The hardest working muscle in your body is your heart!  The second hardest are your calves!  The muscles in the back of us all work a lot harder than our muscles at the front of us, particularly when it comes to maintaining good posture!  Our tendency is to fall forwards, not to fall backwards, hence the need for stronger muscles on the back body.  The calves are working hard to stop you from falling over and you really need to work hard yourself to protect them.  Most fairly healthy people are walking around 8 – 10,000 steps a day and each of these steps are happening because of muscular activity in the feet and calves!
When one part of our anatomy is misaligned, there is a knock on effect throughout our body which I think you will have understood clearly from coming to Gentle Somatic Yoga classes.  According to anatomist David Keil (2014):
“A small movement in the big toe is like a fly landing on a spider web.  When the fly hits the web, vibrations are sent through the web all the way to the other end where the spider sits and waits.  A small movement of the big toe affects the foot, ankle and conceivably even the position of the pelvis”. p17
I have argued in a  previous post that the pelvic malalignment generates a one sided shoulder tilt and A compensatory head tilt also so we could argue that this big toe movement affect the whole body’s pro procession and whole body alignment.
If you suffer from lower back pain, it can quite commonly be caused by tight calves!  When they tighten, your body’s center of mass shift anteriorly, causing your thoracolumbar paraspinal muscles to over-activate and increase lumbar hyper-lordosis to maintain erect posture during standing and walking.This is added stress to your low back muscles and the rest of your upper body will over compensate for this weight shift. This is the posture we see in the Green Light Reflex which I have talked about extensively.
In your normal walk, as your ankle bends and straightens, your lower leg (shin) passes over the center of your foot. If your ankle is unable to complete this full range of motion, you begin to lose the ability to point your foot up or turn in or out.  When the Soleus muscle is tight (this attaches behind the heel via the Achillies tendon) then the following happens:
  1. Stride will shorten during normal walking
  2. Forward head and neck posture
  3. Headaches and jaw pain
  4. Upperback, neck, hips, knees, and low back pain (15% of which is caused by tight Soleus muscle)

You can understand why pronation in the foot (very common in our shod culture) affects the way the lower leg muscles tug on the knees and tighten the calves unevenly.  Not stretching after training can exacerbate this of course and affect alignment further up to the hip joint, lower back and even further to the position of the shoulders and neck!

Calf muscles may have gradually tightened up over a period of months through not stretching enough before and after Dance Fitness Class, a long hike or just being on your feet all day etc. The condition is worsened by wearing of high heeled shoes or shoes with a very stiff sole.  They can even tighten if you are standing still for long periods and prolonged driving where your foot is angled for a long distance won’t help the situation.

Another thing to avoid is putting your feet up on a footrest without supporting the back of your thigh. Stressing the calves in one or more of these ways will cause tiny micro tears in the muscles cause them to go into spasm. When they are in spasm or contracted then blood cannot easily get into them. The muscles have squeezed the blood out like a sponge. If the muscles do not get enough blood then they will not get enough nutrients and so will tighten up to protect themselves and weaken and so on.

Tight hamstrings are also responsible for low back pain as well as being a culprit for preventing a smooth and easy forward bend. The hamstrings attach to the bottom of the pelvis, your bum bones. If they are tight, the muscles pull on the pelvis where they attach and cause your tailbone to tuck under – what we call a posterior pelvic tilt.. This can lead to strain on ligaments and structures and definately gives incorrect movements patterns, which then cause pain in the lower back.

Many of us are drawn to Yoga after an injury or to help us avoid a loss of range of movement during the aging process.  The good news is that a tight muscle, facia or connective tissue  and even a torn tissue does not have to stop you enjoying the process of moving.  Many tissues will often heal quicker as a result of movement.  What we need to do is repattern the brain so that it remembers to “let go” and lengthen and this is the purpose of Somatic Yoga!

In terms of the calf muscle – you might not be stretching enough even though you think you are. Alternatively, you might be stretching too hard. If you force the muscle the stretch reflex is triggered which contracts it. This is the reason why we don’t go directly into a calf stretch in Somatic Yoga and hold it for a very long time and it is the reason why we contract the muscle first, by coming up on to tip toes then lengthen it (I avoid the term “stretch”) then release and completely relax.

Complicated movements such as walking and dancing depend on a complex interplay between almost all the body’s muscles which are contracting in different ways to enable the action.  Just to confuse you…sometimes muscles actually get longer as they contract.  The logic is the opposite.  For instance if we think of a bicep curl, we can see the muscle getting shorter as we lift a weight (the arm goes from straight to bent).  This is called concentric contraction.  However, as you fold forward, hingeing at the hip in a standing position, the hamstrings will elongate in order to allow the pelvis to rotate around the head of the femur.  This is called eccentric contraction.  On the way back up, the hamstrings shorten in a concentric contraction.

The best time to lengthen tissue is when it is not being asked to contract.  This is why stretching the hamstrings is best done lying down with your foot in your strap.  In the forward bend example, you can help the hamstring release by pulling up your knee caps and engaging your quads and other hip flexors and your nervous system will reduce the stimulation to the hamstrings so that they relax more. Allowing for a deeper forward bend.  Of course it isn’t all muscle doing the work in a slow forward bend (Uttanasana), gravity plays it’s part.  The hamstrings are actually resisting gravity as we come down, otherwise we would have no control in the movement and might bash our nose on our knee caps (yikes)!

To get the calf to shorten and contract, the heel is pulled up (standing on tippy toes). In this position, the foot is plantar flexed or extended away from you.  The calves are very strong muscles (gastrocnemius, which crosses both knee and ankle joints and soleus) and they need to be to power walking, dancing, running and jumping, etc.  Actions at the ankle and toes are critical for everyday walking about and the calf can easily lift twice our body weight can you believe!

When we stand in Warrior poses, just like the forward bend, in which the hamstrings are both contracted and lengthened, the calves do the same thing.  With the knee straigh, you will be present to gastrocnemius and with the knee bent, you may not feel Soleus but the sensation of stretching may be felt lower down in the Achilles’ tendon where the muscle attaches.  If you lift your back toes in W1, you will feel the calf engage more.

If you allow the arch to collapse on your front foot in W1, you will notice your knee drops inwards.  This will affect the hip alignment and you may even notice discomfort.  While the knee is in, lift the toes and you will experience the knee trying to move sideways.  Lifting your toes, not only affects your aches but also repositions your knee and causes the hip joint to move.

Tightness in the calf muscles is a common cause of Plantar Fasciitis which I have discussed in this post. They connect to the plantar fascia via connective tissue in the heel bone which is why it is common in runners and cyclists.  Flat feet add to the issues as does being overweight.  In this condition, scar tissue is formed in the heel area whilst the person sleeps and when they get up in the morning and put weight on the foot, there is intense pain close to the deep part of the arch or near the front of the heel bone as the scar tissue that formed overnight (from lack of use) is stretched.  It subsides during the day as the foot muscles warm and soften with movement.

Poses that help release the back of the legs:

  1. Down Dog (Adho Mukha Svanasana)
  2. Chair Pose (Utkatasana)
  3. Forward Bends (Uttanasana)
  4. Lunges with back knee down where knee goes beyond the toes (Aschva Sanchelanasana)

 

Reference

Keil, David (2014). Functional Anatomy of Yoga, A Guide for Practitioners and Teachers
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