Semimembranosus, Semitendinosus, Suzie, Six Days

Something’s going on with the hip flexors. What, exactly? I have no idea. It all started when I read something I’m sure I’ve read before, and did something I’m sure I’ve done before — but finally it all came together and the sum yielded more than the parts. In other words, I moved the stress of urdhva dhanurasana to the right part of my hamstrings. Specifically, I finally keyed in on the semimembranosus and the semitendinosus. I’m a geek, I know: my body doesn’t work until I figure out what muscle to move, how to spell it, where it’s located, and how it functions in relation to the other muscles.

The rocking part about the semimembranosus and semitendinosus, though, is that they help rotate the knee in, whereas using the butt and biceps femoris to push into the pose makes your knees splay out.

I blame all of this inclination to use the biceps femoris on decades of weight-lifting. Of course you can’t totally isolate muscles, so it’s not like I only used the biceps femoris (to the exclusion of the semimembranosus and semitendinosus) for all those years, but if you think about doing, say, a prone hamstring curl, it’s easy to see that you can spend the bulk of your time working the belly of the muscle. And that’s the whole point, really, from a bodybuilding perspective — because you want to focus on the bigger muscles, not the smaller, in order to get more bang for the buck. Weightlifting machines tend to isolate specific muscles, which is why I always tried to default to free-weight exercises that required supporting muscles to kick in, but even as I think back to stiff-legged deadlifts, I know I tended to toe out a little, which is very effective for pushing all of the stress into the biceps femoris.

Okay, enough of the nerdiness. Suffice it to say that if you move the stress of urdhva d from the hamstring belly to the inner heads of the hamstring, you get a hell of a lot more lift.

We had a visitor the past couple of days at Mysore practice: Suzie Columbus, of the ezBoard, came and practiced with us. It is such a trip to practice with online people. She won’t be here over the weekend, which is a drag, ’cause it would have been great to go out for lunch after led practice on Saturday. Maybe next time.

Meanwhile, back on ezBoard, I’ve been asking about peoples’ experiences with the 6 day practice. I guess I am harkening back to my gym days, because I have been wondering about the physical effects of the same practice six days in a row, week after week. I know it brings “progress” (i.e., “getting” poses), and I know it has a very calming effect on the mind. But I am curious about its specific effects on the body. Vanessa said: “by practicing before ingesting food, and practicing daily, the muscles stay small-ish (I think it is due to a process called gluconeogenesis, but I hesitate to write more because I really am not an expert) and the body fat stays low.” I think this is a really interesting idea. I’ve always done practices where the idea is to break down the muscle with intense practice, then rest it so it can rebuild and be stronger. Vanessa’s theory posits a whole different purpose for the physical practice.

Just something I’ve been thinking about. Jason S also had some interesting things to say on the subject. I’m happy to see him back on ezBoard.

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28 Responses

  1. Karen, it was such a trip to practice with you, VBG, Barbara, et al. too! Although those dtropbacks were insane. Definitely lunch next time.

  2. What part of the dropbacks was insane? LOL! I get a kick out of them, but they seem like a big mountain at the end of a long practice, don’t they?

  3. Not wanting to sound too stupid, especially after you posted the explanatory links, but could you describe in layperson’s terms just where you are focusing your attention in the hamstrings? I don’t understand moving the stress “from the hamstring belly to the inner heads of the hamstring.” Maybe it’s too specific to describe in simple language, though? (I need all the help I can get with urdhva dhanurasana.) Do you mean move the stress from the middle of the hamstrings to the inner edges? Or is that me misunderstanding? It would be helpful if I understood all the muscles and how they work, like you do.

    One thing I do know is Richard Freeman once told me to stop gripping my butt muscles in this pose, which did help some with the knee splaying.

    I like the dropbacks, too, but they do come at such a difficult time energy-wise! (As in it’s all gone.)
    🙂

  4. i don’t think needing to know the muscles is geeky. i do much better knowing exactly what muscles i need to engage or let go of in poses. yogamummy on EZboard gave some great advice when she said to turn the heals way out and then real anchor them into the ground as you lift up. i don’t know if this is what DZM is talking about. but for me it really helps take the pose out of the lateral hamstring (biceps femoris) and the glutes, and into the medial hamstrings (the semi-muscles) and helps turn the knees in. what i have also found my doing this is that i am able to pull upward from my pelvic region more, opening the hip flexors more.

  5. hmmm, this is interesting Tova. One thing I learned from Richard Freeman was to lift my heels up off the floor and push way upward before lifting up into backbend, lowering my heels after I’m up. I have found this really, really helps me. (Maybe DZM, being a body-part expert, would be able to say what the two different approaches offer, since both seem to help in some way.) Also, I usually do the RF method for the first two to three backbends, to help ease my body into them, and then keep my heels down for the remaining. Turning the heels out definitely seems to help, too.

  6. Karen, when VBG plus a helper put me into dropbacks, both my lower back and my shoulders bent further than they ever have before! No soreness today though thankfully.

  7. Oh boy, I’m definitely not a body-part expert. Except for the gym-rat parts, and that’s a really limited perspective. I’m willing to take a stab at the question, though, as a total non-expert. Yes, the hamstring thing is about moving the stress more to the inner edges, and yes, turning your toes in helps that happen. As far as going up on your toes goes, it definitely makes the pose feel better, and it’s not contradictory to the medial-hamstrings thing. That said, it is possible to rise up on your toes and then default to using the hamstring bellies and your butt. In this case, you’ll be better off for rising up, but not getting all the delightfulness of the medial hamstring thing. Either one is good, but both together are better!

    You can feel the hamstring thing by sitting in a chair, digging your heels into the ground and pulling your feet toward yourself. Try it with the feet pointing straight, then try it with your toes turned in. See how the feet-straight method activates the middle of the hamstring, and how the toes-in method activates the medial (inner) hammies more? Now try pressing your feet into the floor with feet pointed straight ahead and feel how it activates the hamstring belly (how I traditionally push up into my crappy udrhva d), and then toe-in a bit and push up while trying to activate the inner hammies more. That’s the idea.

    And if you can activate those medial hammies and rise up on your toes a la Richard Freeman, I think you’re probably going to be in urdhva dhanurasana heaven when you settle your feet back onto the ground. I’m excited to try it in practice tomorrow. 🙂

  8. just the mention of coming up on the toes makes me cringe. i can’t imagine how you can allow the hip flexors to open while on your toes. what exactly is the benefit of doing this? mind you i am not questioning a man who’s yogic knowledge i will never match in this lifetime. and he does have a glorious backbend.

  9. You have a really good backbend, Tova. Maybe it’s a non-issue for you. For stiff-backed people like me, coming up on the toes makes the whole arch from toes to fingers longer, and less “crunched.” You should try it just to see what it feels like. You may not feel it at all, given how flexible your back is.

  10. Hi Karen
    I’m glad you summarized the advice, because my mind was going “serendipity this” and “serendipity that”. Intuitively, though I think I get what you are saying about transferring the energy during Urdhva to the inner muscles of the thighs. As I progress with this asana I see more movement happening there in the thighs.
    Lately I’ve been unable to practice 6 days in a row. It’s because I batttled some summer rashes. They’re mostly gone, but I lost a bit of momentum. I’ve been practicing every other day. Regarding eating or not eating before practice, I have had to seek advice from yoga teachers on this. It seems I personally need to eat something before practice, or with my constitution it simply would be painful not to. I tend to wake up sufficiently early to respect the no food 3 hours before practice rule of Guruji. During my recent bout I can’t say I’ve waked up that early before practice, but usually, that is my aim. I sometimes wonder if my practice would be stronger if I went to practice without eating. But then I would not even have time to have breakfast before work. Even before doing yoga years ago, whenever I went to the gym in the mornings I had to eat before, so I have to respect my body’s needs.
    Namaste
    Arturo

  11. Hi Karen
    I’m glad you summarized the advice, because my mind was going “serendipity this” and “serendipity that”. Intuitively, though I think I get what you are saying about transferring the energy during Urdhva to the inner muscles of the thighs. As I progress with this asana I see more movement happening there in the thighs.
    Lately I’ve been unable to practice 6 days in a row. It’s because I batttled some summer rashes. They’re mostly gone, but I lost a bit of momentum. I’ve been practicing every other day. Regarding eating or not eating before practice, I have had to seek advice from yoga teachers on this. It seems I personally need to eat something before practice, or with my constitution it simply would be painful not to. I tend to wake up sufficiently early to respect the no food 3 hours before practice rule of Guruji. During my recent bout I can’t say I’ve waked up that early before practice, but usually, that is my aim. I sometimes wonder if my practice would be stronger if I went to practice without eating. But then I would not even have time to have breakfast before work. Even before doing yoga years ago, whenever I went to the gym in the mornings I had to eat before, so I have to respect my body’s needs.

    I wrote the above before reading the comments of others. My friend Krista, who is blogging currently about her stay in Mysore, learned to do the coming up to standing with the feet splayed outwards, as you all described. Then I brought this up with one teacher, a student of Tim Miller, and she said that could hurt my back. Now, I have never, unassisted, come up to standing by myself. One teacher tried getting me to splay the feet a bit. The other teacher doesn’t let me do that. But the teacher with whom I am closest to coming up to standing by myself does recommend what you all have described – the recommendations by Richard Freeman of lifting the heels. Maybe next time I’m on the mat I’ll give that a try. Thank you all for your comments and help.
    Namaste
    Arturo

  12. By the way, it seems WordPress is having too much traffic at this moment. You can see my comments came in twice.
    Cheers,
    Arturo

  13. Thanks for the explanation, DZM. I appreciate that. I see what you mean with the chair exercise––that was helpful. When I practice tomorrow, I will try the inner hamstring thing. I’ll have to be careful not to lose that when lowering the heels.

    I didn’t even realize I clenched my butt muscles in urdhva dhanurasana until Richard F. told me to stop doing it. Shows how aware I am.

    Oh how I’d love to be in urdhva dhanurasana heaven. 🙂

  14. Hmm. Looks functional, eh?

    I just skimmed though this and the EZ discussion you began. Good stuff.

    I also have been thinking a lot about medium-term periodization, given the season I’ve had with the back this year. I love how, now that I’ve been doing this practice for three years, some of the longer-term cycles are starting to shore up. Cycles upon cycles.

    FWIW, on the six-day thing, I go through phases when I’m famished after practice, and associate the end of practice with almost-time-to-eat-ness. Yet more often, eating right after practice seems like a total drag. But if I have a shot of hemp protein or an apple or some almonds or whatever as I get in my car, it definitely switches over some chemical processes and starts me into recovery mode. I get attached to the emptiness and quiet of post practice (as in, the physical and chemical sensation of that) and don’t always want to break it with food, but do notice this difference when I eat earlier than later. I’m sure the athletic trainers, with their post-workout oatmeal and whey (or whatever they’re doing these days), would say: “no duh.”

  15. Yeah, there’s a window for recovery eating. Last I paid attention, the research was within an hour for protein, I think. And if memory serves, optimal macronutrients involved 4:1 carb-to-protein. I totally ditched all the bodybuilding geekiness for yoga. Seemed crass. Of course, now I’m back to wondering how to best support the practice, and less inclined to try to separate it from banal physical pursuits. 😉

  16. DZM, actually i am not a natural backbender at all. four years ago i couldn’t get my head off of the floor. like gartenfische i had a teacher who told me to stop clenching my rear and that made a huge difference in my bend. if i come up on my toes, i feel unstable, and like i can’t use my thighs to hold myself up. Gregor Maehle talks about using the muscles at the front of the body to help lengthen the spine and prevent that crunched up feeling in backbending. that really works for me.
    as for recovery after practice, i think eating lots of ice cream before bed helps…yeah, maybe it doesn’t.

  17. Hi Karen
    Again, thanks for the discussion. Today I splayed the feet a bit when getting ready to come up to standing. I also did the tip toe thing. I almost came to standing and my teacher noticed it. I brought up this discussion with her, since her primary teacher in the western US is Richard Freeman. She agreed that when a previous teacher told me it was not good form to splay the feet a bit because I might hurt my back, it was correct to say that, but that in three years I have developed a lot of opening in the back. I should do the form correctly, feet parallel and aligned, hands parallel and aligned, when it’s just urdha dhanurasana; when coming to standing it is okay to try splaying the feet a bit. She said that as the guy in front on us, whose body is compact and well aligned, was splaying his feet a bit. He usually comes up to standing. She suggested I did not try both doing the tip toe things and the splaying at the same time, to do one or the other. I felt the inner muscles ready to lift me. I forgot not to clench the rear. I’ll remember that on Sunday. I’m getting close to coming up!
    Namaste
    Arturo

  18. Hi Arturo,

    I know the toe splaying is common, and potentially stressful to the knees. When I try to activate the medial hamstrings, I actually turn my toes in a bit. I played around with the tip-toe thing a bit this morning. It is kind of hard to do that *and* keep the inner hamstrings activated, but it’s probably a good learning experience — a way to try to get more sensitive to the action of the legs and the feet and the back. Good luck on coming up from dropbacks!

    Karen

  19. Hi Karen
    Thanks! I went ahead and illustrated the three key muscles that you referred to and posted them on my blog. Cheers, Arturo

  20. DZM, I also found i had a hard time doing the hamstring thing you described when I went up on my toes. But it does help not to feel so crunched in my lower back to do that for at least the first couple of backbends. When I tried to pay attention to the hamstrings in u.d. they were kind of hard to find! I’m not used to thinking about them in that pose (there are so MANY things to think about!). I’ll keep working on it.

    Arturo, when you say you are splaying your feet, do you mean your toes are pointed in? Because I always think of splaying as being toes out, which I’ve been told by soooo many teachers not to do. I always turn my toes in a little.

    Tova mentions using the muscles in the front of the body to lengthen the spine. Another thing to think about . . . hmmm.

  21. Hi gartenfische
    By splaying the feet I mean toes pointed out, heels in. I have also been told by another teacher 3 years ago that it was bad for the lower back. However, I see people coming up to standing perfectly while doing so. My teacher on Sundays is in Mysore presently. His girlfriend is substituting. Today, during her own practice she did perfect dropbacks and coming to standing, and her feet where splayed as I describe. I believe in Asia teachers allow this form. We practitioners of yoga in the US are really taught very strongly about alignment, but bodies are different, and it is possible that ocassionally one has to deviate from an established form to get somewhere. Sorry, Karen, I’m taking up your bandwidth space. Cheers, Arturo

  22. Arturo, quick answer here, cuz it’s not polite to have a conversation on someone’s blog (sorry DZM!). I agree that it depends on the person. If it doesn’t bother your back, and helps, then why not?

  23. Hey you guys, no worries with discussions on the blog. I don’t mind at all. It’s very interesting!

  24. Thanks DZM. You’re very generous. 🙂

  25. I go down and come back up with splayed feet. One day I asked Hamish about it. He said that long term it’s not an ideal strategy as it can put some stress on the inside of the knee, but he also said to not worry too much about it if that’s what my body wants to do. And so far I have no pain and it seems like my feet are slowly self-correcting into a more parallel stance.

  26. where am i?

  27. With all this discussion of hamstrings, I hope no-one minds if I ask some advice. This is my 3rd year of Ashtanga — the belly of my hamstrings are very open but I’ve always had bother with the insertion points. Well, in the past 2 months or so they’ve been so painful I’ve had to modify my practice to baby ashtanga. Prem Carlisi advised ‘just be gentle, give it a chance to heal’ which I’ve been doing, instead of pushing ahead too much. They were quieter for a few weeks and I was happy to just take it easy, remaining upright in forward bends and so on. But the past few days even bending forward in my Surya Namaskaras, even with knees bent, is really really painful. Yesterday I got as far as 5 As, one and half Bs and ended up in tears — part of it is the sheer frustration of wanting tp practice but not being able. Can any of you who have been there give me some advice? As with all of us my practice isn’t just physical — it’s the spiritual aspect I’m missing so much too — that beautiful ‘prayer in flight’ of a flowing practice that I’m worried I’ll never get back to. I also use it to manage depression so taking time off is a bit of a big deal. So if any of you have been there and you can advise a 6 day practice for me that allows the insertion points to heal and still lets me have my daily retreat into yoga … ya I know that we learn most about ourselves through injury and the fact of having to face up to time off if needs be. But it’s about so much more than the physical, my practice is a place I need to visit every day – and most teachers say it’s better to work through the injury than give up altogether — practising is more healing than not practising. I’ll be grateful for any advice — you’re an experienced bunch!

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