Some Love for the Lower Legs

I used to come out of Bikram yoga classes with such tight calves. Balancing requires the lower leg muscles to work together to stabilize the ankle, and the standing series would completely exhaust my already tight muscles. I asked the teacher why there were no poses in Bikram yoga to stretched the calves, and he said there actually were. He gave head to knee pose as an example, which is a seated pose in which you fold forward over a lengthened leg. The calf stretch comes from using the hands on the ball of the foot to lift the heel off the floor and pull the toes back toward the face. I think calling head to knee pose a calf stretch is a misnomer, considering only the the most flexible students could ever reach the point where the pose actually stretches the calves. Similarly, many yoga teachers use downward facing dog as a calf stretch when many students’ other muscles are so tight that they can’t get enough downward force through the heal to feel anything in the calves. Tight lower leg muscles can cause shin splints, knee problems, and foot problems, so it is important that achievable lower leg stretches are incorporated into yoga classes.

Gastrocneumius stretches. The gastroc is the big meaty muscle in the calf, and it is stretched when the leg is lengthened and the foot is flexed. A gastroc stretch that doesn’t require too much flexibility in other muscles can be done starting from hands and knees. From there, extend one leg out behind, tuck the toes under on the floor, and extend actively out through the heel. You will feel the stretch in the calf.

Hands-and-knees gastroc stretch

Press actively back through the heel.

If you’re more flexible, you can go into a downward dog variation. From the previous position, press into the hands to lift the front knee off the mat. Lift the sit bones up without losing engagement in the core, and push down through the back heel. You can keep your front foot where it is for support or tuck it behind the ankle of the leg your stretching, increasing the stretch even more.

Down dog gastroc stretch

Press chest and hips back, and the heel downwards.

Soleus stretch. The soleus is another muscle in the back of your lower leg that runs underneath the gastroc. When you stretch it, you often feel it in the Achilles tendon area between the meaty part of your calf and your heel. It is stretched when the knee is bent and the foot is flexed. From the hand-and-knees position above bend into the back knee as you continue to press back through the heel, and you’ll feel the stretch move into you soleus.

Hands-and-knees soleus stretch

Keep pressing back through the heel as you bend into the knee.

Similarly, from the downward facing dog-like position, bend into the knee of the leg your stretching to move the stretch into the soleus.

Down dog soleus stretch.

Keep pressing the hips back and the heel downwards as you bend into the knee.

Toe-Flexors Stretch. Many of the muscles that control your toes are in your lower legs. The stretches above will stretch the toe-flexing muscles, but we can target them even more by bending the toes back. A friend of mine coaches swimming, and her swimmers always dread when she tells them it’s “social time” during their stretching session, because although that means they’re allowed to chat, it also means they have to sit in the following position for a couple minutes:

"Social Time"

"Social Time"

To get into this position, sit on the heels and tuck all ten toes under. If this bothers your knees, place a blanket or block in between your buttocks and heels so your knees don’t have to bend so deeply. This position feels like nothing at first, but give it a minute or two and the intensity will set in. You may feel the intensity in the soles of your feet as well as in your calves.

Tibialis Anterior and Toe Extensor Stretches. The often neglected tibialis anterior is located in the front of the lower leg, along with your toe-extending muscles. To stretch them, you have to point the foot and curl the toes. From a downward facing dog position, turn one foot over so that the top of the foot is pressing down into the floor instead of the sole. The legs can be slightly bent if that is more comfortable. Press into the hands to lift the hips up and back, increasing the stretch in the front of the lower leg. You can keep only one foot flipped, or you can turn both feet over to stretch both legs as the same time.

Tibialis anterior stretch.

Turn the feet over so that the tops of the feet are on the floor.

Hold each position for at least 20 to 30 seconds to allow to muscles to relax into the stretches.

Turbo Dog

Nothing strikes fear into the hearts of yogis like adding “turbo” to the beginning of a pose’s name, and turbo dog probably deserves that apprehension. It is a variation on downward facing dog that targets the triceps (muscles in the back of the upper arms). Pretty simple instructions: start in downward facing dog, and as you exhale bend into the elbows so that they hover just above the floor. Don’t touch the elbows down or you lose the tricep strengthening. Contract the muscles in your shoulders, upper chest, and upper back to keep your elbows from bowing out to the sides; keep your arms parallel. Always keep the abdominals contracted, and, other than the variation in the arms, maintain good down dog form.

Turbo dog

Turbo dog

Down Dog: Pressing Deeper

In nearly every yoga class they tell you to “walk the dog” (press heels down toward the floor alternately to loosen up the calves and hamstrings), so you probably already know about that trick for getting deeper into downward facing dog. But here’s another one that I don’t see around as much. Big thanks to Shakti Mhi for introducing this to me in my yoga teacher training.

From down dog, as you inhale lift the hips up as high as you can, lifting up onto the toes. Think about tilting the sit bones skyward, which will make it so your low back muscles don’t have to stretch so far.

Step 1

Lift the hips up as high as you can, lifting up onto the toes.

With straight legs, tight hamstrings may prevent the sit bones from really tilting upwards, so lets take them out of the equation. On your next exhale, bend the knees. Inhale, tilt the sit bones upwards. You’ll have more space for this now. Exhale press the chest in toward the thighs. Again, since sit bones are tilted upwards and the low back muscles don’t have as far to stretch, you’ll be able to achieve a deeper fold.

Step 2

Exhale, bend the knees. Inhale, tilt the sit bones upwards. Exhale press the chest in toward the thighs.

Contract the upper back muscles to slide the shoulder blades down the spine toward the hips. Think about rotating the armpits outwards to open up your chest. Melt the chest down between the arms.

Now, once you have the chest pressed as close to the thighs as is comfortable, keep the torso where it is, and slowly straighten the legs. Make sure you keep the muscles around the shoulders contracted to maintain your upper body position. The heels don’t actually have to touch the mat in down dog; some people’s bone structure wont allow for it.

Step 3

Keep the torso where it is, and slowly straighten the legs.

Finally, you may have arched you back in order to get your chest in toward your thighs, so contract your abdominal muscles to draw your rib cage and low back into a neutral position. Keep the muscles in the shoulders, chest, and upper back strongly contracted to maintain your form.

Step 4

Contract your abdominal muscles to draw your rib cage and low back into a neutral position.