Here is a common question yoga students ask and the answer they commonly offer: “Why do my heels come up off the floor when I lower down into a squat (malasana)? It must be my tight ankles.” Yes, maybe it is your ankles, but squatting requires somewhere between 33° and 45° of dorsiflexion (which is pulling the toes toward the shin), and most people can get that much from their ankles when the knees are flexed. For 67% of the population, the range of dorsiflexion with knees flexed is 32° to 46°, nicely within the range needed for squatting. So, why can’t you get your heels to the ground in squats? Maybe you are the one person in six who can’t dorsiflex their ankles enough to squat, or maybe it is due to a lack of flexion available in your hips! For some people, restrictions in flexing the knees may be the limiting factor. It is not always about the ankles.
As shown in figure 1 below, when you descend into a squat, in order to counterbalance the weight of your derrière, which is hanging back over your heels, your knees need to come forward, or you will need to bring your arms out in front of your body, or you will lean your upper body over your feet more. The closer your knees can come to your chest, the closer your backside can come to the side-midline of the body (which is the line running down the middle of the yogi in figure 1) when you squat, so the easier it is to find the counterbalance between the front and back body parts. However, if you are limited in your hip flexion, then your backside will be further back, away from the midline of the body as you descend into the squat. This added posterior distance of your “posterior” will require your knees to travel further forward for counterbalance; for many people, the only way to achieve that is to rise up onto the toes, lifting the heels, as shown in figure 1C. This is not because their ankles aren’t flexible enough but because they can’t flex their hips enough.
In reality, the amount of ankle dorsiflexion required to come into a squat is at the maximum when you are only halfway down! Figure 1 shows the ankle angles in both the full squat (D) and the halfway down to squat position (B). At halfway down, your knees need to be much further forward of the feet because your butt is much further backward. Knees being further forward means a greater angle at the ankles is needed, or the heels have to lift.
FIGURE 1: What stops me as I come into squats (malasana)? The maximum dorsiflexion of the ankles is required in (B); (C) the heels may start to lift off the floor; (D) requires less dorsiflexion but maximum hip flexion.
One option for people who can’t flex their hips enough to stay in a squat is to widen the distance between their feet and/or point their feet outward. When they do this, they increase the range of hip flexion available; it has nothing to do with adding more dorsiflexion in the ankles. With the legs abducted (taken further apart) or with the femurs (thighbones) externally rotated further, there is less chance for the neck of the femur to impinge on the acetabulum (hip socket) or for the anterior superior iliac spine (frontal hip point) to come into compression with the top of the thighs. Through these adjustments, the back side of the body can track closer to the side-midline of the body as you descend into the squat, which means the knees do not have to come as far forward to counterbalance the body.
How do you know what is stopping you? Notice what you feel in your squat. Are you stopped from tracking your knees further forward due to tension in the back of your calves, or compression in the front of your ankles, or compression in the hips, or restrictions around the knee? If it is in your hips, try widening your feet; if it is in the back of your calves, work on lengthening the calf muscles; if it is compression in the front of the ankles, try using a wedge under your heels. Using a wedge or some other support is not cheating. Bone-on-bone compression is not going to change, so you might as well accept your reality and adjust accordingly.
This article is excerpted from Your Body, Your Yoga: Learn Alignment Cues That Are Skillful, Safe, and Best Suited To You by Bernie Clark.