There is an old Sufi story about philosopher-fool Jalaludin, who was looking for his house keys under a street light. Some of friends happened by and joined in the search. Finally, in exasperation, one of the friends asked Jalaludin where he thought he had lost the keys. Jalaludin pointed to a spot some distance away where it was extremely dark. But why are we searching here then? He was asked. He replied: Because it is so much easier to see under the light.
This story reveals a basic human tendency: to look where we want to instead of digging deeper to reveal the root of a problem. This is true of few yoga students who are trying to move deeper into their forward bends.
You attend lessons regularly, sometimes for years, practice at home, and make progress in most poses—except for forward bending. You seem to have cripple of steel! No matter how often or how long you practice, there doesn’t seem to be any change. One day when teaching, I realized that I was like Jalaludin. I was looking in the wrong place to find an answer for some students who, no matter how often or how long they practiced, did not experience any change in forward bending asans. I realized that, like the hamstrings, a group of muscles in the hip area—the external rotors—can interfere with the ability to bend forward.
Called the obturator externus and, gemellus, internus superior and inferior, piriformis, and quadratus femoris, these muscles are short, Very strong and broad.
While each of these muscles is an isolated structure, they function as one, working to externally rotate the femur (thigh), stabilize the pelvis during walking, and assist stabilize the pelvis and the femur together when you are standing on one leg. When you bend ahead, all of the muscles on the back side of your body must lengthen, including the rotators.
An extremely important rotator is the piriformis, which attaches to the sacrum and to the femur; the sciatic nerve passes right under this muscle. A tight piriformis can do more than just limit your forward bends.
Tight Rotator Troubles
When a tight piriformis presses down on the sciatic nerve, it can lead to “piriformis syndrome,” which creates a radiating pain in the buttocks, down the back of the thigh, into the foot and leg.
And if this rotator is specially tight, it can pull on the sacrum, affecting the functioning of the sacroiliac joint (the joint in the middle the sacrum and the pelvis). When the sacroiliac joint is dysfunctional, the lumbar (lower) spine can also be adversely affected.
So if your forward bends are restricted, or if you’re experiencing “piriformis syndrome,” it’s a good idea to continue to work on your hamstrings, but also comprise a few rotator stretches in your regular asana routine.
Walk the Walk
Walking has a stage called the swing stage in which you are, in effect, standing on one leg: One leg is the support leg and another is swinging forward but has not yet touched down. Because gravity tends to pull down on the pelvis, we need the activity of the rotators on the standing leg side to hold the head of the femur and the pelvis together in a steady position. Rotators tend to get tight when this action is exaggerated, like when you run or dance.
In order to understand this conception, try an experiment. Place your fingertips on the front of your pelvis, slightly to the side of the bony eminence called the ASIS (anterior superior iliac spine). Walk across the room and notice how these bony indicators are held virtually level in relationship to the floor—this is because the rotators are holding the pelvis stable while you’re walking.
Now, retain the hands as they are, raise the right leg in front of you as if you are about to take a step. Allow the left hip to shake to the left. The pelvis is now tipped downward on the right as the right rotators are relaxed. Place the right foot on the floor and try this examination on the other side.
Dancers and Prancers
Dancers and runners normally have tight rotators because they demand increased stability from these muscles. Dancers, for instance, need stable rotators when standing on one leg and lifting the other leg up in an arabesque. They might be quite flexible in other ways, but often have tight rotators.
For runners, the increased momentum linked with the forward movement of the legs places greater demands on the rotators to hold the pelvis level.
Try this: Stand up and put the feet a foot or so apart with the feet turned out as in second position in ballet. Orderly to turn the feet out when standing, you contract your external rotators to rotate the femur. If you hold them in this externally rotated situation as if they are tight, you will see how that interferes with forward bending. Hold the buttocks firm by pressing them together; try to bend forward. Even if you are supple, this will be difficult. If, on the other hand, you turn the thighs internal, stretching as opposed to contracting the rotators, this will facilitate forward bending.
Now turn the toes and thighs internal as much as possible. Imagine that you are pressing outward with the heels but actually keep the feet still as you bend. It will be much easier to bend forward with the legs and feet in this position. This is because the external rotators are being stretched and thus are interfering less with the forward movement of the pelvis over the thigh bones.
Baba Balaknath Temple Street
Upper Tapovan, Laxman Jhula Road
Rishikesh, Uttarakhand, India