may look.

Note #2 from M: According to Paul Grilley, the two safest positions for the knee in swan or pigeon, is to either bring the tibia of the front leg directly underneath us (no rotation) or to open the leg to a 90° angle (least torsion).  All other angles between these two positions result in an increased torsion on the knee.

Note #3 from M: Paul Grilley and yoga anatomy teacher David Keil have stated in several instances that the yoga student should experiment for themselves if flexing the foot helps or not.  Both believe that what may help someone may not necessarily help another.  Paul backs this theory time and time again through his various skeletal variation tests that he conducts in his training programs along with statistics of these experiements, with often surprising results. 

Myth #1 – Hyperextension is dangerous in yoga!

M: What does hyperextension mean to you and is it dangerous when practicing yoga?

P: Hyperextension is due to the shape of your bones.  That is the most important thing to consider.  It is not due to a deformity of the joint.  The common conception of hyperextension is that you did something wrong to your joints and that’s why it looks like that.  That is a wrong conception. 

It is not wrong to be 5’6”.  It is not wrong to be 5’ 11”.  It's just how it is.  The ability to hyperextend can not be developed, not by intention, not by accident.  All you would do is break your bones or ruin your joint.

Hyperextension is not a deformity!  It is the predisposition of the bone, the way the bones are shaped.

Whether it’s dangerous in yoga, is just like with anything else, it depends on whether there is movement involved or not.  

As soon as there’s movement involved there is always a possibility of much more stress on the joint.  For instance, you could very easily straighten your arms in seal pose with hyperextension and it would be no problem, but you wouldn’t want to fall with your arms straight.  That would be true of any joint. 

So it depends whether or not you are doing yang yoga and you’re moving, bearing weight or whether you are just being still.

Yang Yoga – weight bearing, repetitive, rhythmic movement.
Yin Yoga – gentle slow movement to complete stillness.

Two very different concepts that we need to differentiate.

It’s conceivable that someone standing on one leg, bearing a lot of weight with hyperextension may not like the feeling at the back of their knee. That same person sitting down, doing a forward bend hyperextending their knee to bring their toes up isn’t bearing weight and isn’t moving and is completely safe.

Myth #2 – Yin yoga should be always practiced cold. 

M:  One of the most common questions asked by yin yogis – should we practice yin yoga warm or cold.  Should we warm up beforehand or not?  What happens within the tissues when we practice warm or cold?

P: For the tissues of our body, it only makes a difference at the beginning of the practice. 

If you practice long enough it won’t matter where you started.  If you started hot and sweaty, 90 minutes later you are going to be relaxed and cool.  If you started completely stiff and cold, 90 minutes later you are going to be relaxed and be at the same body temperature as the guy who started hot.

So it will make a difference whether you were hot or cold in the first 5 -15 minutes but 30 / 60 / 90 minutes later - it really doesn’t matter how you started.  At the end point, the effect on the tissues will be the same.  

However, it will feel different for each student if they start practicing warm or cold.  It’s very personal and they will have their preference, dependent on their own subjective experience.

The comment that I would offer that I think is important is that when you are cold, you can feel the transition in your body more and I think that leads to better introspection and learning and feeling the energy in your body.

When you are really hot, you sort of flop into a pose, but when you are cold you kind of got to go “oh, my back….oh, I never felt that before”. 

When you’re cold, you have to wait for that tissue to change, you have to stay focused  “wow, it’s changing” and I think being aware when it changes, draws your awareness inwards and makes you feel the energy change in your body. 

So even if at the end point, 75 minutes after you start, both these guys are at the same temperature and they are both doing the same amount of stretch, the guy who was cold, probably felt the energy change in his body at several stages that he’s going to have a deeper sense of “oh, if I relax and breathe this way it goes faster.  If I relax this way and breathe it goes faster this way” because he had to work through it slowly and patiently.  Whereas the other guy just flopped forward, he’s done. 

So there are a lot of elements to consider that are more important then who stretched further.

M:  Do you think it makes a difference if you practice cold or warm in relation to the stress level on the joints?

P:  It doesn’t make much difference.  You have to take into account their innate flexibility differences.  If I am a gumbie (a super flexible person) I don’t need any warm up and can probably stretch further then someone who does warm up.  

And whoever stretches further is going to “stretch the joints” further within his range of motion.

Note #4 from M: In Yin Yoga, there are very few definitive rules on how to practice or more importantly, how to practice “correctly”!  And in this case with yin yoga and anatomy, we would probably answer like a scientist: It depends!

There are physical, mental and energetic benefits to practice cold!
There are physical, mental and energetic benefits to practice warm!

In this instance, who am I, as the teacher to decide what is right for you?
As good teachers, we can only offer suggestions.

Myths #3 – Do not do a forward bend directly after a backbend!

M: Some people say that you shouldn’t do a backbend after a forward bend. 

P: Like surya namaskar?  Every movement of surya namaskar is designed to alternate forward and backward bends.  Every yoga book written before 1975 – 1980 said be sure to alternate between forward and backbends to not overstretch in one direction too much.

So when did that changed I have no idea.  But in the old days surya namaskar was considered the epitome – bend forward and then counter it the other way.  So when did that’s what you should do, become the wrong thing to do? 

There are so many yoga anatomy mythologies of what’s safe and not safe.

In everyday life we are constantly bending forward and backwards.  We bend forward to tie our shoes and then we stand up.  We’ve done a forward bend and a backbend.  We can’t bend over without rounding your spine and as soon as we stand up, we are in a lumbar curve again.  So what should we do?  Bend over and stay bent over?  For how long?  It’s nonsensical. 

M: Are there any other yoga anatomy myths, that are nonsensical to you?

P:  Oh, I could spend all day talking about things that don’t make any sense - that are inconsistent just in their status!

M:  Like – knee over the ankle?

Myth #4 – The knee should never bend over and past the ankle eg. in warrior

P: Yes, exactly.  Let’s examine the knee over the ankle.  Every time you go up or down stairs the knee is over the ankle. 

People say how healthy it is to squat.  We can’t squat unless your knee goes over our ankle.   We can’t run unless our knee goes over our ankle.  Try yourself to jog without bringing your knee past your ankle.  Or try picking up something from the ground without bending the knee way past your foot!  Good luck!

We can’t live a normal life without our knee going over our ankle and if our exercise is designed to improve how we live, then it seems to me, we should train to put our knee over our ankle in a controlled environment so that when we are out here in every day life walking, running, climbing stairs or even just picking up something from the ground, our body has a habit of knowing how to put the knee over the ankle.

That’s how yoga can help create more stability and strength in every day life.

M: So where do these mythologies come from?

P: (grinning) I suspect, it comes from someone who is talking about Olympic weightlifters throwing 200kg over their head and coming down in a fast squat and saying it might be bad for you.  And from that, they extrapolate “don’t put your knee over your ankle”.

Note #5 from M: Sports medicine has had a large influence on yoga in the last decades. Recommendations from sports medicine experts have been taken seriously but not always correctly translated to the yoga world.

What’s nonsensical about it, is even in the yoga world, if you look at different books and different styles of yoga some put their knee over their ankle and some don’t.  So who is the God who said “Don’t put your knee over your ankle”?  There is no definitive rule.

The misconceptions in yoga are immense, but that is to be expected because so many people practice it and do it and when you have many, many, many, many people doing something, they bring with it their own folklore, their own beliefs that they learnt from their grandmother and they never questioned.  So the more people you have practicing something, the more folklore you have being brought into the system. 

So I think all these mythologies are always going to grow with the number of people who practice and teach yoga because they come with their own background.  Which is where science really helps clear things up because the idea of science is “lets test these folklores, let’s test these theories”.  And that is why we use tests in our class.

M:  And that’s why I love your statistics and scientific approach in your teacher training!

P:  Yes!  I love the scientific approach too.  (both laugh)

M: Thank you for the interview.  It’s always a pleasure.

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