What logical flaws do you notice in the following exchange?
Teacher to student sitting in hero pose (virasana): Don’t have your feet too far away from your hips, keep your knees together, and point your toes backwards so that you are on top of your feet. Watch me (see figure 1a): Be like this.
Student: It feels comfortable for me to have the feet pointing outward, and I can easily bring my feet further away from my hips (see figure 1b).
Teacher: Taking your feet wider will destabilize your knees. Trust me, I hurt myself trying to do that. And pointing your feet to the side will torque your knees a lot.
Student: It feels okay for me.
Teacher: Well, do what you want, but if you keep doing it your way you are going to have a lot of knee problems over time!
FIGURE 1: “Be like me,” says the teacher in a). “But this feels fine,” says the student in b). Who is right?
Like the teacher in this dialogue, I too would hurt my knees if I tried to bring my feet wide apart in virasana, or if I tried to point my feet to the side as this student is doing. But that is my body, not hers: What may be extremely risky for my body could actually be the best thing for someone else’s body. The assertion that damage will occur “over time” is pure speculation! The teacher has no evidence that sitting between the feet with the feet wide apart and turned outward will cause any problems at all for this student. (1)
The intention of protecting the student is a good ideal, but the dogmatic application of aesthetic alignment cues may end up doing more harm than good. Let’s look at what is happening at the hips, knees, and feet for these two individuals and see why they have such different experiences.
If you cannot even sit on your feet, then hero pose sitting on the floor between the feet is not yet available to you. Perhaps, in time, you may increase your range of motion for flexion at the knees so that you can bend your knees enough to sit on your feet. Until then, sitting on blocks between the feet will be your version of hero pose, and there is no need to go further than that. If this is you, your feet will undoubtedly point backwards: Trying to turn your feet out to the side will create pain at the knees and you naturally will avoid that. You don’t need to be told how to align your feet: Common sense will tell you what alignment is right for you.
If you are one of the students who has enough range of motion for flexion at the knee, allowing you to easily sit between your feet, there are three ways you might be doing this:
You might internally rotate the leg at the hip socket (this is the student in figure 1b with her feet pointing to the side),
You might keep the leg neutral with little or no internal rotation and instead create an abduction of the lower leg at the knee joint (this is the teacher in figure 1a with feet pointing backwards), or
You might keep the leg neutral in the hip socket and create an external rotation of the lower leg at the knee (and thus your feet would be pointing to the side).
The knee, unfortunately, is not designed for abduction or twisting—at least not when the leg is straight. However, when the knee is bent as shown in figure 2b, the collateral ligaments that prevent abduction or twisting become lax: the more bent the knee, the greater the possible range of abduction or twisting available. For the teacher in figure 1a, she has just enough internal rotation at her hips and laxity in her knee ligaments to allow the slight amount of abduction and rotation at the knee to sit between her feet. But! Please know that most people can’t do this, and the sign that they can’t do it is pain! It will hurt to even try. If you feel pain in your knee in this pose, please do not do it.
FIGURE 2: Ligaments of the knee shown with the leg straight (a). When the knee is bent, however, the collateral ligaments become lax (b), which allows some twisting and abduction in the knee. How much twisting and abduction varies between individuals.
For students who have a lot of room in the hip sockets for internal rotation while their hips are flexed, sitting between the feet is no problem. They have probably been doing this their whole lives. (As children they may have spent lots of time on the floor W-sitting, much to the chagrin of their parents and teachers.) (2) Our bones often limit our ultimate range of motion, and if you have the right bones, being a hero has always come easily to you. If you don’t have the bones for it, don’t try to be a hero!
How to know? Here is a little experiment: If it’s available to you, sit on your heels and place your hands on your knees—feel the shape of the knee in this position. The whole knee may feel like a square or a cube: The top of the square is the far (distal) end of your femur. We are going to focus on what happens to the knee when we come into hero pose. Get a piece of masking tape and place it along the middle of your thigh at the end of your femur, or simply place your middle finger along the middle of the femur just above the knee. Now, watch what happens as you try to sit between your feet. Either the tape (or finger) will rotate to the middle, or it won’t. If it rotates, this indicates that for you, hero pose involves internal rotation at the hip socket. If the tape (or finger) didn’t move as your feet went out, and if your feet stayed pointing straight backwards, this indicates that you have abducted your lower leg at the knee. If your feet went apart but also turned out to the side, then you rotated your lower leg. You may have actually done a little of all three movements. Each of these three movements may be safe and natural for you if there is no pain. If you have to force yourself between the feet, and pain occurs, then you are not ready for this pose and shouldn’t be doing it.
The student in figure 1b experiences no stress to the knees because she can internally rotate the femur. Notice the line added to the knees (like the masking tape in the above experiment): This shows that the femur rotated in the hip socket, and thus the whole leg turned out to the side, with no twisting at the knee. In this case, the student has a large range of internal rotation available, and there is no discomfort or pain in the knees while staying here. Because her whole leg rotated, naturally her feet will point out to the sides. If she tried pointing her feet backwards, as the teacher is doing, she could only do it by internally rotating her tibia at the knee, which could cause pain and problems. This student is happy to stay where she is and her feet are just fine where they are.
Unfortunately, for many people, attempting the necessary internal rotation of hero pose, added to the flexion of the hips while sitting, may cause impingement between the neck of the femur and the rim of the hip socket. (3)
A common way around this impingement is to spread the knees apart, as shown in figure 3. This movement allows more room for internal rotation and reduces or eliminates impingement. Unfortunately, the common alignment cue for hero pose is to “Keep the knees together,” and that cue makes it impossible for some people to ever sit between their feet. Even a little spreading of the knees may make the pose possible.
FIGURE 3: Hero pose with knees apart may allow a greater range of internal rotation at the hips, with no stress on the knees. Note that the femur (indicated by the colored lines) has rotated, indicating that there is no twist occurring at the knee. This is perfectly safe for this student.
The cue to keep the knees together in hero pose, or to never move the feet apart, is good advice for some students—but for others it is unhelpful, and for yet others unnecessary. The only way to know which camp you are in is to pay attention to what your body allows, and to not force it into a pose.
There are many ways to be a hero, and many ways to sit in hero pose. For people with a lot of internal rotation available in the hips, sitting between the feet is easy—and naturally their feet will point out to the sides. Let them be! They are fine. For other students, laxity in the knee ligaments when the knee is fully flexed may allow rotation of the lower leg. They too will have their feet pointing out to the side: They can’t do the pose otherwise.
For the few students who can do this posture, they have just enough internal rotation at the hip and enough laxity of the knee ligaments to allow them to abduct their lower legs, allowing their feet to separate—but for them their feet will naturally point backwards. The standardized alignment cue of feet right beside the hips with knees together and feet pointing straight back is great for this last group of students. It will feel right and pain-free to them. But those cues will not work for the other students. Their pain-free version of the hero will have their feet pointing to the sides, and their knees may be apart.
As long as none of these versions create pain, then each student is her own hero. If in any of these variations you experience pain, it is far more heroic to skip this pose.
Footnotes 1. Conversely, for students whose unique anatomy simply won’t allow spreading the feet or turning the feet outward, they don't have to be told not to do these things. Their body will stop them and there will be instant pain and discomfort—so much so that they would never attempt those positions.
2. The idea that children must never be allowed to W-sit is pervasive: A quick search on Google will turn up dozens of therapists, educators, and websites warning parents to never allow their kids to do this. Reasons range from “It promotes weakness in the core muscles” to “It will be damaging to the hip sockets later in life.” However, nowhere will you find any scientific evidence to back up those fears! There seems to have arisen a mythic belief that sitting this way is dangerous, but there is no proof of these claims. Rather, what you will find are studies that correlated W-sitting with other maladies. It is true that children with cerebral palsy or other pathologies tend to W-sit, but correlation is not causation. No one claims that W-sitting causes cerebral palsy! Rather, because these children are weaker in their core muscles, they find W-sitting efficient. Most children W-sit because the shape of their bones allows it and it is comfortable for them. They are not at risk. Eventually, most children’s bones change as they mature and they can no longer sit like this as adults.
One pair of orthopedic surgeons noted: “[We] have no problem with a child W-sitting. They’re just responding to their natural anatomy… If your child wants to sit in a W position, it means there’s no excessive stress on his joints, muscles, or knees because kids know how to avoid pain in their bodies... A child cannot dislocate his hip by sitting this way... There’s no evidence it’s bad for core stability or will cause future orthopedic problems.” (See “Why ‘W-sitting' Is Really Not So Bad for Kids, After All”by A. Pawlowski at Today.)
3. The technical term for this is femoral-acetabular impingement (FAI). In hero pose, impingement occurs between the anterior neck of the femur and the superior rim of the labrum, which is the cartilage rimming the hip socket. In one study of five women (average age 21) FAI only occurred when internal rotation was combined with flexion, which is what happens in hero pose. In each case hero pose caused impingement. (See Mitsuyoshi Yamamura et al., “Open-Configuration MRI Study of Femoro-Acetabular Impingement” published online 28 June 2007 in Wiley InterScience.)
This article is excerpted and adapted from Your Body, Your Yoga: Learn Alignment Cues That Are Skillful, Safe, and Best Suited to You by Bernie Clark.