Malasana (Garland Pose): Grounding Through Center – A New Approach to the Classic Squat
Our feet connect us to the earth for most of our lives. This is one of the main reasons why “rooting” and “grounding” are foundational ideas in yoga. As our feet connect with the earth we experience stability and integrity. Sometimes the positioning of our knees, feet and ankles can interfere with this experience. A few subtle modifications to your stance may make all the difference.
Aside from the philosophical significance, “rooting” and “grounding” also refer to the process of translation throughout the kinetic chain – from feet up through the knees, hips, and spine. How does this chain work, and what does this mean for your yoga practice?
“Rooting” and “grounding” have fundamental anatomical and biomechanical functions. It can be helpful to examine these functions in terms of a particular movement. In this case, we will use the Malasana – the classic bent-legged squat.
Common functional limitations for a full squat
Although many view the squat as bad for the knees and low back, humans are biomechanically designed to perform a full squat safely. Unfortunately, our sedentary lifestyles characterized by chronic sitting in chairs and vehicles, have generated functional limitations in the kinetic chain of the body involved in the squatting position.
These functional limitations commonly appear in the ankles, where limited dorsiflexion requires people to lift their heels in order to get down into a deep squat position. This break in the natural kinetic chain causes improper shifts in the center of gravity, resulting in the tendency to shift the grounding and force loads forward into the toe mounds. This creates displacement of the hips and spine.
The debate about knee and foot placement in squats
Some experts propose that sheer force in the knees increases dramatically when the knees travel forward toward, over, or past the toes when the knees are in loaded flexion during a squat. The energy in the belly of the thigh muscles transmits into the connective tissue of the knees and poses a risk for chronic injury.
A common cue in the fitness and yoga communities for squat-like poses is to align the knees above the heels, shifting weight back. Some kinesiology experts propose that this creates problematic postural instability due to improper kinesthetic development of balance.
Others suggest that the center of gravity shifts out of the natural line when the knees are above the heels. For some, this can disrupt their functional balancing principles, placing them at risk for developing a pattern of rolling back off their heels and falling.
A new approach to grounding
The squat—and for that matter, most standing poses—require sustaining the functional center of gravity to optimize the inherently natural, biomechanical position of the body and limbs. Knowing this, how should the knees and feet be placed?
A new approach to the classic squat first considers the center of gravity. When standing in mountain pose, this center flows down through the tibia bones (shins), transmits through the talus bone (ankle), and ends just forward of the heel.
When squatting, we should permit the knees to move slightly ahead of the heel allowing for dorsiflexion of the ankle while keeping the heels on the ground. As the knees and hips flex, the spinal curvatures should remain neutral by engaging the core muscles, while encouraging the spine flow forward and follow the same angle of shin. We can then broaden the base of the feet from toe mounds to heel while focusing grounding pressure just ahead of heel.
Transferring to standing poses
In rooting through the forward edge rather than the center of the heel, we can experience a new depth of grounding in other standing poses as well. We can explore shifting the grounding pressure through the heel by adjusting the position of the knee relative to the heel, and aligning the angle of the spine with the tibia. In bringing the energy into the front of the heel, the knees tend to come into appropriate alignment to facilitate stable grounding.
It is important to note that it is not wise to allow the knees to track forward beyond the heel in warrior poses or high lunges. If you are used to positioning your knee above the heel so that the force load works through the center heel, try moving the energy of the heel a little bit forward, and see how this transmits energy into the leg muscles and knee collectively.
Key points to remember
All postures need to support the body’s inherent movement patterns throughout the kinetic chain, and account for the gravitational and energetic balancing patterns that maintain joint integrity. When we overload joints and take them out of their inherent biomechanical movement patterns, we risk chronic injury. Understanding where force loads and gravitational lines flow throughout all stages of a pose can greater enhance your ability to align, root, and ground in order to optimize the benefits of your practice.
If it feels as though your knee placement prevents you from feeling rooted, try these few suggestions. You may feel more grounded in your practice than ever before.
Kreg Weiss, BHKin, is a certified hatha yoga teacher, international presenter and kinesiologist (exercise science). All of his classes integrate a purposeful, meditative quality to allow for an experience of connection and reflection while the body explores expansion and renewal. With a background as a fitness trainer and athlete, Kreg has been teaching yoga since 2002 and complements his teaching practice with additional studies in Kinesiology and Health Sciences at the University of British Columbia. Through integrity-driven classes, Kreg aims to provide students with the tools to pursue a unique, confident practice where asanas, pranayama, and meditation interact collectively to rejuvenate and heal the body and mind.