I posted a picture on instagram in Dhurvasana, a leg-behind-the-head posture of Ashtanga’s third series. The picture (see the same picture in the header of this article) shows quite nicely the external rotation that needs to happen in this asana and any posture where the leg should stay behind the back, supported by a strong spine.
As I go on in my post, “the key to any leg behind the head posture is hip rotation, not hamstring flexibility.
If you cannot rotate in the hip, become aware of what is stopping you:
- the shape of the head of your femur and your hip causing bone on bone compression or
- a part of the connective tissue and muscles around your hip restricting the movement”
Now the question that I got was “If it’s the shape of the hip/bone (that is stopping me), is there hope of ever getting there?”
What is stopping you? – Compression or Tension?
Bernie Clarke centers his great new anatomy book Your Body, Your Yoga: Learn Alignment Cues That are Skillful, Safe, and Best Suited to You (affiliate link) around the question of “What is stopping you?” in yoga postures. About Dwipadasirsasana (another leg-behind-the-head posture) he writes: “Most people will be unable to achieve this position due to compression in their hip socket or tension in the capsular ligaments, not because of tension in their muscles.”
The distinction between tension (of muscles) and compression (mainly bones hitting other bones or tissues) is very important. Because “once you have reached compression, which is dictated by the structure of your bones, more yoga will not open you up any further. Trying to go past the point of final compression is inviting injury, not further progress.” (Bernie Clarke, Your body Your Yoga, pg. 17.)
But still you might ask: “Is there hope?”
If you look at a specific joint and two bones hitting each other, there is no way to go further – so no hope.
In our example of putting the leg behind your head, if your hip joint is not allowing more rotation due to the shape of the head of the femur and the shape of the acetabulum, that’s your final range of motion.
But a yoga posture is never depending on one joint only. It’s always the body as a whole that is taking the shape on an asana. So here are a couple of things to look at when the hip joint itself seems stuck:
- The entire spine is mildly flexing forward while we stabilize it by creating length and support along the spine. The longer your spine and the more flexion one can allow while maintaining the structural support, the less external hip rotation is needed.
- The pelvis is tilting anteriorly, the more it can do so, the less rotation in the hip joint is necessary.
- The hip joint is surrounded by plenty of connective tissue, ligaments, tendons, fascia, and muscles fibers. The joint itself is able to flex and extend, abduct and adduct, rotate internally and externally. to get the leg behind the head, it needs to abduct & externally rotate, then extend, rotate further, adduct a bit back, abduct, rotate, adduct… etc.
My point is simply that there are many micro-movements happening on the way, that might even be different for every practitioner. Sometimes there might be compression of hard tissues, which can be circumnavigated with a couple of micro-movements. There is no direct way into leg-behind-the head. Small circular movements are key. The hip joint is quite stubborn for the first couple of years of attempting these postures. So be patient and work with a compassionate teacher.
- Connective tissue – especially fascia – is connecting your whole body. The whole body is working to be in balance. If there is a particular alignment in one body part, other body parts are going “out of their way” to balance the whole – oftentimes completely unconscious patterns arise.
As a Ashtanga teacher I have seen practitioners over time changing their bodies and opening up in ways I would not have considered possible before.
This doesn’t help with bone on bone compression, but should simply point out that we shouldn’t miss the forrest for the trees when looking at the body. Giving the mind a reason why an asana is not happening might be satisfying, but also might alienate us from the present moment, the feelings we are receiving from our body and the surrendering to what is instead of asking what can or cannot be. Years of daily practice might loosen up these fixed patterns and allow new ranges of motion and circumnavigations around compressed areas (see point 3). The bones would still compress going the old “route”, but now a new path has opened up and the asana as a whole becomes possible.
Given all four points, I would suggest that – yes – there is hope.