What Your Malasana (Squat) Can Tell You About Your Body
Why malasana (garland pose) is much easier for some than for others
by Jenny Thomas
Malasana: The Pose
Note: While some schools of yoga differentiate between malasana and upavesasana (depending on the width between your feet), for the purpose of this article malasana refers to a wide-footed, deep squat.
Why is malasana—also referred to as garland pose, upavesasana (“sitting down pose”), or a deep squat—much easier for some than for others? The answer isn’t simple, as we all have different body proportions, joint structures, strengths, weaknesses, areas of tension, and areas of mobility. Because malasana is a complex posture involving many joints and muscle groups, all of these factors play a role in how we look and feel in the pose. The good news is that by examining malasana, you can learn more about your body’s limitations and strengths, and then use this information to enhance your overall practice and posture.
Let’s face it, if you don’t live in a culture where squatting is part of everyday life, malasana can feel really weird at first. It can take a long time to feel comfortable in it. However, we perform squatting motions everyday (getting up out of a chair, sitting down in a car, or picking something up off the floor), so this pose is extremely relevant. Unfortunately, in Western (and increasingly in Eastern) society, our reliance on chairs, together with poor postural habits, has made malasana more and more challenging. Have you ever noticed how babies have perfect malasana/squat form? When did we lose this ability? And how do we gain it back?
Let’s face it, if you don’t live in a culture where squatting is part of everyday life, malasana can feel really weird at first.
First, let’s examine what’s required in the posture. Malasana challenges the mechanics of the entire body; it requires mobility and stability in the ankles, knees, hips, pelvis, and spine. The ability to perform the deep squat requires appropriate closed-kinetic chain (weight-bearing) dorsiflexion of the ankles; knee and hip flexion; combined movement of the lumbar spine (lower back) and the pelvis; axial extension (lengthening) of the spine; and slight shoulder flexion.
Because of this complexity, malasana is also very telling. By closely examining this posture, we can assess bilateral, symmetrical, and functional mobility of the hips, knees, ankles, shoulders, and spine. Remember that depending on their proportions, people may have an easier or a more difficult time with this posture. Those with long torsos and/or short legs will likely find malasana to be a little more accessible, while those with shorter torsos and/or longer legs may have to work at it a bit longer.
Give Malasana a Try
First, let’s try malasana in front of a mirror. Start by bringing your feet slightly wider than hip-width apart, and turning your toes out ever so slightly (you can always adjust your stance later). Now, sit your hips as far down as you comfortably can. Your heels might lift a bit, and that’s okay. Try to keep them down, but don’t force them. Bring your elbows inside your knees, press your palms together, use your elbows to draw your knees apart, and lengthen your spine to the best of your ability. Depending on your torso length, your elbows may fall higher or lower on the inner thighs. You might feel like you’re going to fall over backward, or maybe you did fall backward. Don’t worry, we’ll learn what that means a little later.
First of all, how does this feel? Where do you feel it? Now take a good look at your posture in the mirror, and notice a few more things. Are your heels lifted? It’s okay if your heels are lifted, but we’re working toward eventually lowering them down. Are your ankles rolling in, or are your arches collapsed? Are your toes turning out excessively (or do they want to)? Next, how do your knees look and feel? Are they collapsing in? Is one collapsing in more than the other? Is one hip closer to the ground? Are you leaning to one side? Then look at your body from the side. Is your spine straight, arched, or rounding forward? Is your tailbone tucking under excessively? Take note of all these things.
What Does It Mean?
Let’s start from the ground up. What happened with your feet? If your heels lifted, it usually indicates a limitation in the achilles tendon and calves—specifically the soleus (the deeper lower calf muscle)—because the knee is flexed in malasana, and the soleus doesn’t cross the knee joint. (The more superficial calf muscle, the gastrocnemius, does cross the knee joint, so it is not being lengthened in this posture as the soleus is.)
In order to lower the heels, we sometimes compensate with the ankle joint by allowing our medial (inner) arches to collapse in and our toes to excessively turn out. These compensations may also indicate tightness in the hamstrings (at the hip), tightness in the piriformis (a deep external hip rotator, sometimes responsible for sciatic pain), and/or weakness in the gluteus medius. There may also be a restriction at the ankle joint itself due to previous injury or surgery, although this is less common.
If your knees collapsed in (indicating that the hips internally rotated), you may have weak gluteus muscles, tight adductors (inner thighs), and/or a tight iliotibial band (a band of fascia along the outside of the leg, spanning from the hip to the knee). If your low back arched excessively (particularly as you lowered down), you may have tight hip flexors that compensate for a weak core. If your spine rounded forward, you may have weak erector spinae muscles, a tight thoracic (middle) spine, and/or tight hamstrings.
Leaning to one side (or one hip higher than the other, or one knee more collapsed in) may indicate a stability problem, a protective mechanism to avoid pain, and/or an asymmetry of ankle, knee, or hip mobility. This is particularly common in people who have had injuries to the lower body. It’s also not uncommon for one shoulder to be higher than the other. Usually the shoulder of our dominant side is tighter, and therefore less mobile.
How Do We Address These Issues?
The easiest way to make this pose more accessible is to place support underneath the heels (such as a rolled up towel or blanket). If your heels are really close to the ground, try widening your feet a bit more and/or turning your toes out a little more, and see if that helps bring your heels down—but don’t force it, as your arches should remain lifted. The structure of your actual hip joint plays a role here too, so experiment with a wider or more narrow stance to find the ideal malasana width for you. There is no one-size-fits-all. However, do make sure your toes aren’t turning out too much, as this could cause the arches of your feet to collapse and your knees to fall in. Aim to keep your knees in line with the center of your ankles.
There is no one-size-fits-all.
Other Things to Try While in Malasana
Once your heels are down, to make sure the inner arches of your feet don’t collapse, roll more weight to the outside edges of your feet as you engage your gluteus muscles. This will help to ensure that:
1) your ankles and feet are in a safer position
2) your knees are pointing in the same direction as your toes (and therefore not twisting), and
3) your hips are externally rotating (to ensure hips, knees, and toes are all pointing in the same direction), and your knees are not collapsing in.
The strong foundation through your feet should help lift your pelvic floor and lower abdominals (uddiyana bandha and mula bandha). Use your elbows to assist by pressing your knees away from each other. At the same time, lift your chest up and forward, engaging your upper back (thoracic spine extension), and feel your spine elongate and your tailbone “untuck.” Feel how this action allows you to lengthen your middle spine and lift the base of your rib cage and diaphragm (uddiyana bandha).
Bonus: Lower your chin slightly to lengthen the back of your neck (jalandhara bandha) and elongate your spine even further.
If you hold this pose for any length of time, it’s common to feel the muscle down the front of your shin (tibialis anterior) start to fatigue, especially if your heels are down on the floor—because it’s this muscle that pulls against the tension in the calves and helps keep you from falling backward. Don’t worry. As you continue to practice, over time your calves will release and the anterior tibialis muscles will strengthen, making this posture more comfortable for longer periods.
If you’re still falling backward whenever your heels are down, try holding on to something (like a doorknob or your kitchen counter) as you sit back into this deep squat. This will allow you to work on the functional mobility of your ankles, knees, hips, spine, and even shoulders without having to worry about falling backward. You can also sit on a block, but try to keep as much weight as possible in your feet.
If your malasana is asymmetrical right now—meaning that you find yourself leaning or tilting unevenly—lift your hips, using support if needed (such as a block, blanket, or even a small chair under your hips) until your hips are parallel with the floor and the compromised side is in proper alignment.
Practicing malasana can be eye-opening. Pay attention to what you're feeling and where you’re feeling it. You may notice asymmetries you didn’t know you had. Keep practicing and you may even find that malasana is your new favorite posture. Finally, even outside of your yoga practice you may come to find that you’re in this pose more frequently throughout the day!