Malasana Deconstructed

The other day when I was teaching in class, it was voiced to me that some students had pain in their shins during malasana.  This is something totally new and unfamiliar to me so I spent some time looking into it.

Malasana is “garland pose” (mala= garland, asana=pose) or “yogic squat.”

You move the heels out slightly wider than hip width apart and “squat” down so your posterior sits in between your legs.

Once you’re there, you can press the inner edges of your arms on the inside of your legs to help deepen the stretch in the hips.

What this means is, your knees bend forward to allow the hips to descend backward and allow you to stay in the center– in balance (between two opposing-forward and backward- motions).  Anytime you shift weight forward onto your feet (for example ardha uttanasana where you’re back is flat and you’re half-way up) your hips shift backward as a counter-balance.  If you’re squatting, the same action happens to create balance.  If the point of compression or range of motion in the foot prevents the bend in the knees to shift the hips backward as far as they need to go, you will be unable to balance with the feet flat on the floor.

Put differently: There is a certain angle of the foot (top of the foot and bottom of the shin bone) that you need to allow this counter balance (between hips and knees) to happen.  The less your range of motion in the front of the foot is, the harder it is to bend the knees (while keeping the heel flat on the floor) to get the hips where they need to be for balance purposes.

So ideally the heels would be flat on the floor but…

There are some anatomical limitations that can cause pain in the shins, prevent the heels from reaching the floor or stress the Achilles Tendon in the heel that are not related to tightness in the hips, thighs, calves, or musculature in general.  These are physiological challenges that won’t change no matter how “open” you become in other areas of your body.

While there are simple remedies for the heels popping off the floor to help alleviate the pain in malasana, not all practitioners of yoga want to shove a blanket or block under their heels during the flow of class.  This is completely understandable so to better make a decision on whether or not you choose to modify the placement of your feet or use props, understanding what is happening anatomically will help make sense of your experience and allow you to make a more informed decision.

Your ankle is designed for flexion (in this case dorsi-flexion) which means that the foot flexes upward toward your shin.  In some people, this range of motion is limited which causes the tibia (shin bone) to compress with the talus (foot bone) also called the point of compression.  This happens in everyone to varying degrees which is why some people can squat low with no pain and others have a challenging experience causing pain in the shins.  This is completely normal– it’s simply the way that the body is made and yoga will not change the range of motion and point of compression (where the bones collide and motion is impeded).

In the case that your point of compression is met, there are the options of props and a few modifications in the placement of the feet.

Modifying With Props
Props– enhancements— for your practice can be helpful but there are many mixed opinions on the matter. I don’t think it makes a difference if you use a block under your heels in malasana because the pose should be accessible to all regardless of anatomy and in my opinion, the energy of the pose is just as great as the physical benefit.  Alternate opinions (like from Leslie Kaminoff, author of Yoga Anatomy) say that props can prevent the foot from using its muscles most efficiently and effectively:

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.

If you are practicing most other yoga poses without a prop, this should not present a problem. You will get more stabilizing in the foot muscles from balancing postures and other standing (or squatting) poses that for one pose the difference is not going to detract from your practice.  Using something under your heels will help you to balance in the pose and even get deeper into flexibility where you were anatomically restricted before. However, it’s completely understandable if you would like to avoid anything that might lessen the extent of your practice strength wise.

Turning the Toes Outward
Instead of trying to get the inside edges of the feet parallel, increasing the angle of the toes can help to increase the bend in the knee while working with the limitation in the ankle compression point.  The hips are able to descend lower with the knees angled out toward the sides creating the same motions of balance-counter balance in the unmodified squat described above.

The benefit of this modification is that your feet are flat on the ground allowing for an easier time balancing.  The stretch is slightly different but you will still receive the benefits of elongating the spine and opening the hips.

Lifting the Heels
You can do the malasana pose the “typical” way it’s instructed in class but instead of trying to get the heels to come to the floor (or the floor to come to your heels with a prop), you will just lift your heels up once you hit the point of compression.  This requires more strength and stabilizing muscle in the feet but it will allow for the hips to descend enough, the knees to bend enough and you will get the spinal elongation without the pain in the shins.

The benefit in this modification is that in a class moving quickly through this posture, you don’t need to use clumsy props and the benefits of the posture will be the same as an unmodified malasana.
The pain in the shins comes from the bones colliding together, in case that wasn’t already clear, and the message of the nerves that there is intense pain and to back out.  Tightness would feel more like an intensity short of pain, compression would be shooting pain.  There should be no pain in the front of the shin bones from doing the pose– in fact malasana should feel great for the spine and hips (it’s intense for the hips, but a good intensity).  If it doesn’t, please let the instructor know and if your instructor isn’t knowledgeable enough to address your concerns adequately, perhaps refrain from doing the pose entirely until you can get an intelligent answer.

A teacher that doesn’t understand the basics of anatomy might try to force your heel to the ground so it’s important to speak up and let your instructor know that you’re experiencing pain or that you’re anatomically going to be unable to do this.  Many instructors don’t have the training to let them know this is possible– while this may be irresponsible on their behalf, it can help save many other students grief by sharing this knowledge with them.

And lest any of us yoga practitioners forget: ALL YOGA IS GREAT YOGA!  It doesn’t matter if point of compression creates a challenge in malasana (or in the case of some, in utkatasana as well).  This is simply the way your body is shaped and to honor that is the point of yoga as the 8-limbed path/lifestyle.

Finally, I received much insight for this post from the following sites and resources:
Debbie Daly Yoga
Paul Grilley Assessing Range of Motion in Squatting Poses

 

Squattingly,

Sarah

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