With gusto for the gustha

One of the exceptionally cool things about taking a short (unintentional) hiatus from your Ashtanga practice is that when you come back, you find a new appreciation for the little things.

Partly, it’s a new point of view, I’m sure. Steve and I have a new, freshly-painted room in our house just for practice. The angle on things changes when you have a dedicated place to ponder.

So it was my last practice when I reached down and took my big toe in padanguthasana. The voice of Tim Miller popped into my head (as it often does): “Grab that thing like you mean it.”

I’m a firm believer in the magic of the mudra on the big toe: First two fingers meeting the thumb. It gives me a sense of security and connectedness. It’s the big toe that was the key to my happiness in Ashtanga. It was also the key to a lot of injury-wisdom.

When I first started practicing, I was (as so many are) hamstring-obsessed. I was convinced that there was only one way and one way only to open up my hamstrings, and that was by grabbing my big toe every chance I got and giving it a good solid and continuous (well, for five breaths, anyway) yank. In the Primary Series, there are a lot of chances to do this: padanguthasana, trikonasana, prasarita D, utthita hasta padanguthasana, paschimottanana A, supta padanguthanana, etc. Much attention paid to that toe in the Primary.

The result of all my pulling was pretty predictable. I tore my right hamstring at the insertion point. Five times.

On the up side, I did gain hamstring flexibility. On the down side: Five times. It’s probably the most common Ashtanga injury, and I wonder if that isn’t partly because of all the chances a beginner has to use the leverage of the arms, shoulders and back muscles while holding the big toes. And the fact that holding the big toe is such a tangible goal to reach for (so to speak)–at all costs.

Be kind to your big toe and it will be kind to you. Via healingfeet.com.
Be kind to your big toe and it will be kind to you. Via healingfeet.com.

However, it was also my gustha that saved me. After six years of struggle with that hamstring, I was in utthita hasta padanguthasana A when something else I’d learned from Tim came back to me: “Mula bandha begins in the big toe.”

I had looked this up in my trusty yoga anatomy books, tracked the fascinating set of connections that run all the way up the internal muscles of the thigh, but I’d never really made that extra connection with intention—that I could actually go after mula bandha by using my big toe.

So I did. Like magic, this solved my hamstring problem, redistributing the work away from that poor, overused insertion point. I became aware of the connection my big toes have to internal rotation. I began sending energy down (or out) through my big toe.

The ultra awesome thing about that is that once you locate mula banda this way, you stop yanking, and access a whole new set of muscles to bring yourself forward (or to bring it closer to you). You begin finding the earth in all sorts of unexpected places (like virabhadrasana B, for instance).

Hallux, it’s called in anatomy: Old Latin for “the great toe.” And so it is. So put your hastas together for the gustha.

Posted by Bobbie

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Two Ashtangis write about their practice and their teachers.

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