The Adductors and Alignment in Yoga Postures: Interview with Julie Gudmestad
Most yoga teachers are aware of the alignment issues that tight hamstrings cause in yoga postures. However, the adductors of the inner thighs create their own problems, if they are either too tight or too weak, says Iyengar yoga teacher Julie Gudmestad. In this interview, she highlights some of the critical points all yoga teachers need to know about this important, but much overlooked, muscle group.
Q: The adductors don’t often get mentioned in presentations on yoga anatomy. But you say we should be paying more attention to this muscle group?
Julie Gudmestad: Yes, the muscles of the inner thighs are important stabilizers. If they’re tight, they limit our ability to do many of the standing poses and forward bends. In fact, they are important in a large variety of different yoga poses, including inversions, arm balances, and many of the standing poses. For best results in our yoga practice, the adductors need to be both strong and flexible.
Q: Can you give an example of a standing pose that would be limited by tight adductors?
Julie Gudmestad: Trikonasana is the one that I think of first because it’s an often-taught and often-practiced pose. Tight adductors can contribute to people not being able to open the pose up, so they end up with their chest – their front body – facing the floor. When they try to turn their head to look up, they feel a lot of strain in their neck. Tight adductors will cause people to face the floor instead of being able to roll the pose open.
Q: How would tightness in the inner thighs limit the ability for the torso to roll open and contribute to neck strain?
Julie Gudmestad: It is kind of counterintuitive. What happens is the tight adductors limit your ability to open the pelvis. So your pelvis, navel, and pubic bone want to face the floor rather than the wall in front of you. If you can’t get the back of the pelvis to open, then you limit how much you can rotate through your spine and torso to face the wall in front of you.
Q: Many older students over fifty are often unable to actually open their legs into what a wide stance.
Julie Gudmestad: That, of course, is due in large part to the adductors and maybe other muscles that are part of the equation. Think about how people use their bodies in normal American living – we stand, we walk, we sit in chairs. We rarely do things where we take our feet wide apart.
If you don’t take those wide-legged stances, then you lose the flexibility to go there. Not only does that impact our yoga poses but it can also impact, as we get older, our ability to balance in a variety of positions that we might use in activities of daily living. If you can’t separate your feet apart, then sometimes you might put more stress on your back when you’re trying to move something or lift something. Sometimes you might fall because you get into an awkward position and you can’t separate your feet. The mobility of the adductors is important both in yoga and in daily living.
Q: The average American sedentary person, for the most part, has lost the ability to balance. I presume a sedentary lifestyle is bad news for the adductors, too?
Julie Gudmestad: Yes, and it’s having the same impact on all the leg and hip muscles. While there has been a lot of discussion about a sedentary lifestyle weakening the core, it’s also bad for the hips and legs. Some therapists and rehab specialists now feel that the core muscle strength might actually be less important than the strength in the muscles in your legs and hips. I’m inclined to think that it’s not one or the other; I think we need both core strength and hip and leg strength.
Q: Clearly, the adductors are important for standing postures and balancing postures. Do they also play a significant role in other groups of yoga postures?
Julie Gudmestad: Arm balances where you have to squeeze your legs onto your arms and inversions where we hold the legs together rather than letting them go apart. Weak adductors make it hard to stay in an inversion because people can’t hold their legs together for a long time. The adductors start getting tired.
Those are the main yoga poses where strength is an issue. But the adductors also play a role in many of the forward bends where you spread your legs apart, whether the feet are together or the feet are apart.
Q: How can yoga teachers help students with tight or weak adductors make progress?
Julie Gudmestad: It’s important to know the anatomy of the muscles, where they are, what they do when they contract, why are they important, how do they stretch, what position to put them in to get them to stretch, and how to strengthen them.
With whatever muscle group we’re talking about (in this case, the adductors), the muscles need to be both strong and flexible. We have problems if a muscle is strong but it’s lost its mobility and we also have problems if the muscle is very flexible but not strong. Sometimes that’s the problem with long-time yoga practitioners who have done a lot of stretching. They have fabulous flexibility, but the muscle is not strong. Then it’s vulnerable to tearing and gives instability around the joints that it works on. In this case, that’s the sacroiliac joint, the low back, and the knees. Those are the joints that could be impacted by hypermobile, weak adductors.
Q: In your own teaching experience, how realistic is it to have students make progress to a degree where they can actually participate in a standard yoga class without major alignment issues, even if they first come to class with tight or weak adductors?
Julie Gudmestad: Unfortunately, once a week, it’s hard to make progress with either strengthening or stretching. So the person has to be willing to work at it hopefully two or three times a week. If somebody has really tight adductors, a little bit of stretching may not counterbalance the amount of strength work that they’ve done.
But having said that, I’ve seen some amazing things that people have done, if they’re willing to put in the time. The human body has an amazing ability to evolve, even in the later years of a lifetime. There have been a lot of studies that have shown that people can get stronger and more flexible, no matter what their age.
For information on Julie’s course on the adductors, see here:
Romancing the Cinderella Muscles: The Adductors and Keys to Proper Alignment in Yoga Postures
Julie Gudmestad is the founder of Gudmestad Yoga in Portland, Oregon. For almost a decade, she wrote the Anatomy of a Yogi column for Yoga Journal. Julie is widely regarded for her unique insights into anatomy as it relates to alignment in yoga postures, and for her ability to share this knowledge in an interesting way. She has been teaching yoga since 1970 and became a certified Iyengar Yoga teacher in 1988. In addition to teaching yoga, Julie is also a practicing licensed physical therapist specializing in orthopedic problems, chronic pain issues, and stress-related problems.